CHRISTIAN ANARCHY--THE VERY IDEA!
Why don't we really get radical for once? Yes, I know it wasn't easy to get the word radical understood as an adjective appropriate to discipleship. And yes, it was even harder to get revolution and revolutionary so understood. But do you think it a bit more than the traffic can bear for me now to push on to anarchy? Do you see me going from bad to worse? Not so. I stand prepared to show that to go from revolution to anarchy is to go from wrong to right, from misunderstanding to understanding, from unbiblical to biblical, from world to gospel. And yes, it will take another transforming renewal of our minds to understand anarchy as the gospel, the good news it actually is.
The word is ANARCHY. The prefix ("an-") is the equivalent of the English "un-," meaning "not"; it does not particularly mean "anti-" or against. Thus, we are speaking of that which is more not something than it is opposed to or against something. The "-archy" root (which I have made into an English term spelled a-r-k-y) is a common Greek word that means "priority," "primacy," "primordial," "principal," "prince," and the like. (Look at that last sentence and realize that "pri-" is simply the Latin equivalent of the Greek "arky.") The most frequent appearance of "arky" in the New Testament is translated as "beginning." Indeed, in Colossians 1:18 Paul actually identifies Jesus as "the beginning," "the prime," "THE ARKY." However, our particular concern with the word is in Paul's writings where it is translated "principalities." Clearly, the apostle assumes that we live in a world with arkys filled that threaten to undo us--and those constantly battling each other for primacy.
For us, then, "arky" identifies any principle of governance claiming to be of primal value for society. "Government" (that which is determined to govern human action and events) is a good synonym--as long as we are clear, that political arkys are far from being the only "governments" around. Not at all; churches, schools, philosophies, social standards, peer pressures, fads and fashions, advertising, planning techniques, psychological and sociological theories--all are arkys out to govern us.
"Anarchy" ("unarkyness"), it follows, is simply the state of being unimpressed with, disinterested in, skeptical of; nonchalant toward, and uninfluenced by the highfalutin claims of any and all arkys. And "Christian Anarchy"--the special topic of this book--is a Christianly motivated "unarkyness." Precisely because Jesus is THE ARKY, the Prime of Creation, the Principal of All Good, the Prince of Peace and Everything Else, Christians dare never grant a human arky the primacy it claims for itself Precisely because God is the Lord of History we dare never grant that it is in the outcome of the human arky contest that the determination of history lies.
Obviously, the idea of "power" goes hand in hand with "arky"; the two are inseparable. Indeed, every time Paul uses "arky" in the sense of "principalities," he couples it with one of the Greek "power" words. Yet regarding both "power" and "arky" we must make a crucial specification: we are always supposing a power or a government that is imposed upon its constituency. It is, of course, proper to speak of, say, "the power of love." Yet this is power in an entirely different sense of the word in that it carries no hint of imposition at all. Looking only at the phrase itself; "the kingdom of God" would appear to be an "arky" no different from the others. Yet we will come to see that this is not so. When Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world," he was saying that, although all worldly arkys have to be impositional, his is radically different in that it does not have to be--and in fact is not.
This matter of an arky's being imposed leads us to the helpful term "heteronomy"--namely, that law or rule which is "different from," "other than," or "extraneous to" whomever it would govern. All worldly arkys are by nature heteronomous--each is out to impose its idea of what is right upon whoever has any different idea.
Consequently, for secular anarchists the solution is "autonomy"--the self being a law unto itself (which is what we customarily have understood "anarchy" to be). However, Christianity contends that autonomy is simply another form of heteronomy, that to use my own self-image as the arky governing myself is actually to impose a heteronomous arky upon me. The assumption that I am the one who best knows myself and knows what is best for myself is to forget that I am a creature (a sinful creature, even) and that there is a Creator who, being my Creator (and also being somewhat smarter than I am), knows me much better than I ever can know myself.
For Christian anarchists, then, the goal of anarchy is "theonomy"--the rule, the ordering, the arky of God. At this idea, of course, the world rises up to insist that the arky of God is just as impositional as (if not more so than) any other arky that might be named. But Christians say No--and that on two counts. First, particularly as God has been revealed in Jesus Christ, the style of his arky is not that of imposition but of the opposite, namely, that of the cross, the self-givingness of agape-love. And second, God's arky, his will for us, is never anything extraneous to ourselves but precisely most germane to our true destiny and being. Anarchist Søren Kierkegaard hammered this one home with his analysis of the Danish word for "duty"--which, in our context, would represent God's arky for us." Kierkegaard writes: "For duty is not an imposition [in Danish, paalaeg, lit. "that which is laid upon"] but rather 'duty' is something which is incumbent [in Danish, paaliger, lit. "that which lies upon"]." Rather than a heteronomous imposition, God's arky spells the discovery of that which is truest to myself and my world.
The contention of Christian Anarchy, then, is that worldly arkys are of the "all" that "in Adam" dies and are no part of the "all" that "in Christ" is made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). Consequently, worldly arkys must die (and we must die to them) in order that the Arky of God (his kingdom) might be made alive in us (and us in it).
At this point of definition, then, we should note that the idea of "revolution" is not anarchical in any sense of the word. Revolutionists are very strongly opposed to certain arkys that they know to be "bad" and to be the work of "bad people." However, they are just as strongly in favor of what they know to be "good" arkys that are the work of themselves and other good people like them. For instance, these revolutionists might seem to be superanarchical, finding nothing good to say about the establishment U.S. arky; but they turn out to be very proarchical, finding nothing but good to say about a revolutionary Sandinista arky. Indeed, the regular procedure of "revolution" is to form a (good) power-arky that can either overthrow and displace or else radically transform the (bad) arky currently in power. This selectivity amounts to a passionate faith in the power of arkys for human good and the farthest thing possible from a truly anarchical suspicion and mistrust of every human arky. Thus "anarchical" is a synonym for "nonpartisan"; and "anarchy" and "partisanship" are direct opposites.
