Anarchist Prophets

Alexandre Christoyannopoulos. Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010.

4c8d939620dbd1ed827ed6aa45c66a83-1In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave His disciples what is often called the Gold Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). This means, explains Robert Ellsberg, a former member of the Catholic Worker movement, that “if you would not be exploited, then you must not exploit others. If you would not be ruled, then you must refuse to rule others”. In the same sermon He taught that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). Michael C. Elliott glosses this verse to mean “don’t retaliate. Don’t behave in the way your enemy expects you to behave. Do what your attacker least expects: behave in the opposite way.” By doing so, Elliott explains, “the cycle of violence is unexpectedly interrupted”. Jesus told his followers to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and Leo Tolstoy argued that “the word ‘enemy’ is seldom used in the Gospels in a private or personal sense, but almost always in a public and national one”. Therefore, Tolstoy said, what Jesus is really saying here is, “you have been told to love your own people, and to hate the enemy of your race, but I tell you to love all without distinction of nationality”. If one takes the Sermon on Mount at face value, without trying to explain away Jesus’ commands, it is difficult to understand how anyone could have walked away from that sermon as anything other than an anarchist.

m21-smithers1In Christian Anarchism, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos lays out how various “Christian anarchists” understood the Bible. Christoyannopoulos correctly observes that modern anarchism would have been meaningless before the appearance of the modern state, leaving him with only a relatively small sample of people who fit this description. Of these, even fewer wrote extensively about the Bible, and not many were highly educated or particularly sophisticated theologians. Including those who did not embrace the term “anarchist” themselves, the individuals whose writings feature most prominently in Christoyannopoulos’ study include Leo Tolstoy, Jacques Ellul, Vernard Eller, Michael C. Elliott, Dave Andrews, Peter Chelčický, Adin Ballou, Ched Myers, Walter Wink, and John Howard Yoder. Without much commentary of his own, Christoyannopoulos tells us what each of them thinks about key Bible passages such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Israelites’ plea for a king (1 Samuel 8), the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4), Jesus’ teaching about paying taxes (Mark 12), Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21), Jesus’ trial (John 18), Paul’s exhortation to submit to the authorities (Romans 13), and the defeat of the dragon in the Apocalypse (Revelation 12-13). This makes for fairly pedestrian reading at times, and the book exposes how little theology has actually been written from an anarchist perspective. Perhaps this should not be surprising, because the anarchist hermeneutic is a fairly literal one that focuses more on doing than on interpretation. In the words of Dave Andrews, “to quote these Be-Attitudes is religious – but to act on them is revolutionary”.

c28699cef64173bf4d440b0ca6403e38The vast majority of Christian anarchists in this book are pacifists, and all wholeheartedly reject the state. Andrew Goddard writes that in modernity the state has become an idol: “It is the state that is held responsible for all that occurs and to which people now look for security, protection, and the solution of all their problems”. The state is intrinsically violent, and claims that it alone has the right to use violence against whosoever it wishes. If Christians are to refrain from violence, anarchists argue, they cannot vote or hold public office, “because this would make the Christian complicit in state violence and oppression”. Similarly, they should not pay taxes willingly, should not serve in the military, and should not rely on the courts to resolve their differences. Christian anarchism is about non-resistance though, so Tolstoy taught that “if we are sons of God we are bound to no one but God, and are free from obligations. But if they demand the tax from you, then pay: not that you are under obligation to do so but because you must not resist evil”. By their stubborn rejection to conform to the ways of the world, anarchists implicitly condemn the rest of the Church for its support of the state. Many are deeply suspicious of organized religion in general. If Christian theologians have spent so much time trying to prove that Jesus condoned war it is because, as Peter Chelčický said, they have “converted faith into a lucrative business”. The culpability of the Church in this instance is so obvious because, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians”.

057e5bb8-c125-4a94-8676-306c0f6c68b5Unlike Gandhi, Christian anarchists do not respond to the state by resisting it. Instead they demonstrate how useless it is by forming communities of love and by living without it. As the slogan of the Catholic Workers maintains, they are building “a new society within the shell of the old”, building “community networks” that put Jesus’ teaching of nonviolent love into action. This can be a very humbling process that passes through the cross. Addressing himself to Liberation Theologians who wished to use violence against their enemies, Ched Myers wrote: “Our nonviolent resistance demands no less of us than does your guerilla war ask of you – to reckon with death. But we ask something more: a heroism of the cross, not the sword. We cannot beat the strong man at his own game. We must attack his very foundations: we must render his presumed lordship over our lives impotent. You consider the cross a sign of defeat. We take it up “as a witness against them,” a witness of the revolutionary power of nonviolent resistance”. Obviously, Christian anarchists don’t expect to win this struggle on their own. It will be Christ’s victory, not theirs. Moreover, they are not trying to institutionalize a new status quo but to live faithfully in an unfaithful world until Jesus returns. “Christians are to anticipate [the Kingdom of Heaven]”, Christoyannopoulos explains, “but not seek to precipitate it – lest they become impatient and step upon the slippery slope to increasingly confrontational activism. What is important is not the future but the here and now, not the eventual dawning of the Christian anarchist utopia but witnessing to its potential today”. Living and speaking at the margins of political society, Christoyannopoulos argues that “Christian anarchists try to act as prophets, cautioning humanity about its sins, encouraging it to follow God, and reminding it of the revolutionary potential of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice – that is, of following Jesus all the way to the cross”.

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