Another Nibble at Christian Anarchism

It’s not the first time I have brought this subject up (Christian Anarchism and a very recent one, The Mustard Seed), and this is a hotly debated subject. The word anarchism has a very negative ring, implying the mindless ideology of a nihilist who is hell-bent on destruction and is not above terrorist acts, killing or harming other people and violating other people’s property. The word is not a very nice one, but the underlying idea is very much me from my childhood and at various times in my adult life. I am extremely wary of authority, especially when it used by those in power to get more power and wealth with an obvious ambition to enslave his subjects. Clearly, I respect those with the role of fathers and benevolent leaders, unlike the man who has the biggest and most expensive car and the swarthiness of an alpha male.

We generally find that if we break laws, the police and legal authorities will do something about it. However, outside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and the thought police and telescreens, we are free to conform outwardly to laws and dissent interiorly and within. Many laws reflect moral principles, like our dealing with other people as we would have them deal with us. Therefore, we believe that killing and stealing are wrong, and we obey the law, not because it is the will of authority, but because it forbids us from doing something that is also morally wrong. Some laws violate the Christian conscience, and that is more delicate. To what extent are we prepared to suffer being arrested by the police, tried and imprisoned. These things usually only happen those those who get involved in illegal demonstrations and provoke the police. I won’t even go into the issue of people who oppose the recent law in France allowing same-sex marriage (civil) and get into trouble as many have done.

If I am ever going to try to make head or tail of something that has gnawed away within me since my tender years as a schoolboy at the end of the 1960’s, the books will have to be read, especially by Tolstoy, Jacques Ellul and Berdiaev (the last of whom I have read quite a lot). We also need to be careful of labels like any “ism”, because they often involve bandwagons of other people’s ideologies and not thought in the light of one’s own intuition and experience. I haven’t yet had the courage to attack some very difficult writing, even in its original French or translated into English in the case of books originally written in Russian. It took a long time to become aware that when I would read books of Russian origin, it was not Orthodoxy that was attracting me but what Berdiaev called “the aristocracy of the spirit”, a kind of refined Gnosticism in the terms of the modern mind.

This kind of thinking is diametrically opposed to the years I spent in traditionalist and conservative circles for the sole reason that I was attracted to traditional liturgy and the finer aspects of culture like music and architecture, notions of love and beauty outweighing the usual masculine concerns for power, sex and wealth.

I am more attracted to a notion of salvation that does not imply its being conditioned by compliance to a particular human institution and authority, but rather by how we have lived, loved and served, by how we have stood up for what seemed right and true in itself rather than what bolstered up the authority of the rich and powerful. Maybe, I have a tendency towards universalism, but one that does not absolve individuals and groups from moral responsibility. Christianity calls us to conversion, not to submission to an authority that is known to have committed evil acts in history, but to love of God and embracing the values of the Gospel clearly set out by Christ. We should not proselytise but rather offer something beautiful and good that others may have for the taking if they are attracted to it.

We have each to work out for ourselves how we relate to the State where we live. I have always been attracted to the idea of living simply and needing as little money as possible. I comply with the State’s laws, but I do everything possible to avoid being made into a sheep-like consumer and money-addict. Total independence isn’t possible. We have to be realistic, but something can be done to resist to some extent. It also extends to our use of the medical and social security systems – avoid using either as much as possible. It’s the same with our food, even if we have not made a decision to become vegetarians. There is a difference between killing and eating an animal that lived a happy life on a farm, and keeping animals in concentration camp like conditions for maximum productivity. But then, there is the question of money. Junk is less expensive – at least for now until it gets the monopoly. I have to be very careful about the temptation towards “conspiracy” thinking, because many things that look like conspiracies are not.

Education of children is another theme. I went through the old system and had an “old square schoolmaster” who taught me to write English. He also used corporal punishment that might seem to an adult to be an effective way of not “sparing the rod and spoiling the child”. My first anarchist thoughts were during this phase of my life. My father saw the warning signs and took them very seriously. He took me fishing, had me go on “outward-bound” courses and had me go to a school that was run on very modern principles – in 1971. I have oscillated between that and outward conservatism for most of my life.

