Anarchy in the New Testament

ellulContinuing our look at Jacques Ellul on Anarchism and Christianity (see previous posts 1 | 2), we come now to Ellul’s assessment of the New Testament’s teachings on political power.

1. Jesus

Ellul describes “Jesus’ attitude toward power in the Gospels” as “radically negative”. Indeed, he “held power up to ridicule”, as demonstrated by:

…the famous incident in Matthew 17:24-27, in which a shekel found in a fish’s mouth served to pay the tax: the only miracle of this extravagant type, precisely to show that the obligation to pay the tax is ridiculous!

Just as Jesus “submitted to Herod’s governmental jurisdiction without giving any sign that He recognized its validity”, so it is with “the famous ‘Render to Caesar'”:

In no way does Jesus favor here the division of the exercise of power into two realms … He said these words in connection with a second conversation about tax payment, and concerning a coin. The image on the coin is Caesar’s; it marks the coin as his property. Give him this money, then (Jesus by no means legitimizes the tax!).

Jesus means that Caesar, as creator of this money, is its master ‑ nothing more (we must not forget that for Jesus money belongs to the realm of mammon, a satanic realm!).

As for “the things that are God’s”…, how could a pious Jew of Jesus’ time take this expression as meaning anything but “everything”? As Creator, God is the master of life and death. Everything depends on Him. Jesus’ words mean that Caesar is the legitimate master of nothing, except for what he makes himself (and it belongs to the order of the demonic!).

Similarly, Jesus’ statement that “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36) “in no way suggests that Jesus recognizes the validity of [earthly political] power”:

Jesus does not represent an apolitical or spiritual attitude; rather, he launches a fundamental attack on power. Rather than showing indifference to what politics can be or do, Jesus expresses His refusal of politics in this passage.

No gentle dreamer who looks down from the sky, Jesus challenges the validity of the earthly kingdom. He refuses its power because it does not conform to God’s will. This is still true, whether power is exercised by the proletariat, Communists, etc. Power does not change its spiritual nature when it changes hands.

The temptation narratives go even further: Ellul argues that, while Jesus refuses to worship Satan in return for the kingdoms of the world:

He does not dispute Satan’s claim by saying that these kingdoms and their political power do not belong to him. On the contrary, Jesus implicitly agrees: Satan can give political power.

This protest against political power “finds its most violent expression in the book of Revelation”, in which we find two beasts representing the state and political propoganda respectively; the red horseman “whose only function is making war, exercising power, and causing human beings to perish”, representing political power; and towards the end, “Babylon, the focus of political power, the power of money, and the structure of the city.”

2. Paul

It is in the context of this “consistent biblical series of negations of political power, of witnesses to its lack of validity and legitimacy” that we are to read Romans 13:1-7. Ellul describes this as “the only text appearing to provide a general basis for submission”, as opposed to those that tell us merely to pray for the authorities (“a service we render them, perhaps … so that [they] will not fall into the hands of demons”).

Ellul argues that Romans 13 is written in the context of a rejection of the authorities (“not only a refusal to worship Caesar”) in the first generation of Christians, a rejection that led early Christians “to a refusal, for example, to do military service”:

Consequently, Paul’s text appears to be a reaction against the extremism of the anti-political, anarchist position. Basically, he says: “Don’t go too far; don’t go to extremes in your refusal. After all, authority comes from God, who has reduced the magistrate to the level of servant (whereas he claims to be the master). The good in society certainly falls far short of the Word of God, but this good amounts to something, after all –  and the magistrate guarantees it.”

This definitely seems to be echoed by Wright (“It’s fine to point out the wickedness of earthly rulers, but when someone steals my car I want justice”). It also reminds me of Orwell’s comment in The Lion and the Unicorn in which he describes the assertion by his fellow left-wingers that Britain is no more democratic than the Fascist or Soviet systems as being equivalent to saying that “half a loaf is the same as no bread”.

Also, Romans 13:1-7 must be read in its context:

Romans 12 speaks to us of love, and suggests several applications of it. Paul ends his chapter with love of enemies (“if your enemy is hungry, feed him,” v.20, for example). Furthermore, immediately following Romans 13:1-7 on the authorities, Paul returns to the theme of love … Obviously, the verses on the authorities are included within Paul’s teaching on love. I would go so far as to summarize them in this fashion: “Love your enemies. No doubt we all consider the authorities our enemies; we must love them, too, however.”

But since Paul gives a specific reason for loving in each case he considers (the Church, the brethren, enemies, the law, the weak in faith, etc.), he does the same for the authorities. It is in this connection that he writes his famous “there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1; we must emphasize the negative construction here, as opposed to its later formulation, suggesting a principle: omni potestas a Deo, all power comes from God).

This text, it seems to me, should be reduced to its real meaning: rather than giving us the last word on the matter of political authority, it seeks to apply love in a context where Christians detested the authorities.

Conclusion

So, Ellul concludes, “both the Old and New Testaments take exception to all political power”:

No power can claim to be legitimate in itself. Political power and organization are necessities in society, but only necessities. They attempt repeatedly to take God’s place, since magistrates and kings invariably consider themselves the incarnation of authority.