This book was written in a way no other of mine has been written. Some books I have been asked to do, some I have thought up on my own, some I have seen coming, some I have stumbled into--but into this one I was I was enticed by a serpent too innocent to know what he was doing. My old friend Bernard Ramm, evangelical beyond fundamentalism and professor at American Baptist Seminary of the West, simply wrote me a brief note:
I would appreciate a letter from you on "passive anarchism." The bulk of the material on the subject is devoted to the various Russian or revolutionary views. But I suspect that there is a "passive Christian anarchism" ("all states are created equally wicked"). One review just mentioned Blumhardt--and if my memory serves me okay, you have a book on the father/son.
Now that poor man certainly wrote to me without the intention of starting anything. Nevertheless, I gave him just what he was asking for--beginning with a long letter; which I intended to use also as an article, but which wound up as the very chapter you are now reading.
However, my first reaction to Ramm's note was, "what on earth is he talking about? I don't know anything about 'anarchism period'--let alone 'passive Christian anarchism.' And I haven't the foggiest as to what all that has to do with the Blumhardts. Coming to me, he's got him the wrong boy."
Yet, if I were to have any chance of keeping Bernie bluffed regarding my scholarly reputation, I would have to come up with something. And the something I did come up with was the recollection that Ellul had had an article on the topic some years back. I must have been feeling tired or ornery when I originally read it, because I had entirely dismissed it as one of his less successful efforts. All I could remember is that he had set out to demonstrate the agreement between his personal version of Christianity (which he called "anarchism") and the secular anarchism of what Ramm calls "the various Russian or revolutionary views." It had been my impression that, in the process, Ellul had so qualified his Christian anarchism as to lose any real concept of "anarchy" entirely.
Yet, for Ramm's sake, I had to dig up that old article, "Anarhism and Christianity" (KATALLAGETE [Fall 1980]; hereafter: Anarchism). In the process, of course, I reread it--no, truly read it for the first time: "Oh, that's what you meant by 'Christian anarchism.' Right on, Friar Jacques! And sure, if that's what anarchism is, then that's exactly where the Blumhardts belong, too."
So now, as "the oracle of the man whose eye is opened (finally)," I propose here to enlarge Ellul's insight into a thesis regarding Christian history itself. To my mind, Ellul demonstrates decisively that a particular version of "anarchism" (Ramm's adjective "passive" is not quite the right modifier) is the sociopolitical stance of the entire Bible in general and the New Testament in particular. I would add that, from there, the understanding was picked up by that church tradition perhaps most often identified with "radical discipleship"--through which it came even to Ellul himself.
In very broad strokes, I would trace that somewhat amorphous (anarchical, of course) tradition thus: Although there are scattered flashes within earlier church history, the thread first establishes itself in the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century. There it is found in the Anabaptists, predecessors of the Mennonites and other groups. My own Church of the Brethren was born out of this tradition in the eighteenth century. And there are other denominations that show more or less of the influence since. Not necessarily the term "anarchism" but the spirit and idea could be cited out of the early life of all these bodies.
As we move from institutional groupings to individual thinkers, the anarchism is even easier to spot. The title of the published doctoral dissertation version of my doctoral dissertation was "Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship" (perhaps the first time the phrase "radical discipleship" in print). And it doesn't require much effort to show that, in attitude, S.K. was quite anarchistic toward church, state, and society.
I didn't know where Ramm had found the word anarchy in connection with the Blumhardts; but the identification is accurate. The one explicit use of the word I find is in the younger Blumhardt's statement:
Of course, thought cannot go too far in this direction before we come upon a word which is very much forbidden today. Yet there is something to be said for it. I will state it right out: "Anarchy" Regarding the inhabitants of earth, a certain freedom, a veritable rulelessness, would almost be better than this nailed-up-tight business which as much as turns individual peoples into herds of animals closed to every great thought. (Thy Kingdom Come [Eerdmans, 1980], p. 21)
And the idea, if not the word, comes through in the following remarks--which could be multiplied at length:
All [the arkydom] we have had up to this point is on its last run downwards. Our theology is moving down with the rapidity of a lowering storm. Our ecclesiastical perceptions are rapidly becoming political perceptions. Our worship services are being accommodated to the world. And thus it is necessary that all that has been should cease, should come to its end, making room again for something new, namely, the kingdom of God.
People are afraid of the collapse of the world. I am looking forward to it. I wish it would begin right now to crash break apart. For this world of the humanly great is and remains the cause of all misery. They cannot do anything about it, these well-intentioned people, these good things and ministers, these excellent prelates and popes. However much they try, they cannot. I would like to tell all of them, "You cannot do it!"
In this next quote, Blumhardt makes clear that it is only because of the eschatological character of the faith we can afford to be anarchical regarding this world:
"Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:20). The Savior's being with us has reference to the end the world, not to its continuance.... Jesus is not with a person who spends his days for the sole purpose of sustaining earthly life. The Lord does not wish to spend too much effort on the continuance of the world. After all, it is corruptible; there nothing left to be done but to await the wearing out of the decaying structure and the creating of a new one.
