Anarchism and Christianity: Re-Viewing the Politics of Jesus

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   
when Dorothy Day—devout Catholic, cofounder
of the Catholic Worker movement,
and, notably, a U of I dropout—
described herself as an anarchist. Indeed,
the terms anarchist and anarchy conjure
images of disorder, chaos and bomb
throwers. This perception however is for
the most part a distorted notion of anarchist
thought, and has nothing to do with the anarchism of
Dorothy Day.
Surely, to talk about a likeness between Christianity and
anarchism is to risk being thought absurd and oxymoronic.
Some would argue that to use the label “anarchist” is to
encourage misapprehension, even hostility. But the same case
could just as cogently be made in accepting the label “Christian.”
For, after all, to be a Christian is to be a right-wing conservative,
right? So, while acknowledging the dangerous territory
of both these terms, I wish to show the essential congruity
between these two lines of thought—if we properly
understand them, of course. Hence this essay.
Anarchism is a term notoriously hard to pin down, as, by
definition, it resists a concrete definition. In its most basic
sense it means no rulers or no domination. Anarchists tend to
be suspicious of any clear blueprint for exactly what anarchy
would look like. There is certainly some value in pointing to
actions that look like a desirable way to live, but anarchism is
not static—it is dynamic, an orientation, acknowledging certain
principles, freedom being foremost, that must be maintained
at all times.
Currently, the most interesting group moving along this
line is the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. Although
they have not identified themselves with anarchism explicitly,
I don’t think it would be unfair to describe them as at least
anarchistic. They are anti-political, in that they are not seeking
to run for office. Unlike their Latin American revolutionary
counterparts, they are not attempting to take over state
power. Instead, they are engaging in a social revolution,
desiring to simply live autonomously as they see fit, outside
of the pernicious confines of the “new world order” of free
market globalization. Marcos, who the media tend to identify
as their leader, neglecting his title Subcomandante, describes
the Zapatista worldview in his typically lyrical way: “I am as
I am and you are as you are; we are building a world where I
can be, without having to cease being me, where you can be,
without having to stop being you, and where neither I nor you
force another to be like me or you,’ when Zapatistas say, ‘a
world where many worlds fit’, we are saying, more or less,
‘everyone does his own thing.’” (October 26, 1999)
Inevitably the question arises: if everyone does their own
thing, won’t everyone just kill each other? This is a serious
issue, and human nature appears to be such that it’s pivotally
relevant to the topic at hand. While I don’t think the legitimacy
of anarchism lives or dies on this issue alone, it would be
foolish to deny the human impulse towards both good and
evil. But it is anarchists, surprisingly I think, who have the
most realistic take on this, as they understand that the more
power is decentralized, the less likely the temptation towards
evil. As Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt;
absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
When asked about her anarchism, Dorothy Day would
often intone the work of Peter Kropotkin, the 19th century
Russian biologist, whose book Mutual Aid provided a scientific
basis for anarchism. Contra Darwin, he found through
empirical study a decided trend not towards competition, but
towards cooperation amongst animal and human species
when faced with survival. Implicit here is the true nature of
anarchy—personal responsibility—over and against anarchy
pejoratively understood to be what each individual is going to
do without regard to anyone else. In other words, when Marcos
says “everyone does his own thing,” he is not describing
an atomized existence free of others, but a society where people
live in solidarity with one another, responsible to everyone,
without looking to that most violent and impersonal
institution, the state.
Of course, any serious proponent of anarchism wouldn’t
argue that once the state was eliminated that everything
would become perfect and utopian. But there have been,
before the invention of the modern nationstate,
societies that have lived quite happy,
peaceful lives without a central coercive
apparatus. Some of these are elucidated in
Harold Barclay’s interesting study People
Without Government: An Anthropology of
Anarchy. Within the 20th century perhaps
the most notable
experiment in
anarchism was in
Spain during the
thirties. Although
the movement was
u l t i m a t e l y
quashed by Franco
and the fascists, it
remains in many
ways the largest
anarchist accomplishment to date. While I
have serious reservations about that accomplishment—
going too far into politics as
well as their use of violence—it does
remain a sign of hope for those of us today
working towards an alternative practice of
social life.
Part and parcel of any movement
towards the kind of society I am describing
is the acknowledgment and development of
a spiritual life. Even a thinker such as Noam
Chomsky, not noted for his religious faith,
has discussed this in an appeal towards a
libertarian socialist (i.e. anarchist) society,
in saying that he believes not only will a
spiritual change help bring about this new
order, but that this new order would actually contribute to
such a revolution. We live in such an alienated, narcissistic
culture that this is no easy task. But I do think the central
urgency of the day is, as Dorothy Day put it, how to bring
about a revolution of the heart.