We must continually challenge, deny, and object to this power. It becomes acceptable only when it remains on a humble level, when it is weak, serves the good (how rarely does this happen!), and genuinely transforms itself into a servant (of people, since it already serves God!)

“Christianity’s historical sin has been to recognize the state,” Ellul declares:

there is no given Christian form of power. This is because, in reality, the only Christian political position consistent with revelation is the negation of power: the radical, total refusal of its existence, a fundamental questioning of it, no matter what form it may take.

I repeat this statement not so Christians will turn toward some sort of spiritualism, political ignorance, or apolitical position –  certainly not! On the contrary, as Christians we must participate in the political world and the world of action, but in order to deny them, to oppose them by our conscious, well-founded refusal.

In my final post on this topic, we will look at Ellul goes on to describe here (and in the opening chapter of his book, Anarchy & Christianity) how Christians should apply these principles in “our concrete historical situation”, one in which “the determining and decisive problem is that of the universal power of the state”. (Briefly, his argument seems to be that “anarchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”.)

I will also try to say something on what I personally make of all this.

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12 Responses to Anarchy in the New Testament

  1. Bill R says:

    “[A}narchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”.)
    Hmmm….sounds like a libertarian agenda to me.

  2. Bill R says:

    “[A}narchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”.)
    Hmmm….sounds like a libertarian agenda to me.

  3. Bill R says:

    “[A}narchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”.)
    Hmmm….sounds like a libertarian agenda to me.

  4. Bill R says:

    “[A}narchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”.)
    Hmmm….sounds like a libertarian agenda to me.

  5. Lee says:

    This is one of the aspects of Ellul’s thought that has always perplexed me. It’s one thing to say that you will probably never reach your goal, but it’s worth working toward anyway. But it’s something else to say that the goal will never be acheived and it would be undesirable if it was. To work toward something on those terms seems kind of irrational, doesn’t it?
    Looking forward to the next post. Maybe you can make some sense of it.

  6. Lee says:

    This is one of the aspects of Ellul’s thought that has always perplexed me. It’s one thing to say that you will probably never reach your goal, but it’s worth working toward anyway. But it’s something else to say that the goal will never be acheived and it would be undesirable if it was. To work toward something on those terms seems kind of irrational, doesn’t it?
    Looking forward to the next post. Maybe you can make some sense of it.

  7. Lee says:

    This is one of the aspects of Ellul’s thought that has always perplexed me. It’s one thing to say that you will probably never reach your goal, but it’s worth working toward anyway. But it’s something else to say that the goal will never be acheived and it would be undesirable if it was. To work toward something on those terms seems kind of irrational, doesn’t it?
    Looking forward to the next post. Maybe you can make some sense of it.

  8. Lee says:

    This is one of the aspects of Ellul’s thought that has always perplexed me. It’s one thing to say that you will probably never reach your goal, but it’s worth working toward anyway. But it’s something else to say that the goal will never be acheived and it would be undesirable if it was. To work toward something on those terms seems kind of irrational, doesn’t it?
    Looking forward to the next post. Maybe you can make some sense of it.

  9. pduggie says:

    I’d question Ellull’s interpretation of the horsemen. One of those horsemen is a white horse rider, who seems to me a picture of Christ himself. Also, the horsemen recall the charioteers of Zechariah, who were powers of God, taking peace from the earth, because peace meant God’s justice was not being done.
    Not every image of political power is Satanic in the bible. Daniel presents the greek and median empires as two clean animals (a ram and a goat) in at least one of the visions. And nebuchadnezzar seems to be positively converted.

  10. pduggie says:

    I’d question Ellull’s interpretation of the horsemen. One of those horsemen is a white horse rider, who seems to me a picture of Christ himself. Also, the horsemen recall the charioteers of Zechariah, who were powers of God, taking peace from the earth, because peace meant God’s justice was not being done.
    Not every image of political power is Satanic in the bible. Daniel presents the greek and median empires as two clean animals (a ram and a goat) in at least one of the visions. And nebuchadnezzar seems to be positively converted.

  11. pduggie says:

    I’d question Ellull’s interpretation of the horsemen. One of those horsemen is a white horse rider, who seems to me a picture of Christ himself. Also, the horsemen recall the charioteers of Zechariah, who were powers of God, taking peace from the earth, because peace meant God’s justice was not being done.
    Not every image of political power is Satanic in the bible. Daniel presents the greek and median empires as two clean animals (a ram and a goat) in at least one of the visions. And nebuchadnezzar seems to be positively converted.

  12. pduggie says:

    I’d question Ellull’s interpretation of the horsemen. One of those horsemen is a white horse rider, who seems to me a picture of Christ himself. Also, the horsemen recall the charioteers of Zechariah, who were powers of God, taking peace from the earth, because peace meant God’s justice was not being done.
    Not every image of political power is Satanic in the bible. Daniel presents the greek and median empires as two clean animals (a ram and a goat) in at least one of the visions. And nebuchadnezzar seems to be positively converted.

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