For the time being, we must do the best we can with what we have.... [But] in all our work, then, let us be careful to fix our eyes, not on the continuance of the world, but on its end. (Pp.121-22)
Subsequent to the Blumhardts, then, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have shown more-or-less anarchistic tendencies--in that order. In his second edition of the commentary on Romans, wrote:
What is true of the generality of men is true also of the men of God. As men they do not differ from other men.... There are no saints in the midst of a company of sinners.... Their criticism and invective and indictment of the world inevitably place them--unless they be themselves its object--within the world and betray that they too are of it.... This is as true of Paul, the prophet and apostle of the Kingdom of God, and of Jeremiah, as it is of Luther, Kierkegaard, and Blumhardt! (P. 57).
Goodness knows the thought expressed here is anarchical enough of itself. Yet it is the accident of that final sentence which is so telling for our purpose. Undoubtedly in a quite offhand way, stopping to think, Barth nominates his Christian saints (who he knows, of course, would be the very last people to claim sainthood for themselves). Nevertheless, with the exception of Jeremiah, our study will, in a greater or lesser way, tie each of these thinkers into the tradition of Christian Anarchy. Whether consciously or only subconsciously, Barth knew himself to stand in the very succession we have in mind for him.
Finally, along comes Jacques Ellul to crystallize the idea and give it what is probably the most self-conscious and explicit exposition the tradition has produced. Now, for the first time, it is out where we can talk about it.
Probably the most typical and conspicuous model of the radical-discipleship tradition of our day is Sojourners magazine, although the current intellectual and theological leadership of the Brethren and Mennonite churches, plus all the recent converts of the new evangelicalism, belong there as well. Yet the concept of Christian Anarchy is so very crucial today because it enables us to see that what commonly passes as the radical-discipleship tradition has slipped a cog that actually puts it clear outside the biblical and historical tradition we have just traced. As Ellul says: "The Christians who are engaged in the theological overhaul to which we have alluded are politically Leftist, even extreme Left. But they do not really know what anarchism is" (Anarchism, p. 15).
More recently, Ellul has published an autobiography, in interview form, entitled In Season, Out of Season (Harper & Row, 1982; hereafter, Season). In it, he uses the term anarchy only infrequently--and the term or concept Christian anarchy, never. Yet wide-flung passages are germane. For example, in response to the question "Do you consider yourself an anarchist?" he says:
The anarchist milieu is the only one in which I often feel ease. I am myself there. On the other hand, I am not at ease either in the right-wing milieu, which doesn't interest me, or in the left-wing milieu, for whom I am not overly a socialist or even less a communist. And I am not at all, really not at all at ease in the milieu of the Christian left....
[The interviewer asks:] Aren't you nevertheless a partisan of a more rational society?
Oh, no, not at all. On the contrary, I believe that the greatest good that could happen to society today is an increasing disorder.... I am in no way pleading in favor of a different social order. I am pleading for the regression of all the powers of order. (pp.195-96)
Ellul's "anarchism" has him most markedly distinguished from and opposed to those intent on creating "a new, Christian social order." That is the group he identifies as "the Christian Left." And what we have here called "the contemporary version of radical discipleship" clearly constitutes at least one segment of that Christian Left. The problem (as shall become clear) is that these people are totally dedicated to "revolution" where Ellul sees Christianity dedicated to "anarchy." The two ideas are not simply different but actually opposed to each other. And it is to this point we will return time and again throughout the treatment that follows.
Ellul grounds his concept of Christian Anarchy with a quick survey of the Bible, focusing upon its opinion of that particular (and perhaps prototypical) arky, the civil government, or state. I shall do an even quicker survey of his survey, centering upon those places where I want to say something of my own.
As key and theme statement, Ellul naturally uses God's and Samuel's warnings about what will be the harvest of Israel's bright dreams for a "mono-arky." Right out of the gate, then, King Saul demonstrates the truth of what God and Samuel had said. Ellul next calls David's reign "an exception" and proceeds to recount the sad history of the remainder of the monarchy. But I want to insist that David is not the exception but actually the heart of the pattern. (I do not like to hear it said that I automatically accept whatever Ellul says as being gospel truth; that is not [quite] true.)
Until the time of David's adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, it is indeed the case that he was brilliantly successful in forming a strong arky that accomplished all sorts good for Israel. Yet upon the discovery of that sin, God tells the king,
"I anointed you king over Israel [and did all these fine things through you].... And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the word of the Lord, to do evil in his sight?" (2 Sam. 12:7-9)
None of David's accomplishments actually should be credited to the power of his arky. They were manifestations of God's arky working through him. David's sin, then, was precisely the claiming of that arky power as his own, proposing that his kingly arky gave privilege even over God's moral arky that prohibits murder. And if, even with so good and dedicated a believer as David, power-arky inevitably goes pretentious, then what hope is there that other human arkys can ever do better? Hear the word of Blumhardt to these well-intentioned people, these good kings and ministers, these excellent prelates and popes (these zealous Christian revolutionaries): "You cannot do it!"
Far from being the exception, David is our one best argument. With his arkycal pretension (even though repented), his career goes into the skid that runs right on through the breakup of the kingdum under Solomon and into the disaster of the kings that followed. Indeed, in the process of recounting the gosh-awfulness of the arky of one King Jehoram, the writer says, "Yet the Lord would not destroy Judah, for the sake of David his servant, since he promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever" (2 Kings 8:19). God's covenantal promise was the only thing keeping the Davidic arky afloat. And of course, even that sad ship sank once for all, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.
Does this mean, then, that God's covenant with David came to nothing? Not at all. By this time, prophets had come to see that the track of God's promise was never meant to be that of the human arky of David; that was a false lead. No, the actual track of the covenant was that pointing to the coming Messiah, the one true Son of David. And that Jesus, of course, turned out to be King of the one truly anarchist, nonimpositional, nonheteronomous, not-of-this worldly-kingdom. Ellul is right that the Bible's mainline tradition regarding politics is most "unarkycal," can be deemed as nothing but "anarchist."
