Christianity and anarchy

I’ve been reading a number of interesting books recently relating to anarchism. This includes revisiting Jacques Ellul’s book Anarchy and Christianity (on which I posted at some length last year) as well as reading Colin Ward’s excellent Anarchism: A Very Small Introduction and Stuart Christie’s entertaining memoir Granny Made Me an Anarchist, in which Christie describes his experience of being jailed in Spain for attempting to assassinate Franco in the 1960s, and his subsequent trial (and acquittal) in the “Angry Brigade” trial in the early 1970s.

My personal take on anarchism is that I have considerable sympathy for its critique of political power and of the inevitable “political surplus” (in Martin Buber’s phrase) that is amassed, and abused, by any system of government. But from a Christian point of view I think that (like pacifism) anarchism is an “over-realised eschatology”, attempting to bring forward into this age things that can only be achieved in the age to come, and in particular often assuming an overly optimistic view of human nature. In other words, it’s not that it’s wrong, just premature.

Hence I find myself broadly in agreement with Ellul, who argued that while “the realizing of [an anarchist] society is impossible”, anarchism’s critique of, and challenge to, all forms of political power are essential, and are a necessary antidote to the church’s unfortunate habit of becoming the ally of civil authority and political power.

Here are a couple of quotes from the books I’ve been reading that express something of what the Christian relationship with the anarchist perspective should be. First, here is a quote from Christie’s book, where he describes his attitude towards “democratically elected governments”:

I share the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti’s attitude towards democratically elected governments. Asked about how the anarchists felt about the recently elected Republican government in Spain in 1931, Durruti said he knew it could not meet the expectations of the Spanish working people, but at least it should have the benefit of the doubt. The role of anarchists in relation to governments, revolutionary or otherwise, he said, was in opposition. But the degree of opposition would be geared by the willingness of the Republic to confront the problems facing the Spanish workers.

Much of this can (and should) be affirmed by us as Christians. We know that governments will always let people down. New Labour let us down, and President Obama will let us down. And the role of the church should always be in opposition to government, never a cheerleader for the government as such (even if we approve of particular policies and actions).

On the other hand, to the extent a government professes aims consistent with justice, peace and the common good, we should give them the benefit of the doubt rather than cynically dismissing them from the start. And the degree and nature of that opposition will depend on both the aims of the government and its willingness to carry out those parts of its programme with which we are in agreement.

The second quote comes from the closing paragraph of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, where he describes the proper relationship between Christians and anarchists:

We must not equate anarchy and Christianity. Nor would I adopt the “same goal” theory which was once used to justify the attachment of Christians to Stalinism. I simply desire it to be stated that there is a general orientation which is common to us both and perfectly clear. This means we are fighting the same battle from the same standpoint, though with no confusion or illusion. The fact that we face the same adversaries and the same dangers is no little thing.

But we also stand by what separates us: on the one side, faith in God and Jesus Christ with all its implications; on the other side, as I have already emphasized, the difference in our evaluation of human nature.

In other words, Christians cannot subordinate the gospel to the political demands of anarchism any more than the demands of any other political ideology, whether of the Left or of the Right.

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7 Responses to Christianity and anarchy

  1. Phil Walker says:

    I think there’s a problem which co-ordinates with the use of power, which is the elevation of the Big State (and its bigness is important). It’s Babel all over again: we want to be the ones to build our way out of the mess we’re in, and of course, the bigger the building project, the more likely it is to succeed, right? So we hand over responsibility for our situation to ever-bigger and ever-more distant “institutions” (I mean all sectors of society: governments, businesses, even charities) in an attempt to solve more of our problems. And just like Babel all over again, it comes crashing down around our ears, and then we all start blaming each other and calling for some even bigger power to sort it out. See, for the latest instalment, the credit crunch.

    So, while we ought to be sceptical of power, we ought to be all the more sceptical of Big Power—the same goes for money or almost anything else. You might say that all I’ve done is said, in a more long-winded fashion, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but I think I could add to that, “power corrupts, and the human answer to that is invariably ‘more power’.” Sorry bunch, ain’t we?

    Incidentally, while you’re thinking about anarchism, I had an odd thought recently. However did the first monarchy come about? I just can’t come up with a plausible scenario. Some bloke says, “Look ‘ere, I’ve had a plan. How about you all make me your leader, and then my son’ll take my place when I kark it?” and all the people say, “Amen”?

  2. joel hunter says:

    “We must not equate anarchy and Christianity.” Right, we mustn’t. But the profiteers, civil authorities, and kingmakers, and all those happily complacent beneficiaries of “the system” in their thrall, should. If the Church cannot be accused of anarchism, it isn’t doing its job. Acts 16:19-22.

