The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
Below, I would like to offer a summary and adaptation of Vernard Eller’s twelve “basic principles of Christian Anarchy,” which he adapted and expanded from Jacques Ellul. Admittedly, I have some reservations about some of Eller’s points, and what follows will often gloss over or actively change those aspects in an effort to give a depiction of anarchism which I think more nearly aligns with the Christian ethos. Additionally, it warrants mention that I by no means believe that these twelve represent the best or even most basic aspects of Christian anarchism. There are principles which I would include that Eller did not. There are omissions that I would have made, even omissions of points with which I wholeheartedly agree, simply because I do not think they are basic or essential to anarchism. With all those disclaimers having been made, however, what Eller offers in this list from Christian Anarchy is a collection of important statements and clarifications about the shape of anarchism particularly suited as an apology for those facing uninformed criticisms about what it is to be a Christian anarchist.
- In Christian anarchism, the separation from and eventual dissolution of human governments is not an end in itself. It is only ever endorsed and pursued with the aim of making room for and anticipating the ultimate and absolute reign of God.
- Christian anarchists are not concerned with commending anarchism as a political system superior to contemporary power structures. As a rejection of humanly devised political systems, it would be hypocritical to propose political anarchism as an alternative to traditional hierarchical systems.
- Christian anarchism does not even suffer from the delusion that anarchism is viable for secular society. It admits that human structures are a necessary (or at least efficient) means for ordering a humanist world.
- As such, Christian anarchism sees no particular threat in the existence of human structures of power. The danger is only in accepting the legitimacy of their claims to power and mistaking for real the illusory authority they purport to possess.
- The problem with human structures of power is not that they are “of the devil” necessarily, but that they are human. Just as humans are invariable sinful so to are the governments they construct for themselves. Just as humans are only redeemable in dying to themselves and being reborn to God, so anarchists look for an eschatological death of human powers and the fulfillment of the divine Kingdom.
- Just because all structures of power are equally human (and therefore necessarily sinful) does not meant that all structures of power are equally evil, at least not teleologically. In recognizing that the the United States government is not righteous and inevitably corrupts whoever participates in it, anarchists are not prevented from appreciating moral distinctions between the USA and Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It is possible to be aware of and even grateful for human governments that are less overtly atrocious than others without endorsing, participating in, or falling at the feet of any human government.
- The purpose of Christian anarchism is not to actively attempt to unseat or overthrow human governments, even as their dissolution is earnestly anticipated. As already mentioned, Christian anarchism is not intended to be an alternative political system and recognizes that pure, political anarchism is untenable as a large scale social system. Since it would be impossible for humanity to implement anything but a human government, it would be hypocritical to attempt by human effort to replace world governments with anything else. What’s more, the very notion of actively overthrowing a human government implies an appropriation of the very coercive and sinful means that mark human governments as incompatible with the Christian religion. “To undertake a fight against evil on its own terms (to pit power against power) is the first step in becoming the evil one opposes.”
- This unwillingness to attempt forcibly to overthrow human governments does not translate into apathy toward their evils or silence about their injustices. “[Christ] challenges every attempt to validate the political realm and rejects its authority because it does not conform to the will of God.” Christian anarchism is not retiring simply because it refuses to incite political revolution.
- Just as it is not silent about the evil of government, it is not apathetic about the injustices in society. Anarchists are not so lost in the eschatological vision of a God who is going to “settle things in the end anyway” that it lacks the grounds for social engagement. In truth, it is the eschatological vision of a legitimate power structure and the church’s proleptic experience of that reality on which the social ethic is grounded. Anarchists seek to be like Jeremiah’s exiles in Babylon, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” Such a social conscience cannot, however, be construed as an endorsement of the legitimacy of Babylon.
- Christian anarchists are not ignorant or afraid of politics, not if they are responsible Christians. Anarchists are always willing to engage with human governments, but always as outsiders, always true to their critique of finite structures of power, and always aware of the ethical dangers involved in political contact.
- Christian anarchism is active but not activist, clearly and definitely engaged in the world without any false pretension about the scope of human ability or goodness. It is eschatological rather than utopian, recognizing that the human mind is incapable of independently conceiving of what a perfect society might look like. It is narrowly rather than broadly focused, thoroughly skeptical of any suggestion that changes at the top might invoke a systemic reformation of society. Finally it is realistic rather than dramatic; because it is not interested in selling a partisan vision of the world in an effort to provoke action from one end of the spectrum or the other it has the benefit of being able to candidly assess what is and is not in the scope of human ability.
- Christian anarchism is committed to the Christian notion of freedom which is distinct from the political notion of autonomy. Governments, and all human structures of power, cannot give you either, though it is common in the prevailing rhetoric to hear the latter promised under the name of the former. Christian anarchism, on the other hand, rejects the stress on autonomy characteristic of secular, political anarchism of all stripes in favor of the Christian notion of freedom, the freedom to pursue God and to attempt to enact His will free from any artificial and exterior constraints. It is, in essence, the freedom from the second master of humanistic politics and the recognition that in trying to serve both, Christians are wont to emphasize that which appears nearer rather than the God who seems distant.