In the New Testament (our discussion of which will not always rely on Ellul) Jesus is being presented as history's Arch-Anarchist (if that oxymoron be allowed). Quite in passing (this not from Ellul), the German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias (in Rediscovering the Parables [Scribner; 1966], pp.96-97) makes an observation that is most supportive of our argument. He opines, first, regarding the Gospel;accounts of the temptation of Jesus, that it is likely the Master, perhaps on different occasions, used three different "parables" (stones into bread; leap from the temple; and worship the devil) to recount to his disciples what was actually one temptation experience rather than three separate ones. Then Jeremias suggests, "He told his disciples about his victory over the temptation to present himself as a political messiah--perhaps in order to warn them against a similar temptation."
Yet, "political messiah" is precisely what a good many Christian leftists would now make of Jesus--namely, sponsor of the particular revolutionary arky they have in mind for bringing peace and justice to the world. As much as any word in Scripture, Jesus' condemning of arky-messiahship as a temptation places him distinctly in "anarchy" over against any and all who, instead, hold that are indeed good human arkys elected and sponsored by God.
Another picture of Jesus' anarchism (again, of my choice rather than Ellul's) is his appearance before Pilate, particularly as it is recounted in John 18:33-19:11. Let me try a paraphrase that--admittedly far from Jesus in its language--may nevertheless catch the "feel" of the incident:
Please, fella, don't bother yourself to tell me how great is this Roman Empire of yours and how great the fact that you are a governor of it. I've heard that stuff all my life and know already. Yet I also happen to know that the one, real, kingdom isn't even of this world. I know, too, that you couldn't as much as lift a finger if my Father didn't let you it. Sure, you can crucify me--if he lets you. But there is no way you can eliminate me. So just can it, Pilate. I don't want to talk to you, because nothing you say makes one bit of difference anyhow. Let's get on with this crucifixion; and I'll see you day after tomorrow, in church at the Easter Sunrise Service, OK?
Would it not be fair to characterize that attitude as "anarchistic"? Jesus will grant not one bit of weight to Pilate and his Empire.
Another such picture (chosen by Ellul rather than Eller) is that of Jesus and the tribute money (Mark 12:13-17). There Jesus' questioners face him with the political choice they consider all-decisive: "Are you going to be a rightist who supports the civil establishment with your taxes; or are you going to be a leftist revolutionary who opposes that evil establishment by withholding them?" To which Jesus comes back as perfect anarchist: "I'm not going to be either one. That's a fake choice. Whether a person chooses God or not is the only real issue--and one's political preference has nothing to do with it. Give God what belongs to God."
As Ellul puts it:
"Render unto Caesar..." in no way divides the exercise of authority into two realms.... [Those words] were said in response to another matter: the payment of taxes, and the coin. The mark on the coin is that of Caesar; it is the mark of his property. Therefore give Caesar this money; it is his. It is not a question of legitimizing taxes! It means that Caesar, having created money, is its master. That's all. Let us not forget that money, for Jesus, is the domain of Mammon, a satanic domain. (Anarchism, p. 20)
As noted, the above has been only somewhat dependent upon Ellul. When he comes to Romans 13, however; Ellul really shines. The passage, of course, is the first a person normally would go to in order ti rebut our "anarchism" argument. But Ellul won't let such people have it; he wants it as a key to his argument. His contention is that there is nothing here lending one bit of legitimacy to human arky, Roman or otherwise. Rather, what Paul actually is about is deliberately citing and following Jesus, in the effort to protect "anarchy" from being confused with, and misread as, "revolution."
Thus, "there is no authority except from God," etc. (v. 1) says nothing different from what we just heard Jesus say in John 19:11. If I may help him a bit, Paul is saying: "Be clear, any of those human arkys are where they are only because God is allowing them to be there. They exist only at his sufferance. And if God is willing to put up with a stinker like the Roman Empire, you ought to be willing to put up with it, too. There is no indication God has called you to clear it out of the way or get it converted for him. You can't fight an Empire without becoming like the Roman Empire; so you had better leave such matters in God's hands where they belong."
Then, in verses 6-7, Paul in effect joins Jesus in warning against the withholding of taxes. Such action smacks of fighting the empire. The proper name for it is "tax revolt"--and that signifies the pitting of a "good" revolutionary arky against the "bad" establishment one. Otherwise, letting Caesar take his coin--as Jesus would have it--is the "anarchy" of going so completely with God's arky that any and all human arkys (along with their tax coins) become as nothing. Just the opposite, withholding the coin is the "revolution" that stakes everything upon the contest of human arkys--supposedly to insure the victory of the good, Christian arky that will spell the salvation of the race.
Finally, Ellul picks up on the fact that Paul explicitly does not name military service as something owed to the government. He takes this to indicate that Paul, again, understood himself to be following Jesus in seeing that the logic of tax payment does not apply regarding military service. A human being is anything but the "nothing" a few tax coins are. And the human being bears the image of God, not of the emperor. A true anarchist will never grant that any worldly arky (including the church) owns people.
With this, we come to some basic principles of Christian Anarchy (several of them straight out of Ellul):
- For Christians, "anarchy" is never an end and goal in itself. The dying-off of arky (or our dying to arky) is of value only as a making of room for the Arky of God.
- Christian anarchists have no opinion as to whether secular society would be better off with anarchy than it is with all its present hierarchies. We can say only as much as Blumhardt said: "There is no way anarchy could be much worse than the nailed-up-tight business we have now."
