So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ 1 Samuel 8
Samuel’s prescience is at the heart of christian anarchy. He is assured that human use of power is a fraught affair – power and control have only every been appropriately exercised by God. In the gospel tradition, a moment of divine power culminated in the death by crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. Let us stand back from that time-worn sentence and consider it afresh: God chose to exercise his/her power through powerlessness. Indeed, from the creation mythology in the book of Genesis, we have a strand of meaning that suggests God repudiates power, even his/her own power.
Christian anarchy is a relatively new signification of the sodality, a tradition of power-less movements modeled on the Hebrew prophets, brought to completion in the example of Jesus of Nazareth, and emulated in minority movements within the church ever since.
This power-less movement has been modeled since the inception of the church by many groups and writers: the underground church in the Roman empire, the Anabaptists, the Amish, the Mennonites, the Catholic Worker disorganisation, Ploughshares actions, the incredible scope of the 20th Century international inter-faith non-violent writings of Gandhi, Khan, Kagawa, Jones, Andrews, and Tolstoy. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand it has been modeled by Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai at Parihaka, by Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu, by Archibald and Hemi Baxter and all their supporters.
This power-less view is a sleeper that is ignored and derided by Christendom, a power-full movement that has presumed its full ownership of the Christ’s legacy.
Christian anarchy was really only termed 20 years ago by Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and sociologist. He saw it as a connection between atheistic christianity and anarchy. Ellul saw no contradiction, but definitely some tensions in the relationship between the philosophy of anarchy and a power-less strand of christianity:
The only Christian political position consistent with revelation is the negation of power: the radical total refusal of its existence, a fundamental questioning of it, no matter what form it may take. (Ellul 1988:173)
biblical thought leads straight to anarchism… (Ellul 1988:157)
Anarchism is the only answer to the modern state and politics when the milieu and action become technical and order and organisation are imposed… (Ellul 1964:198)
The particular challenge that christianity poses to anarchism is the anarchist belief in progress. Christianity offers hope that is not predicated on outcome, that is not discouraged should an anarchist society not eventuate. Indeed, christianity clearly doubts the capacity of humanity to bring about revolution within itself. We have a pessimistic hope.
Yet Ellul’s concept of christian anarchy is established on the belief that a radical personal and collective revolution is needed to subvert/replace/transform/over-throw the social and political structures and technology that destroy the human person. Importantly a purely political revolution will not achieve this. Nor is it that christian social or political action has more meaning in itself. Rather it is that christian anarchy is a prophecy, a counter-cultural voice of hope that states that it is the action of God and humans fully realising their potential as a gift from without, which will fundamentally change society.
Based on this philosophical foundation, what is christian anarchy in the South Pacific? Christian anarchy here is represented by a dis-organisation of communities and individuals. Our understanding and ownership of a christian anarchy varies considerably across that dis-organisation. However, we can claim to share some common features including: the repudiation of ‘power-over’ relationships; an experience of faith as individuals and communities; a commitment to communal expressions of faith; and a commitment to justice in an unjust world.
I offer here a suggestion for explaining christian anarchy to ourselves, and perhaps to incredulous listeners or readers. I think it may give us a greater sense of our individual and communal involvement in christian anarchy.
I suggest that christian anarchy is consciously counter-cultural when it is understood to:
- be an impulse of humanity that transcends theory
- seek to create an ethical society free of the assumed ‘need’ for coercion and domination
- only move towards that society by the use of ethical strategies and tactics, notable in its commitment to non-violence and personal transformation
- seek to disperse power, not seize it, so it can be lived out now as power-full systems crumble.
This vision of an ethical society links to the reality of our communities when we intentionally seek in deed and word:
- the devolution of authority
- the decentralisation of power
- the redistribution of wealth
- to unmask the idolatrous consent to alienated labour
- the conscientization of people
- the constructive criticism and remoulding of technology
- to protect and nurture our mother creation.
Even a cursory perusal of the scriptures shows support for ethical societies, the need to transcend and overthrow abusive systems, and the community as the capstone of human physical and spiritual development. Jesus of Nazareth is an incarnation of those grand themes, and can partner with us in mystery should we seek to follow his example.
Further, I see that in the South Pacific, christian anarchists particularly struggle alongside indigenous peoples as our elders, to realise their dreams, and as a model for us of community that can be more in balance and harmony with our respective lands.
My experience in our small community is that christian anarchy offers a significant pessimistic hope in a world that is drowning in noise and consumption. Having that view of scripture accepts mystery and weakness, has meant that despite all evidence to the contrary, I can tentatively and miraculously continue to pray.
Elliott M. Freedom, Justice and Counter-Culture London: SCM Press; 1990.
Ellul J. The Technological Society Trans. John Wilkinson, New York: Knopf; 1964.
Ellul J. Jesus and Marx: From Gospel to Ideology Trans. Joyce Main Hanks, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1988.
Ellul J. Anarchy and Christianity Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1991.
 Throughout the article, ‘power-less’ and ‘power-full’ are used. They are an attempt to emphasize the juxtaposed and idealized use of power and control in the suggested movements.
[Article originally appeared in Sic magazine October 2006]
[Header image originally appeared on www.notbeinggoverned.com]