The thing an anarchist can do, if he outwardly abides by the law and accepted moral principles, is to be as independent as possible from the “system” or “The Pit” as others have called it. In America, parents can homeschool their kids. I went to school, so I have no idea what homeschooling does to a kid. I would imagine that children have to have some social life through culture and sport, and, of course, churches. We can’t change society or The Pit, but we can try to “do our own thing” to some extent, be a sign of contradiction whilst respecting other people’s rights. I belong to a marginal Church, which ironically is quite conservative. Not as conservative as the French traditionalist right-wingers or American “neo-cons”, but still quite “Estabishment” is some areas of thought. We have to live with what we’ve got, all in weaving in and out of the laws, norms and conventions we find in place. Not easy.

Should we actively resist the system? Two things come to mind, our respect of other people’s rights and the consequences of our acts. We break the law, and we’ll get into trouble with the police. We have to know what we want. I am more for a passive approach and creating micro societies like those who sought a new life in the New World centuries ago. The ideals become corrupt in any society, however purely it began, the Church being no exception, and one has to move on when this happens.

Evil men prosper because good men do nothing. I’m not sure if I got my quote right. Bonhöffer went to the gallows for his resistance against Hitler and the Nazis. If our countries got taken over by something similar to Nazism, would we resist? It’s easier said than done!

Central to my thought is that no human being should have power over another, but rather that society should be based on the idea of community and family. What do we do about sin and anti-social or criminal behaviour? Kill them? Put them in prison? That is the problem, but surely the good should not suffer for the deeds of wicked people, like making it illegal to drive a car because one person drove whilst drunk and killed someone. It would seem that Utopia is like the Perpetual Motion Machine. Does the existence of sin invalidate Christianity as a whole?

The marginal community is always at great risk of becoming totalitarian like the sects, or even most legitimate Catholic monasteries I have visited. Totalitarianism is rational and seems to make sense. Many people in Europe supported Hitler in the 1930’s, not knowing about the concentration camps and the Holocaust! When the light was seen in 1944-45, we had to start thinking differently over here in Europe. The thing I find frightening is that the first signs are there to indicate that it is all starting again!

I have personally grappled with these matters for decades. Is “radical individualism” the way, as anything good and of genius has always come from individuals? It can be very lonely, though some of us live a solitary life more easily that others. Some kind of relationship with other people is essential to our sanity and our very human nature.

I don’t know is there is a practical solution to all this other than the time we spend alone doing things like camping in the mountains or sailing on the sea – or for that matter undertaking the life of a hermit with the appropriate degree of spiritual discipline. Some ways of life come close to it without becoming just another ideology or way of getting power over other people as the circle of hypocrisy closes.

It’s easy to dream about all this stuff whilst living in a house and getting our shopping from the supermarket with the little money we are allowed to keep from what we earn. It’s not for dilettantes, but for those prepared to get “dirty”. I have no interest in doing things that will get me in trouble with the law, and which in any case make Christians look like fanatics and discredit themselves. I still live with the shame of being a part of the consumer culture and compromising with The Pit. Sooner or later, decisions have to be made.

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9 Responses to Another Nibble at Christian Anarchism

  1. Neil Hailstone says:

    I am wary of Anarchy as a political philosophy whilst sharing the sentiments expressed here concerning instinctive distrust of ‘The Authorities’. The problem with ‘Anarchy’ seems to me that the inevitable consequence given the weakening of legitimate law enforcement, will be bullying and exploitation of the week by the strong and powerful who will assuredly emerge locally and beyond.

    My own view is that we need to establish more and proper democracy with much more in the way of free speech. One could make out a case that far too many political systems in the West and elsewhere which are described as ‘Democratic’ are more in the way of ‘Sham Democracies’.