- Christian anarchists do not even argue that anarchy is a viable option for secular society. Ellul: "Political authority and organization are necessities of social life but nothing more than necessities. They are constantly tempted to take the place of God" (Anararchism, p.22).
- The threat of the arkys is not so much their existence as it is our granting that existence reality and weight--our giving ourselves to them, attaching importance to them, putting faith in them, making idols of them. Revolutionists fall into this trap in their intention of using good arkys to oppose and displace the bad ones--thus granting much more power and being to the arkys (both evil power to the bad ones and righteous power to the good ones) than is the truth of the matter.
- Christian anarchists do not hold that arkys, by nature, are "of the devil." Such absolutist, damning talk is rather the mark of revolutionists concerned to make an enemy arky look as bad as possible in the process of making their own arky look good. No, for Christian anarchists the problem with arkys is, rather, that they are "of the human"--i.e., they are creaturely, weak, ineffectual, not very smart, while at the same time they are extravagantly pretentious. They pose as so much more important (or fearsome) than they actually are. There is no intent to deny that this "human fleshliness" does indeed provide entrée for the devil--but that is as much into good arkys as into bad ones. The only thing more devilish than a "bad" arky is a "holy" one.
- Christian anarchists would not buy Ramm's clever characterization that "all states are created equally wicked." They would agree that all are equally human and none the least bit divine. But my Brethren ancestors, for instance, were well aware that when they fled the persecuting arkys of Germany for the (comparatively) free arky of William Penn, they were trading a bad arky for a better one. And they were appropriately grateful to God for the change. But that from which their anarchy did preserve them was the confusing of Penn's arky with the kingdom of God. An arky is an "arky" for all that. None is as good as it thinks it is or gives itself out to be, and there is no guarantee that even a good one will stay good. The particular Brethren turf within Penn's arky is now a Philadelphia slum.
So, good arky or not, those anarchists retained a healthy biblical suspicion of arkys in general and en toto. There is no denying that, as he chooses, God can and does make positive use of the arkys--bad ones as well as good ones. It does not follow that we dare ever accept any as being select instruments of his goodness and grace.
And it was none other than anarchist Ellul who once chided the Christian revolutionists for their inability to see any moral distinction between the arky of the U.S. government and those of Hitler and Stalin. Christian Anarchy does allow room for the relative moral distinctions between arky and arky--and real appreciation for the same.
- It is no part of Christian Anarchy to want to attack, subvert, unseat, or try to bring down any of the world's arkys. (It is here that Ramm's "passive" makes sense, although it will not do so regarding points to follow.) To fight arkys, we have seen, is toform counterarkys, is to enter the contest of power (precisely that which Christian Anarchy rejects in principle), is to introduce arky in the very attempt to eliminate it. To undertake a fight against evil on its own terms (to pit power against power) is the first step in becoming like the evil one opposes.
- Speaking of anarchy's model, Ellul says: "Jesus does not represent a-politicism or spiritualism. His is a fundamental attack upon [he would better have said 'refusal to conform to'] political authority.... He challenges every attempt to validate the political realm and rejects its authority because it does not conform to the will of God" (Anarchism, p.20). With this and what follows, Christian Anarchy can no longer be called "passive."
- Regarding Jeremiah's command that the exiles are to "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf" (Jer. 29:7), Ellul points out that such is not at all the same thing as approving and supporting the Babylonian arky. Just so, the radical-discipleship churches that have been most anarchist toward the state and the world may have the best track records regarding the loving of neighbors near and far and the serving of human need. Anarchism is no bar to social service. Whether the ends of political justice truly are served by our power-manipulation of the arkys is another question.
- Christian anarchists occasionally are willing to work through and even use worldly arkys when they see a chance to accomplish some immediate human good thereby. This is an admittedly risky business; the regular pattern is to make a quick entrance and just as quick an exit.
For example, the civil arky of Christoph Blumhardt's day was really putting it to the working classes, and anarchist Blumhardt saw the revolutionary arky of the Social Democrats as a vehicle for helping those people get their rights. He joined the party, spoke for it, ran for office, and won a six-year term in the Württemberg legislature. But it didn't take a whole lot of arky red tape and politicking before he lost not only his interest but his cool: "I am proud stand before you as a man; and if politics cannot tolerate a human being, then let politics be damned." That, my friends, is pure Essence of Anarchy: "Human beings, yes; politicians, never!" Blumhardt got out as soon as he graciously could.
Quick-in-and-quick-out is a proper anarchist maneuver but certainly not any moral obligation. Neither Blumhardt nor Ellul would claim his arky-adventures as the greatest contribution he has made. In fact, Ellul--who has been into as many of these as anyone--is inclined to deny that they ever accomplished anything:
I had seen the failure of the Popular Front in 1936; the failure of the personalist movement, which we intended to be revolutionary and which we tried to start on a modest scale; the failure of the Spanish revolution, which had great importance for Charbonneau and me; and the failure of the liberation [of France at the close of World War II]. All of this formed an accumulation of ruined revolutionary possibilities. After this, I never believed anything could be changed by this route. (Season, p. 56)This attitude surely is poles away from the current revolutionist idea that the truest (if not "only true") Christian actions are those having political, arky relevance.
The anarchist maneuver, though proper, actually holds a very real danger of getting caught. Caught, first: The only members wanted by an arky are true believers. Spies, subversives, and heretics are likely to be shot on sight. Caught, second: Even the strongest anarchist runs the risk of losing his anarchism--his good, honest skepticism--in the surroundings of arky propaganda. He so easily can get to thinking that politicians actually do have more power in determining the future than the rest of us mere mortals do. He can so easily get caught up in the idea that what we in fact are doing is making the world safe for democracy, winning the world for Christ, building a just social order, reversing the arms race, or (as a well-known hymn has it) pushing through God's long-tarrying kingdom by bringing in the day of brotherhood and ending the night of wrong--when all that actually is happening is that an arky is becoming more and more impressed by its own importance in the scheme of things. And, of course, once such an anarchist starts "believing" in what he is doing, he is done for.
