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.
As is so often the case, the question of whether Christians are to be quietists or activists presents a false dichotomy. It is one, nevertheless, which has powerful rhetorical force. There are few, if any, legitimate quietists left in the world, and those that do exist have a relatively muted voice in the public discourse (unsurprisingly). The specter of quietism, however, looms large because any time anyone expresses any pessimism about the ultimate efficacy of human effort—divinely empowered or otherwise—they are immediately labeled as quietist heretics and left to scramble for some other justification for Christian service to society.
There is some value in this, admittedly, because quietism is antithetical to the Gospel. For our purposes here, let quietism be defined as the belief that because humanity is incapable of achieving the aims of the Kingdom by its own activities, such activities are meaningless. How can this view stand up to Scripture? Jesus came to announce the imminence of the Kingdom and with this made a clear effort to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and set the captive free. In enjoining that his disciples do the same, Jesus made impossible any honest attempt at quietism.
But activism is no less futile and no less incompatible with the true message of the Gospel. Activism is just as destructive if we understand it to be the belief that we have been tasked with the Kingdom purpose of feeding the hungry and therefore must believe it is possible and pursue as an end the total elimination of hunger by human effort (with the same being true of healing the sick and setting the captive free). Such a hope and such an effort is not only the height of human pretension, but it has always invited Christianity to align itself with decidedly unchristian forces pursuing the same ends—because, of course, it is the temporal end of defeating biological hunger which is falsely kept in the forefront.
Anarchism, properly understood, provides an alternative social ethic. Unfortunately, the temptation toward quietism is great for anarchists, and accusations of quietism make the temptation toward activism even greater. Rightly employed, however, anarchist thought invites Christians to take the possibility of achieving total implementation of the Kingdom out of the picture. In fact, at the heart of anarchism is both a hearty pessimism about human ability to achieve anything, especially the aims of the Kingdom, and the eschatological mindset which makes attempts to achieve those aims nonsensical anyway. What Christian anarchists are left with is a clear command to engage in social ethics without any confusion about whether or not society can be redeemed through our efforts.
Instead, the anarchist social ethic—active without being activist—insists that the hungry are fed as a critique of contemporary human (and therefore futile, transitory) structures of power and as a witness to the church’s proleptic experience of the eschatological Kingdom. We feed the hungry as a condemnation of a world which has refused to feed them in spite of protestations that it is within their power and as an invitation to the hope that there is a God who can make good on His promises. With this in mind, quietism can be ultimately rejected as a false Christianity which, in neglecting its social duties, is in fact neglecting the very proclamation of the Gospel, the living homily which calls people out of the flawed, oppressive, and dying world and into a community oriented toward the perfect, liberating, and eternal Kingdom. At the same time, this social ethic can never follow activism down the path of unholy alliance with the coercive and incompetent methods of secular attempts to solve social problems out of a misguided, optimistic, and ultimately idolatrous humanism.
This is not to say that Christians cannot or should not praise or even participate in efforts toward social justice out of some vague judgment that Christians can only be involved in Christian charities. (Although, if Christians were doing social justice right, it would be everyone else who would be coming to us to get involved and not the other way around.) It merely means that the social ethics enjoined by Christ and incumbent upon all Christians are not an end unto themselves to be pursued by any means and with any company. Almost more importantly, the social aims of the Kingdom are certainly and necessarily beyond the scope of human power to achieve, and any confusion on that point is an invitation to idolatry: the belief that if we just work hard enough, there are human solutions through which every little African baby will be cured of AIDS and every American can have health insurance and all God’s children can eat their fill of organic, free-trade flaxseed burgers. We pursue social justice not because we can achieve it but as a testimony to our participation in a kingdom and commitment to a king Who, greater and more faithful than human governments, can do all we ask or imagine.