Should Christians be Anarchists?

by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos

Religious and political elites have distorted the political message of Christianity for their own ends, but a true understanding of the religion shows that it leads to the politics of anarchism.

First published: 08 June, 2012 | Category: Philosophy and Theory, Religion

In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Leo Tolstoy wrote that: “Christianity in its true sense puts an end to the State. It was so understood from its very beginning, and for that Christ was crucified.”[1] This illustrates the main idea behind Christian anarchism, which is that when it comes to politics, “anarchism” is what follows (or is supposed to follow) from “Christianity”. “Anarchism” here can mean, for example, a denunciation of the state (because through it we are violent, we commit idolatry, and so on), the envisioning of a stateless society, and/or the enacting of an inclusive, bottom-up kind of community life. And “Christianity” can be understood, for example, in the very rationalistic way Leo Tolstoy interprets it, through the Catholic framework Dorothy Day approaches it, or through the various Protestant eyes of people like Jacques Ellul, Vernard Eller, Dave Andrews or Michael Elliott. There can therefore be many ways “Christianity” is interpreted, and equally there are many facets to this “anarchism”. But one way or the other, Christian anarchists hold the view that, properly understood, what Jesus implicitly calls us to in today’s political sphere is some form of anarchism.

There are many scriptures from the New Testament which provide the foundation for such a view, and I can only mention the main ones here (I’ve tried to cover all those commented on by Christian anarchists in my book). Arguably, all those passages that touch on politics point to facets of anarchism. The most famous must be the Sermon on the Mount, but much of its content is repeated in the many passages in which Jesus, James, Peter or Paul talk of forgiveness, of being servants or of not judging one another – the state does not do that (or rather we don’t do that through it), and if we did it then the state would anyway become redundant. There is also the third temptation in the desert, a prety clear condemnation of state idolatry. Or the Temple Cleansing, where Jesus’ direct action clearly implies a denunciation of the concentration and abuses of religious, political and economic power (and most Christian anarchists insist the action was nonviolent, by the way). Then there are all the bitter criticisms of the Pharisees as hypocrites in their application of divine law, criticisms that don’t seem that inapplicable to some church authorities today. Jesus’ arrest and trial also exemplify his attitude with respect to political authorities, and his crucifixion embodies both his condemnation of state violence and his forgiving alternative to overcome it. Then there is the Book of Acts, the many Epistles, and of course the Apocalypse – all of which one can find convincing Christian anarchist exegeses on. In other words, according to quite a few passages in the New Testament, Jesus' teaching and example tend towards anarchism broadly defined.

The two passages that are most frequently brought up as “clear evidence” against such Christian anarchist interpretations are Romans 13 and “render unto Caesar”. Neither can be discussed in enough depth here. But to hint at the explanation of these offered by Christian anarchists, regarding the former, Paul (who didn't, by the way, always strictly obey the authorities of his day) is really just offering his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, of Jesus’ call to forgive and love even the worst of enemies – just as he did by submitting to the Cross. Romans 13 does not legitimise authorities but calls to submit to them as a way of turning the other cheek, to overcome their evil not through violent resistance but with an exemplary attitude that seeks to patiently understand and forgive. As to “render unto Caesar”, the coins are Caesar’s to claim back, but beyond that, little else “belongs to Caesar”. What is not Caesar’s but God’s, however, includes life and indeed pretty much anything but coins and public monuments. Hence Jesus here calls us to clearly distinguish what really matters a lot from the fickle things that are technically Caesar’s. Again, this is just a very brief summary of what can be said about these passages, but it provides a taster to their Christian anarchist interpretation. The other New Testament passages raised against Christian anarchists are usually those where Jesus is said by some to have been violent or to condone violence, yet a careful (Christian anarchist) reading suggests that these allegations don’t really stand – or certainly don’t hold the monopoly over the truth about these passages.

But, you might ask, if when it comes to politics, an anarchist stance is what Christ’s teaching and example demands from its followers, why are so few Christians also anarchists? There are many elements to this answer. For one, what Jesus asks of us is seen by many as simply too demanding, too ambitious, too utopian. Several layers of official theology have also claimed that Jesus didn’t really mean this for us here and now, but only for the hereafter (as if there would be any point voicing such demands if that was the case, to convey but one response to this copout). Indeed, it’s difficult not to agree with Christian anarchists that Jesus’ radical political demands were betrayed by almost all official churches and their theologians as they became more established and institutionalised. What Jesus calls us to is scary in that it is unknown. It seems easier to “stay with the devil we know”. To follow Jesus requires faith in love, faith in the power of love to transform human relationships. In short: it seems near impossible, and the official churches have worked hard to convince us that Jesus didn’t really call us to such a radical political path anyway.

Despite this, however, there are many examples of Christian anarchist political action, including over the past few years. Since 9/11, for instance, Christian anarchists have conducted public “liturgies”, taken part in direct action and joined broader coalitions to denounce the many angles of “War on Terror”, from Afghanistan and Iraq to domestic restrictions on civil liberties. So, for example: they have “turned into ploughshares” US military warplanes passing through Shannon airport; poured blood outside the DSEi Arms Fair; blockaded Northwood and Faslane; read names of war victims outside Downing Street; “exorcised” the MoD; and campaigned in support of wiki-whistleblower Bradley Manning. But they've been just as engaged in denouncing the origins of the financial crisis and the consequences of “our” government's reactions to it; the worsening global environmental catastrophe; the continuing tragedy which sees human beings die in the thousands to seek a better life at the heart of the empire only to be beaten back, imprisoned and sometimes killed while being deported; and of course the globalised political economy which relentlessly produces all this and seems so difficult to truly reform. All this, they have done at huge personal costs – with many arrested and tried, sometimes imprisoned and fined, while the mainstream media are busy pumping adverts and looking elsewhere.

But you can find examples of if not anarchism, at least anarchist tendencies right back to the first Christians. The early churches were persecuted at least in part because they were politically subversive, though they were later co-opted by the Roman authorities and turned into instruments of imperial power. In the late Middle Ages, several millenarian movements and protestant sects (such as the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Hussites and the Quakers) endeavoured to apply some of the radical political aspects of Jesus’ teachings. Some of these survive today, although they often compromised their goals in the face of persecution. There are also both ancient and more recent examples of conscientious objectors inspired by Jesus’ example of love and non-resistance. More recently, the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s, has strived to embody the Christian anarchist society that Jesus described through its network of houses of hospitality, through its regular publications and through its involvement in public demonstrations. In short, there are plenty of examples, past and present, of radical Christians whose politics tends towards anarchism.

Many Christian anarchists point out that the “church” was meant to be an intentional community (willingly joined through baptism and only upon repentance) of people who chose to take up their cross and follow Jesus, a community bound to be as threatening to contemporary authorities as Jesus was, a radically different community of love, care and justice which would enlighten an otherwise very dark world. That cannot unfortunately be said of that many churches to date. And yet radical Christian offshoots have arisen over the centuries, inspired by one another and by Jesus’ anarchist teaching and example. For Christian anarchists, these Christians are the ones who really are the salt of the earth, who sow the seeds of love and forgiveness, whose political engagement follows the subversive path which Jesus calls the church to.

This text is partly adapted from interviews given to The Mormon Worker (issue 10, 28 April 2011, available here) and to the BBC’s William Crawley (17 May 2011, available here). For a list of Alexandre’s publications and further details on Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel, see his website: www.christoyannopoulos.com.

Notes

[1] Leo Tolstoy, "The Kingdom of God Is within You," in The Kingdom of God and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (New Delhi: Rupa, 2001), p. 259.

 

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