Ellul again: "As a Christian one must participate in the world of action. But one must do so to reject it, to confront it with ... refusal that alone can call into question, or even prevent, the unchecked growth of power" (Anarchism, p. 22).
- Ellul's critique of "Christian revolutionism" is perhaps best summed up as "a lack of realism." And that, in turn, can be spelled out under four heads-namely, the revolutionary faith in (1) activism; (2) utopianism; (3) what we shall call "the trigger effect"; and (4) dramatization. Although, obviously, Ellul finds the Christian Left to be the opposite case, he believes that "Christians can be, among other things, more realistic and less ideological than others" (Season, p. 91).
- Activism. Ellul, certainly, is not opposed to Christians being on the political, social, or ecclesiastical scenes or whatever. He does reject the activist presupposition that people's public, arky actions are the only true test of their Christian faith. temperament, this one came hard for him:
"Because I have a realistic and active nature, meaning lay in action. But it is obvious that, for me, action itself does not embody meaning. Action more or less gives witness to meaning, expresses it to me or others. But the most basic meaning is beyond all action" (Season, p. 83).Ellul would not be one to say that as long as your actions are good (i.e., Christian) your theological beliefs aren't very important.
In fact, churchly activism regularly works just contrary to truly Christian action: "When we see Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit act, a tremendous number of things come out of very little: look at the feeding of the five thousand. In the church we observe just the opposite: we put excellent men into action and we mount gigantic efforts that produce almost nothing. So I say to myself, This means that the Holy Spirit is not working'" (Season, p. 94). Human activism can represent an actual blockage of the Spirit's work.
Ellul makes a more fundamental point which, in a succeeding chapter, we will find even more strongly pressed by Karl Barth:
There is no possible continuity between man's actions on earth and God's establishment of his kingdom.... Man can't achieve good on his own. And I again have to clarify here. The good of which Scripture speaks is not the equivalent of moral goodness but a condition of conformity to God's will. And the good that any moral philosophy describes to us may not necessarily coincide with God's will as it is shown to us in the revelation. In other words, when we say that man can't do good on his own, it means that man can't do God's will with out God. (Season, p.59)This brings Ellul to a conclusion that will have his followers from the Christian Left accusing him of having deserted the faith:
I was hostile to the politicization of the church, the primacy of politics; I was violently [he means "strongly," of course] against a well-known slogan: "Seek first the political kingdom and all these things will be added unto you."... The popular opinion held that Christianity should be expressed above all in service.... I maintained that service means nothing if there is not an explicit proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (Season, p. 96).Obviously, Ellul does not see the gospel as centering in Christian activism.
As a result, Ellul is very leery of today's common assumption that Christians can magnify their power for good by joining forces with secular arkys that are pursuing some social goals:
Should Christians join existing movements, those that are most just; should they, for example, side with the poor man; or does Christianity have something really specific and unique that should not be mixed up with anything else? Does God want to carry out a different action in history through Christians, who consequently don't need to adopt ready-made plans and doctrines? I am totally in favor of the second perspective.... [So] it is not a matter of founding a party or a Christian labor of union or of uniting Christians around a social doctrine of the church. Nor is it that Christians should join any particular party. (Season, p.90)When we get to that succeeding chapter, we will find Karl Barth strongly "Amening" this point. The ideology of Christian activism has us humans pushing in to take over and do God's work for him--with what cannot be anything but disastrous results. Our Christian anarchists, on the other hand, are with Jesus in wanting to put the stopper on the activist obsession to serve God by being out there pulling up tares (Matt. 13:24-30).
- Utopianism. Ellul lays it out. "I have already said how much all utopians irritate me, both for their lack of realism and their authoritarianism" (Season, p. 219).
And is not the revolutionary rhetoric of the Christian Left--whether in talking about "unilateral disarmament," "a world without war," "a truly just society," "the disappearance of the distinction between males and females," "an economic equality," "a dean environment," and whatever--invariably and essentially utopian? And, as Ellul would have it, does not this utopianism show a complete pragmatic political possibility and, likewise, an imperious decree in telling the world what order it should be getting itself into?
Consider that "the kingdom of God" (according to the scriptural definition)cannot be considered a utopia--because in no way is it a projection of what we propose to create, an order we are undertaking to impose on things. Ellul, then, observes:
Every program founded on our [human] analysis can only be a utopia. Now, I am violently opposed to any utopia because it is the epitome of illusory satisfactions.... Utopia is the final blow in humanity's death. And it is a very concrete death: the last two great utopias were those visions of idealism and the future known as Nazism and Stalinism. Now, motivated by a desire to transform society globally, anyone who makes a panoramic and final description of this transformation can only be proposing a utopia. (Season, p. 198)
- "The Trigger Effect." With this I have in mind the common arky assumption that, by bringing our power to bear and working a change at "the top," we can trigger a revolution of the entire system. Ellul thinks differently:
I have arrived at this maxim: "Think globally, act locally." This represents the exact opposite of the present spontaneous [i.e., that which comes naturally to us] procedure.... We have the spontaneous tendency to demand centralized action, the state, through a decision center that sends down the decrees from above; but this can no longer have any success. The human facts are too complex and the bureaucracy will become heavier and heavier. (Season, pp. 199-200)Consider, also, first, that "local action"--having a much shorter linkage between "act" and "result"--has a much greater chance of success than does "top-down action." Second, there is a great deal of local action that won't have to indude arky involvement at all. And third, locally, even where political action is required, the arkys are smaller; weaker, and more responsive. They will not call for the same sort of bloc pressure and power plays that high-level politics would. It is local action that is most appropriate to Christian Anarchy.