Enter Christianity. Anarchists have not only resisted the
nation-state; they have, more broadly, stood in opposition to
anything that dominates: patriarchy, capitalism, consumering,
technology and, of course, Christianity. The Spanish
anarchists, noted above, for example, were steadfastly anti-
Christian. How then, can I, as a Christian, legitimately call
myself an anarchist? This will take some unpacking, though
unfortunately space limits a full articulation.
Jesus was a subversive in first century Palestine who stood
against power and domination in both its Roman and Jewish
guises. Again and again throughout the four Gospels, Jesus
challenges institutionalized authority. Even before adulthood,
echoing the story of Moses, he was saved by his parents’ disobedience
to the ruler Herod’s decree that all children under
the age of two be slaughtered. Herod’s political move reflected
his fear of a competitor. There was no such split then
between religion and politics. They were both intertwined.
Jesus’ followers, both during his life and after, called him
“Lord” and “Son of God,” thereby expressing directly political
sentiments—for, after all, these titles were given exclusively
to Caesar.
Jesus’ attitude towards power is especially clear in the
story of his 40-day retreat where satan tempts him. He makes
Jesus an offer: in exchange for worshipping satan, he can
have all the power over the world. Much, I’m sure, could be
done with that power—universal equality, justice, etc…—but
Jesus rejects it. The option to lord over others, even if it’s
seemingly benevolent, is to enter the realm of evil.
In contrast to the Romans, Jesus offers his own example as
the path to true servanthood: “You know that among the Gentiles
[i.e. the Romans] those whom they recognize as their
rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever
wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave
of all.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus subverts top-down
authority and shows another way: the bottom-up and noncoercive
way of the cross.
Perhaps the most important feature of Jesus’ ministry was
that he rejected violence. The pacifism of Jesus’ life and teachings
find a consonance with anarchy. In fact,
those so-called anarchists that use violence
and coercion are a contradiction in terms. As
already stated, anarchy is a rejection of domination.
To use violence to create a society
without domination is a non sequitur. If we
as Christians cannot support war, this at least
implicitly subverts
the work of the
state, which is war.
As Randolph
Bourne noted
almost one hundred
years ago, “war is
the health of the
state.” If the state
were actually to
live out Jesus’
your enemies, bless them that curse you, do
good to those that hate you”—it would
quickly wither away.
The problem with Christianity is that when
measured up to the radical life of Jesus it
should largely be considered a failure.
Some commentators have observed though,
that the church has not been so much Christian
as constantinian. For the first three centuries
the church lived out a rather faithful
vision of Christ. The constantinian arrangement
refers, however, to the emperor Constantine’s
legalization of Christianity in the
4th century. The result was an amalgam of
power and the Christian faith. To be a citizen
of the empire and a Christian became one and the same.
Out went radical, counter-cultural Christianity and in came
an imperial, violent Christianity.
Within this rather sad history of the constantinian church of
the past 1700 years there has remained a current of faithful revolutionary
Christians. And it is in these groups that there is to
be found hope for a renewed, anarchical Christianity. Examples
include: the Beguines, Waldensians, Desert Fathers and
Mothers, Quakers, Diggers, Anabaptists and within the 20th
century, the anarchist, pacifist movement, the Catholic Worker.
As noted above, most anarchists are as equally opposed
to the state as they are of the church. As a Christian myself, I
can sympathize—the dominant path of Christianity has been
in collusion with oppression. The groups cited above do
point out a path that is important to highlight, however. They
too resist Bakunin’s notion of God as tyrant in the sky.
Instead, they view God as, above all, Love. Being inherently
non-coercive, love is willing to suffer, to persevere until we
turn towards God. The cross is that sign par excellence for
Christians. If God then won’t trespass on our gift of freedom,
how could we possibly justify doing what God refuses
to do to one another?
It has been my goal in this essay to show that Christians
should take seriously what anarchists have complained about
in our religion, and that the both of us, perhaps rather surprisingly,
share a similar orientation. Given the political options
of our era, the Christian should choose anarchism, for it’s the
only one that rejects the state and its coercion altogether,
unlike the socialists, greens, democrats, etc. If we realize this,
there’s a chance that we can truly “build a new society within
the shell of the old.”
I would invite anyone intrigued by this line of thinking to
come to the 4th annual Anarchism and Christianity conference
that will be taking place at the Illinois Disciples Foundation
on August 4-5th. We will have a chance to explore more
in depth what it means to bring Christianity and anarchism
together to not only engage a critique of the state, but more
practically—How do we live in community? What is our
relationship to the police? Technology? Education? For more
information, go to
I would also invite folks interested in a practical outlet to
consider coming over to the Catholic Worker House where
many of us are intentionally asking these questions and trying
to live out the answers.

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