Over the past few days we’ve been looking at Jacques Ellul on Anarchism and Christianity (1 | 2 | 3). In particular, we’ve seen how Ellul argues from both the Old Testament and the New Testament that “the only Christian political position consistent with revelation is the negation of power”.
But what does this mean in practice? As I said in my previous post on this topic, Ellul’s position can be summed up as “anarchy is neither possible nor desirable, but working towards it is essential”. We can see this if we turn from the chapter we’ve been looking at from Jesus and Marx to the opening chapter of Ellul’s book, Anarchy and Christianity. In this, he explains more of what he means by “anarchy”, and in particular what he does not mean by this term:
There are different forms of anarchy and different currents in it. I must, first say very simply what anarchy I have in view. By anarchy I mean first an absolute rejection of violence. Hence I cannot accept either nihilists or anarchists who choose violence as a means of action.
Ellul opposes violence both as a matter of tactics – citing successful examples of non-violent protest led by people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa – and on principle, since “[b]iblically, love is the way, not violence”. This certainly does not mean we are to be politically docile:
Not using violence against those in power does not mean doing nothing. I will have to show that Christianity means a rejection of power and a fight against it…
I believe that anarchy first implies conscientious objection – to everything that constitutes our capitalist (or degenerate socialist) and imperialistic society (whether it be bourgeois, communist, white, yellow, or black).
This isn’t just a protest against centralization, so the decentralization favoured by many politicians is not only insufficient, but “has made the defense of freedom much harder”:
For the enemy today is not the central state but the omnipotence and omnipresence of administration. It is essential that we lodge objections to everything, and especially to the police and the deregulation of the judicial process.
We must unmask the ideological falsehoods of the many powers, and especially we must show that the famous theory of the rule of law which lulls the democracies is a lie from beginning to end. The state does not respect its own rules. We must distrust all its offerings. We must always remember that when it pays, it calls the tune.
Ellul is most in favour of localised ventures “organized apart from the political, financial, administrative, and legal authorities and on a purely individual basis”, such as schools run by the parents of the children attending them.
Ellul describes himself as being “very close to one of the forms of anarchism”, and says he believes that “the anarchist fight is a good one”. So, he asks, “What separates me … from the true anarchist?”
One key issue is anarchism’s hostility to God and religion, but another “point of division” is Ellul’s views on the attainability of an anarchist society:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society – with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities – is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.
Ellul argues that anarchists tend to have a naive view of human nature:
In truth the vision or hope of a society with neither authorities nor institutions rests on the twofold conviction that people are by nature good and that society alone is corrupt. At the extreme we find such statements as this: The police provoke robbery; abolish the police and robbery will stop.
Ellul denies that his argument here is based on the Christian idea of sin. “Sin in effect exists only in relation to God”, he argues, and the equation of sin with moral fault has been “the mistake of centuries of Christianity”. Rather, “sin is a break with God and all that this entails”. So:
When I say that people are not good, I am not adopting a Christian or a moral standpoint. I am saying that their two great characteristics, no matter what their society or education, are covetousness and the desire for power … No society is possible among people who compete for power or who covet and find themselves coveting the same thing. As I see it, then, an ideal anarchist society can never be achieved.
Moreover, as Ellul points out in Jesus and Marx, even if anarchism did achieve its aim to “overthrow society, destroying its whole framework”, then:
…this destruction would amount to another manifestation of power, which could only lead, inevitably, to a reconstitution of power.
So, Ellul continues, “I have no faith in a pure anarchist society, but I do believe in the possibility of creating a new social model”. This need for a new social model “is all the more urgent because all our political forms are exhausted and practically nonexistent”:
Our parliamentary and electoral system and our political parties are just as futile as dictatorships are intolerable. Nothing is left. And this nothing is increasingly aggressive, totalitarian, and omnipresent.
Our experience today is the strange one of empty political institutions in which no one has any confidence any more, of a system of government which functions only in the interests of a political class, and at the same time of the almost infinite growth of power, authority, and social control which makes any one of our democracies a more authoritarian mechanism than the Napoleonic state.
This can be seen in “the growth of the state, of bureaucracy, of propaganda (disguised under the name of publicity or information), of conformity of an express policy of making us all producers and consumers, etc”. (All this, written in 1988, is eerily prophetic of New Labour’s methods and aims.) And, as Ellul continues:
…[t]o this development there is strictly no reply. No one even puts questions. The churches have once again betrayed their mission. The parties play outdated games. It is in these circumstances that I regard anarchy as the only serious challenge, as the only means of achieving awareness, as the first active step.
It is impossible to prevent some people from exercising power over others:
But we can struggle against it. We can organize on the fringe. We can denounce not merely the abuses of power but power itself. But only anarchy says this and wants it … In a word, the more the power of the state and bureaucracy grows, the more the affirmation of anarchy is necessary as the sole and last defence of the individual, that is, of humanity.
As Ellul puts it in Jesus and Marx:
Challenging power is the only way to make freedom a reality. Freedom exists if the negation of political power is strong enough, and when people refuse to be taken in by the idea that freedom will surely come tomorrow, if only… No, there is no tomorrow. Freedom exists today or not at all.
So, does this series of posts represent my own personal relaunch as a Christian anarchist? I doubt it. I’m not sure Ellul takes sufficient notice of his own point that “political power and organization are necessities in society”. If political power and organization are necessary, then I don’t see how our only relationship towards them can be one of negation and “conscientious objection”.
And while Ellul makes a convincing case for saying that the Bible displays a far more radically hostile attitude towards earthly political power than is often assumed, the fact is it still takes the existence (and even, to some extent, the desirability) of that power for granted. Ellul’s omission of Acts from his survey of the New Testament may be significant, because a key theme in Acts is the way the power of Rome played (inadvertently, and by the grace of God) a crucial role in allowing the spread of the Gospel.
So my attitude towards Ellul’s radical critique of political power is similar to my attitude towards the similar critique made by many postmodernists about the misuse of language as an instrument of power.
In the case of language, much of this critique is spot-on, and the church would benefit greatly if Christians learnt to be more aware of how language, narratives and truth claims can function as power-plays and have an oppressive effect on others, and of how our view of what is “objective” is determined to a large extent by prior assumptions and our own interests. A more extensive (and self-directed) use of the “hermeneutic of suspicion” would do no harm at all in some quarters. But that doesn’t lead me to agree with more radical assertions to the effect that we can no longer trust language to operate as a vehicle for objective truth at all, or indeed that there is no objective truth in the first place.
In the same way, while I think Ellul goes too far with many of his concrete proposals for living out anarchist principles, he is absolutely right to say that Christians should never give any political power a “free pass”. “Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar isn’t” – so we need constantly to be relativizing political power, to be regarding all political power as being inherently suspect.
If we find ourselves holding a position of wholehearted and uncritical support for any politician or political position, or if we find our instinct is always to seek a solution to problems by means of political power rather than by other means, then Ellul will again hold us to account on this, and rightly so.