Yet consider how regularly our Christian revolutionaries--with their anti-nuclear demonstrations, their tax revolts, their Equal Rights Amendments, their getting the U.S. military out of Central America--prefer to try for the high-up jugular. Christian Anarchy (Ellul and the Christian Left plainly are of two quite different minds in this matter. (Of course, this dream of changing things from the top is just as characteristic of the Right as of the Left--and Ellul would find it equally objectionable there.)
- Dramatization. The term is Ellul's--or rather his interviewer's--but it intends "playing up," "exaggerating," or perhaps what we later will call "zealotism" or "absolutizing." Ellul confesses that in his earlier writings he tended to dramatize the threat of particular evils "in order to back people into a corner, because I had the conviction that human beings are so negligent, so lazy, that they are not driven to defend themselves, they will do everything possible to avoid commitment" (Season, p. 223). But then he goes on to say,
I do not write in quite the same way now, because the incredibly frivolous and thoughtless world of my youth has given way to a general conviction in people that the situation is hopeless. People today are afraid. Thus I will not tell them, in the atomic bomb: "1t is appalling, we will all be blown away." I think, on the contrary, that I should say: "There ninety-nine chances in a hundred that it will never explode." Season, p. 224)Because Christian Anarchy doesn't always have to be trying for "results," it can afford to be realistic and thus also more honest. And because it can be honest (speaking the truth in love), Christian Anarchy also can be less manipulatively authoritarian. It isn't trying to make anybody do anything.
Ellul's last word--only for the Season book, of course, though it would also serve well in the other sense--perhaps best shows the extent of the gap between himself and our social revolutionists:
I was mistaken in my hope of triggering the beginning of a transformation of society.
[The interviewer asks:] Do you think you were speaking to deaf ears?
I don't pass judgments. I said what I thought, and it was not heard. I probably said it badly. But much more important, I may have had the opportunity at times to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Perhaps through my words or my writing, someone met the savior, the only one, the unique one, beside whom all human projects are childishness; then, if this has happened, I will be fulfilled, and for that, glory to God alone. (Season, pp. 232-33)
- Activism. Ellul, certainly, is not opposed to Christians being on the political, social, or ecclesiastical scenes or whatever. He does reject the activist presupposition that people's public, arky actions are the only true test of their Christian faith. temperament, this one came hard for him:
The nonconformity of Christian Anarchy--the refusal to recognize or accept the authority of the arkys of this world--is done in the name of human "freedom." And this is not at all the same thing as "autonomy"--that being the secular name for freedom, not the Christian. No human arky can create or grant freedom; the idea of "government," of "imposed arky," is essentially contradictory to that of "freedom." "Yet, just as truly, the simple elimination of arky creates, not freedom, but only "anarchy"--which is not the same thing. No, Ellul suggests that there is for us no once-for-all liberation, but that our freedom is to be found only in the act of wresting it from the powers. "It exists when we shake an edifice, produce a fissure, a gap in the structure" (Anarchism p.23).
That fissure may be as small (or as great) as Jesus' disinclination to respond to Pilate. What really gets in among the ribs of an arky is when anyone, upon being spoken to, fails to snap to attention, salute, and say, yes, sir" (or what is more likely, regarding a big arky of our day, "Yes, ma'am!"). Arkys don't really care whether you love them or fear them; what they can't stand is being ignored. Another fissure may be as small (or as great) as laughing in the face of arky pretentiousness--which is just what God did through the resurrection of Jesus. That gives big-shots as much trouble as being ignored--or anything else threatening their sense of self-importance. True, as with Jesus, showing disrespect toward an arky is best way of getting yourself crucified (only verbally, of course, our day of "loquacious damnation"). But anarchists are used to that.
Yet even with this fissure making, it is not as though we were creating freedom for ourselves. No, it is, rather, as the Blumhardt' put it, that we have made a space for something new: the Arky God--the God whose service is perfect freedom through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.
Regarding the tradition of my own Church of the Brethren, it easy to see that ours was indeed a truly biblical anarchism up to the halfway point of this century--when we converted to revolutionism. Perhaps an illustration can best show the nature and magnitude of the switch. Two Christian men were involved in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in two quite different ways, for quite different purposes, seeking quite different goals. Both were intent to help "the poor"--but had quite different ideas as to who the poor were and how they could best be helped.
Earlier in this chapter we saw how Jacques Ellul, the first these two, was involved as a political partisan--which means, course, an "adherent of a particular party line." So for him "the poor" identified that particular ideological, class-distinguished social bloc arrayed against the oppressing powers of General Franco. Ellul's faith was that, if properly conducted, the political contest could be directed so as to bring justice to the "poor" side of the alignment.
Our other Christian activist was a Brethren leader named Dan West, in Spain as a Brethren Service Commission representative doing relief work. Just the opposite of Ellul, the approach of Dan West and his church was carefully nonpartisan. Thus they did not identify "the poor" with any sort of ideological grouping but simply as whatever individuals had needs the church was in position to serve. "Poverty" didn't even have to be understood sheerly as an economic category. And the church kept its involvement strictly non-partisan precisely so it could be free to serve any and all kinds of distinction.