    I would agree that the realizing of an anarchist society is impossible, if we are thinking ‘society’ is coextensive with the the modern nation-state or its various subdivided administrative regions. But I don’t think anarchist communities are impossible to realize (and some *have* been realized). The impossibility–ah, let’s be optimistic–the challenge to any such society and its micro-economy is how it can be integrated within the jurisdiction of the modern civil society and the global market economy without losing its communal identity to all those forces which demand its allegiance.

  3. CPA says:

    You realize, of course, that Christian anarchism, like Christian pacifism, even in the moderate form proposed here, needs to forget the entire Old Testament to be even plausible. You can make a OT case for republicanism, you can make an OT case for divine right monarchy, you can make an OT case for revolution and installing a new king, you can make an OT case for submission to foreign conquest — but an OT case for anarchism I don’t think exists in any book of the Hebrew scriptures.

  4. John H says:

    CPA: here’s a link to my post summarising Ellul’s attempt to make out such a case.

    I think it’s also worth noting that Ellul doesn’t so much set out a positive argument for anarchism as a negative argument against all forms of political power.

    As for Christian pacifism: I am not a pacifist (see the quote from Orwell in the comment I’ve left on the 7/7 thread), but I expect the Christian pacifist approach to the OT – at least among those Christian pacifists who feel bound to submit to Scripture – is to say, “That was then, this is now”. In other words, the coming of Christ has changed irrevocably the way in which God’s people are to go about things.

    And using the OT as a justification for Christian involvement in war today runs the risk of being something of a “runaway train”, given how many of the wars in the OT are depicted as genocidal in their intention and their results. At the very least they fall far short of what the Geneva Conventions would require! We all agree that the way in which Israel conquered Canaan is not a model for how conflicts should be fought today: the debate between Christian pacifism and “just war” theory is a debate about where the line should be drawn.

  5. CPA says:

    Oops, sorry for not reading the OT post on it. Having done so, I would note the following points:

    1) He ignores the Wisdom literature tradition: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the liturgy: Psalms. I would argue that it is the Wisdom tradition which is where one might expect to find abstract, theoretical discussion of politics.

    2) His reading of the Torah-Former Prophets literature is very one-sided. The stuff he pointed out is there; but lots else is there too. Yes 1 Samuel 8 is against monarchy. But Judges is for it. And while monarchy may have two sides, the Law of Moses commands one not to slander the judges, and the advice to create leadership by commanders of 50 and 100 is seen as a great idea. And 1 Samuel treats the annointing of the monarch as truly sacred. And the Israelite prophets denounce the kings, while annointing a new dynasty. etc., etc.

    3) And Jeremiah tells Zedekiah to accept the treaty with Babylon, submit to it, and submit to king Nebuchadnezzar. And in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is told to get up on two legs and is given the heart of a man.

    4) And finally there’s the fact that I’ve written about elsewhere, that the Persian monarchy is never once placed “under judgment” in the OT. It is always treated as favorable. (Even in Esther, I would argue the Xerxes as bad man interpretation comes from Hellenistic, post-Herodotean Greek and Midrashic readings, not from the original Persian era Hebrew text).

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    “it is the Wisdom tradition which is where one might expect to find abstract, theoretical discussion of politics.”
    “Yes 1 Samuel 8 is against monarchy. But Judges is for it.”

    Ellul argues that the NT epistles, for instance, are not legislating for all time. If that is true even in the NT, then I think he would caution us against expecting to find abstract, theoretical discussions of politics that would be good for all time in the OT.

    And using Israel as an example seems bad, if much of what was accomplished there was typological. Meredith Kline read the genocides, for instance, as intrusions of eschatology into another era. The intrusions tell us what God will do on the Last Day to evildoers, not what other kings ought to do with their opponents after a battle. To abstract universal rules from such instances is to read badly.

  7. CPA says:

    Rick,
    It’s an essential feature of the Wisdom tradition that it is universalizing — that’s why it has no mention of Israel’s particular role, no mention of the herem decrees and so on. It’s also why the demonstrable fact that one chunk of Proverbs is borrowed and rewritten from an Egyptian precursor is not problematic, but actually strengthening of how the work is to be read: it’s not about any one culture.

    And remember, if using Israel as an example is bad for me, it’s bad for Ellul too. If the refrain in Judges “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what right in his own eyes” is disqualified because it’s typological, then so is Samuel 8. Maybe the Bible is trying to tell us that all normal non-theocratic countries ought to have kings, but only a typological theocracy is justified in not being a monarchy. We are not a typological theocracy, hence . . .

    In any case, I disagree with your idea that a typological reading eliminates any training in wisdom reading. The idea that the lengthy narrative of David’s rise is intended to teach us nothing about politics, seems manifestly absurd to me.

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