So what is “Christian Anarchism” anyway?
It occurs to me that, on this blog, I have regularly discussed anarchic themes within the Bible and the Christian faith, and how anarchism and Christianity seem to converge toward common perspectives. However, for some reason I have not thought to give some kind of analysis on what Christian anarchism really is. This post will be my vague attempt at an outline.
Let’s see what traditional (Wikipedian) terms have to say about the matter:
Christian anarchism is any of several traditions which combine anarchism with Christianity. Christian anarchists believe that freedom is justified spiritually through the teachings of Jesus. This has caused them to be critical of government and Church authority. Some believe all individuals can directly communicate with God, which negates the need for a system of clergy.
Well, it’s mostly the very first sentence of that summation with which I take issue. Let’s get something straight: I don’t seek to “combine” Christianity with anything, neither do I encourage that other Christians do so. If we are talking about certain forms of social philosophy which derive from an analysis of the Christian faith, or of the Bible, then that is an entirely different matter. I would certainly take offense at the notion that I subscribe to a worldview which combines Christianity with any other kind of secular philosophy, be it anarchism or otherwise.
This is why I tend now to be relatively wary of the term “Christian anarchist,” or at least I aim to be careful of its usage. Anarchism itself is a very misunderstood term, generally associated with violence, disorder, and chaos; not only this, but the term itself holds a variety of different meanings and interpretations, all based on the individual carrying it. The scenario is really no different for the Christian form.
In addition, Christian anarchism almost sounds like it describes a fad. It sounds as if a bunch of impressionable teenagers came together, discovered this theology for the first time, thought it sounded cool, and then proceeded to use the term in overload just for the sake of appearing different and radical. The fact is, if I call myself a Christian anarchist (which I admit, is technically what I am), then perhaps the term is useful for sake of categorisation, but I feel that whatever socio-political ethics to which I adhere derive principally from my faith. Why, then, should I require a suffix to clarify myself? I’m a Christian, first and foremost, so therefore any social implications I derive from that faith should be separate from whatever other political terms one might use to describe their ethics.
Jesus wasn’t an anarchist. He wasn’t even a pacifist. These are modern terms, they arose much later to describe specific movements with particular responses to worldly conventions and attitudes. We can say that anarchism and pacifism perhaps help to articulate Jesus’ ministry, but they themselves cannot define it.
By convention, I’m probably best labelled as a pacifist and an anarchist. However, in truth it is far more accurate to say that Christ calls me to the path of peacemaking, and that in the pursuit of this path I am compelled to challenge the status quo and to seek meaningful relationships in community rather than pledging allegiance to authoritarian structures which rely on the use of violence.
To this end, I am not interested in overthrowing government, but I am interested in getting the Church to be the Church, as a body which stands as a beacon to the oppressed and marginalised of this world, offering something better than what the norms of society and their governing authorities have to offer. As Catholic Worker put it, to “create a new society within the shell of the old.”
From its beginnings, and at its roots, Christianity has always been a faith of revolutionary empowerment. What I mean by this, is that the early church would often disturb the state of things whenever they were present within a particular area, as if the status quo was somehow shaken and changed. This would happen not by violent uprising, but simply because of how these people acted toward one another and toward those around them; by acting in love and sharing their possessions, and by welcoming others into their community way of life. It was a markedly different way of life than was generally accepted under imperial rule, and so it beckoned controversy and criticism. The empowerment was with them to undermine (rather than overthrow) the authorities, the empowerment to walk in love rather than by the sword, and the empowerment to impact their surroundings. And I refer to this as “revolutionary empowerment” since it was distinct from the kind gained by military might or positions of hierarchy; this empowerment was found in unity, equality, simplicity, and submission to the Holy Spirit, who is God’s living power of peace and reconciliation.
The empowerment of Christians today, if they are to find it, rests in the same attitude. The Church still has the capacity to gain empowerment through its own unique position as a body of non-hierarchical individuals who are willing to offer a way of life different to the Empire, to those who place faith in the myth of redemptive violence. In that empowerment, Christianity will become a movement again, rather than an institution. We can still work towards forging a new world in the shell of the old.
This is not to say, however, that Christians ought to be working toward some kind of foreseeable utopia. If anything, we should acknowledge the frailty of Man better than most people, since we were called into new life by a God who alone is truly good. Having said that, we are (or at least we should be) acting as instruments for God to transform this world into one of eternal peace, but we also accept that this would not be possible without His power. The Christian is under no delusion that a conventional movement away from authoritarian and capitalist institutions will lead to a world of perfection; to believe so would be to miss the point. We simply recognise what oppresses us (the human race as a whole, that is) in the here and now, and resisting it in the here and now.
In this sense, anarchism is a modern political philosophy which describes a similar kind of direction as that in which Christianity is moving. So instead of combining the two, we simply see that anarchism helps to provide the Gospel with an appropriate context, much the same as pacifism does. Christians are not called to be pacifists, but they are called to be instruments of peace. Likewise, Christians are not called to be anarchists, but they are called to lead a way of life distinct from the goals sought by people of government.
Of course, none of this is particularly exhaustive. But it’s a start, at least.