One of Dan West's jobs in Spain was distributing dried milk--and it was while so involved he got the better idea of persuading the Brethren farmers back home to donate live animals to replenish the herds, flocks, hutches, cotes, and hives of the devastated areas of the world. That idea gradually took form to become, today, Heifer International--a large-scale, long-lived, massively effective interdenominational service agency--which has been able to do its work only by sticking to the rule of political nonpartisanship. Jacques Ellul, of course, is quick to say that his Spanish adventure accomplished nothing at all. Neither Dan West nor anyone else would have said the same about his.
Yet here is the two-way switch: Jacques Ellul on the one hand and our current Brethren equivalents of Dan West on the other have traded places. Completely disillusioned about finding possibilities for good in political revolution and rapid social change, Ellul became a Christian anarchist. Theoretically, I suppose, he would agree that if we could in fact engineer a revolution that would create a just social order, that might mark a higher accomplishment than simply feeding hungry people. The trouble, of course, is that he has never found any indication that arky revolution can be trusted to deliver on its promises. Human beings just aren't morally capable of controlling arky power and making it work to beneficial ends. Power corrupts--as someone other than Ellul has said.
That is Ellul's switch. Now, switching the other direction, we have a Mennonite scholar's study, distributed by the Peace Section of the Mennonite Cent:ral Committee (the counterpart of Dan West's Brethren Service Commission). The locus now is Nicaragua rather than Spain, but the church's historic nonpartisanship is belittled as "quietism"--with the call that it be replaced by an ideological partisanship of the strongest order. Now, rather than a nondiscriminating concern for poor individuals of whatever political persuasion and whatever variety of "poverty," the formula runs: "the poor" = the Nicaraguan "people" = the partisans of the Sandista Revlution. (And I don't see how this can avoid the implication that any dissenters from or critics of the revolution are "nonpeople.")
What I find most frightening about the Mennonite article is that the Christian gospel is equated directly with left-wing politics. Biblical-anarchicval Mennonites and Brethren are now encouraged to enter the worldly arky contest with such completely partisan power plays as tax-withholding, the sanctuary movement's organized and advertised defiance of the government, civil disobedience, vengeful denunciation, anything--just as long as it stops short of physical brutality and so can still be justified as "nonviolence." That, if I may say so, marks one very long move away from Dan West--and one regarding which Jacques Ellul (having been there) can tell us what the harvest must be.
My guess is that it was the Social Gospel movement that tipped us into the faith that the world could be saved (or at least vastly improved) through our inspired arky actions of revolution and reform. Now our ancient anarchism has become an object of scorn: "Look at how much more actual good we have accomplished using arky power rather than shying from it!" ... I wonder.
I wonder.... It certainly proved right for Jesus not to let himself be associated with the just and righteous revolution of the tax-withholding Zealots; Rome saw to it that that godly effort came to nothing but a great big minus. Yet, of course, that revolution was violent. So let me now tell the story of the most successful Christian nonviolent revolution in history--involving that same Roman establishment, would you believe?
You see, once upon a time there was this little anarchist church--in fact, the very one we've been talking about--that of Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament Christians. And it--in its rather weak, unorganized, anarchical way (following the pattern its anarchical apostle)--went bumbling about the empire, evangelizing handfuls of individuals here and there and leaving them in little anarchical house-groups.
Actually, in comparison to some other churches of other eras, its church-growth statistics weren't all that bad. Nevertheless, in time, some strategic planners came along who said, "Folks, this anarchical way of going at things is stupid. We'll never get the world won for Christ this way. Why, people are being born faster than we're set up to convert them (infant baptism not yet having been invented); we'll never catch up. We've got to start thinking big and quit being so leery about using a bit of organization and power. We need to operate from strength. What we really ought to do is go for the Arky--go for the Big One. God wants his church to grow. And just think of how much more good we can accomplish by using arky power rather than shying from it!"
And wouldn't you know, it worked! They went for the emperor and got him--and he brought the whole of the Big Arky over with him. Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire--and the world was won for Christ. You know, you have to smile a bit at the Old Anarchy, thinking that three thousand in one day was pretty big stuff. I don't know just how long it took to get the changeover recorded; but I do know the Vatican computers were jammed trying to move names across from the PAGAN column to the CHRISTIAN column--until somebody realized it just easier to switch the headings.
At one fell swoop we now had a whole empireful of Christians; as finally in a position to do some real good for humanity and bring in the truly just society. Talk about revolution! The church praised God from whom all blessings flow ... and the empire snickered all the way to the bank. His empire had found the Lord and become "Christian" without having to make any changes at all; Christianity had done all the changing. Indeed, the conversion would probably qualify as "forensic justification": all it took was a word from God (or at least his official representatives) and we now had "The HOLY Roman Empire." Pretty neat, wouldn't you say?
But just look at what actually happened in this Christian revolutionizing of the empire. The church became the Biggest Arky of All, graciously taking unto itself every evil the empire had ever represented. It sacrificed all understanding and appreciation of its God-given anarchy in its zeal to make the world good and do good for it. It lost the beautiful anarchy of its house-churches of human beings to build cathedrals of politicians. (Remember that cathedral means throne of a bishop.") It lost the anarchical refusal of military service to mount armies bearing the banner of the cross and in this sign conquering. It lost its anarchical Jesus whose kingdom was not of this world to paint for itself an icon that needed a label before you could tell whether it was a picture of Christ or the Emperor (a sad, sad confusion). It lost its "holiness" in bestowing that title upon the empire instead. The trading of anarchy for Christian arky was the deflowering of the church.
So, my great fear about today's Christian revolution, out to transform and save the world for God, is not that it might fail but that it might succeed. As for me and my house, give me anarchy or give me the last laugh--which may come to the same thing.
Copyright (c) 1987