My friend and colleague David has gotten me interested in the work of Jacques Ellul. And as I've read Ellul I've gotten more interested in Christian anarchism, particularly after reading Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity.
I'm new to this literature, so please don't count me as an expert. I mainly want to point out two things in this post.
First, in an important sense, all Christians are anarchists. The word "anarchism" comes from the Greek ἄναρχος (anarchos) which means "no rulers" or "without rulers." For the Christian such a description, obviously, refers to the ultimacy of human rulers.
An anarchist strain runs throughout the Old and Testaments. We see it in the Old Testament in God's unwillingness to give a king to Israel. When God finally relents God takes this as an explicit rejection and predicts things aren't going to go well for Israel:
1 Samuel 8.6-22So the bible has a very dim view of kings. But the people want one. And their reason for wanting a king is interesting: "to judge us and lead us into battle." Another sign that the bible has a dim view of kings is that every Old Testament king had a prophet. And in Jesus's day Herod had John the Baptist.
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
So Samuel passed on the Lord’s warning to the people who were asking him for a king. “This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. “Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.”
So Samuel repeated to the Lord what the people had said, and the Lord replied, “Do as they say, and give them a king.” Then Samuel agreed and sent the people home.
But beyond the kings of Israel we also see the Israelites coming into conflict with the rulers of foreign nations. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's refusal to bow down, under threat of death, to the golden idol erected by Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel 3. 13-18What is interesting here in Daniel, and this is the second and larger point I want to make in this post, is the conflation of anarchism and atheism. You'll recall that the word "atheist" was coined by the Romans to describe the early Christians. This was because Christians rejected the gods of the Romans, denied their legitimacy, ultimacy and existence.
Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
In short, there is a conflation between the rulers/rule of a nation and the pantheon of gods supporting it and conferring legitimacy. To be an anarchist, then, one also has to be an atheist. The two go hand in hand. And we see this clearly in Daniel. To say no to the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar is to refuse to worship his idol.
This duality sits at the heart of the Old Testament in the experience of the Exodus. Moses emancipates slaves by revolting against both the rule and divinity of Pharaoh. To the Egyptians Moses was both an atheist--in his denial of their divinities, Pharaoh among them--and an anarchist. The political and the spiritual go hand in hand.
So there is this interesting conflation of obedience and worship. Both, after all, involve "bowing down." Perhaps the best word to pick out this area of overlap is allegiance. When push comes to shove, whom do you serve? This is nicely pointed out in a well-known example of New Testament anarchism:
Acts 5.27-29Along these lines, we might consider Jesus to be the paradigmatic case--the Original Anarchist. Note the conflation of refusing rule and refusing to worship:
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!"
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”Another theme of anarchism is being "stateless." This is also a theme found throughout the Old and New Testaments where the people of God are considered pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners. 1 Peter is a prolonged meditation on this theme. Right at the start of 1 Peter Christians are addressed as eklektois parepidemois diasporas. This is variously translated as:
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
NRSV:Later, in 2.11, the author of 1 Peter uses a different word to describe Christians, paroikos: "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles (paroikos)..." Where parepidemois carries the idea of "sojourning" paroikos is a political word referring to the tenuous relationship (or lack thereof) between the the pilgrim and the state he/she is currently residing in. Because of this paroikos is often translated as "resident alien" or "resident non-citizen." The important part for our purposes is how 1 Peter uses the idea "statelessness" to describe the Christian relationship with the world. We are resident non-citizens of the world. In this sense, the Christian identity is anarchical.
"To the exiles of the Dispersion...who have been chosen."
"To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered..."
"...to all those living as aliens in the Dispersion...who have been chosen."
"...to God's chosen people who are living as foreigners."
"To God's chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of..."
And it's this anarchical relationship with the world that produces persecution. After Peter and the apostles give their speech about obeying God rather than men they are flogged. Jesus also speaks of this persecution in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the peacemakers,Why would anyone want to persecute the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers? That's a puzzle. Until we ponder the provocative and anarchical nature of the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven." It's the anarchical nature of the peacemaking that's bringing the persecution. Here is a peace that occurs outside of, in opposition to, and as an indictment of worldly rule, with how Leviathan "makes peace." This was why the early Christians were persecuted by Rome. Rome wasn't upset by Christian meekness and humility. Rome was upset by Christian atheism and anarchism. In the Roman worldview Caesar was considered to be the Son of God and his imperial accomplishments were proclaimed as gospel ("glad tidings"). Christians, however, recognized a different Son of God, a King even, and proclaimed a rival gospel. Thus the clash between rival conceptions of rule (anarchism) and divinity (atheism). Walter Wink describes the conflict:
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
When the Romans archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor's behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor's power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power...prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire's "angel," as it where, before the judgment seat of God.All this is to simply point out the anarchist themes in the bible and how those themes are intimately associated with issues related to idolatry and false worship. There is a pervasive spiritual aspect to Christian anarchism. It cannot be reduced to political actions or activities. Specifically, Christian anarchism is atheistic in denying that which confers spiritual legitimacy to the use of power. This is, I think, what it means to "discern the spirits" and to claim that our battle "is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this dark age."
And yet, if we utter this atheistic "no" we step outside the nexus of values and ideologies that legitimize how meaning is constructed in the world (mainly though the use of power). The atheistic move makes us appear "lawless," advocates of anarchy and "no rule." This is the root of Christian persecution. Why Jesus was considered to be both demon-possessed and executed as a political dissident.