Should Christians be Anarchists?

June 13th, 2012

Published on New Left Project, by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, June 8, 2012.

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 … //

…  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.
(full text).

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.

(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 websit).

Links:

Radicals and Reformers – Part 1 – Climate Change, on New Left Report, by Robin Hahnel, April 24, 2012;

Radicals and Reformers – Part 2: System Change, on ZNet, by Robin Hahnel, June 11, 2012.

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