    The present situation where so many of these ‘Sham Democracies’ are kept in power by Regiments of Secret Police operatives and Battalions of violent heavily armed Riot Police is quite unsustainable.Bad news for Tear Gas manufacturers I know but this mode of governance has only a short term future. The main key that is needed to change things for the better is for more ordinary people, and I am one, to be involved in politics.

    We need proper political and religious freedom and open democracy.

    • ed pacht says:

      Ah, yes. But I tend to take the skeptical view once expressed by Churchill: that democracy is the worst of all possible forms of government, except, of course, for all the others. True majority rule will inevitably be unfavorable, and even oppressive, toward inconvenient minorities, who can be protected from their fate only if there are undemocratic, antimajoritan limitations on the power the majority may exercise. one can see this in action in the contemporary Middle East. While there was little to be said in favor of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, but under him Iraq was a much more favorable environment for minority communities than it now is. There were flourishing communities of Christians of various ancient groups, very many of whom have fled, feeling they were driven out, and, as the country becomes more “democratic” the ethnic and religious strife between Shia and Sunni seems to become worse and worse. There’s not much good to be said about Assad in Syria, but the story is similar: Christians, Alawi, and Shiites have good reason to fear Sunni majority rule. Now that I think of it, one sees something very similar in the successor states to Yugoslavia. Unrestricted majority rule seems always to result in the oppression of minorities.

      Humanity can be a rather perverse species, an observation described theologically as the Fall, and can be guaranteed to make an opening for various evils. Government is primarily (see St. Paul) a device to control this perversity, and can only do so by frustrating much of what the majority wishes, wishes sometimes with great fervor. There is no neat theoretical answer to the problems of governance. We can only muddle on, doing the best we can, and trusting God to make it all come out right in the end – somehow.

      • A brief reply to both Ed Pacht and Neil Hailstone: anarchy as a proposed practical system of politics or running large collectivities would be impossible. Every time it has been tried, it has failed or fallen foul of criminal behaviour. From that point of view, it is a non-starter.

        I go along with Jacques Ellul’s thought in that it is an interior attitude. We can’t beat the system or “The Pit”, but we can take a distant and cynical (in the original meaning of the word) attitude and bend the rules as far as they can be bent. Laws usually represent moral principles (no killing, no stealing, etc.) but not always. Hitler too enacted laws, and many sacrificed their lives breaking them in the name of conscience, freedom and morality.

        I know about St Paul’s apparent call to civil compliance. We can outwardly comply whilst taking a critical attitude within. Perhaps very tiny groups of humans can be run on the principle of equality and mutual respect, with the sanction of exclusion from the group in case of incorrigible criminal behaviour.

        It can be argued that anarchy can be a principle of individual freedom at the level of the spirit only. It is more a philosophy of life than an idea of replacing politics, government, law and police in a given country. Naturally I disapprove of those who commit violent acts.

      • Stephen says:

        Aimed primarily at Fr Anthony, but can’t reply directly…

        I had an overnight visitor a few weekends back, and one of the things we talked about in a long and wide-ranging conversation (fortified by home made walnut cake and tea) was the idea of “intentional communities”. This is an idea practised, for example, by Orthodox Jews. A good many Orthodox Jews associate only with themselves. They have their own doctors and their own teachers. When they need some plumbing done, they call their local Orthodox Jewish plumber. If there’s a bit of building work required, it’s an Orthodox Jewish builder who does the job.

        Now this seems to work fairly well, but a reasonable criticism that can be levelled at such an arrangement is that it makes a community inward-looking and isolationist. But at the same time, it is also a way that a distinct community manages to maintain the integrity of its own faith and practice: not breaking the laws of the land (as far as we know, anyway!) but ignoring them as far as possible.

        We wondered whether Christian intentional communities are the way forward in the West. The question that we really couldn’t answer with any satisfaction is how to ensure that such a community did not become isolationist by degrees.

    • Francis says:

      This pre-supposes that democracy is a value in and of itself, and that all imperatives must flow from that value. In that sense, this is a relic of ideological thinking.

      Father is right to put the question of anarchy now and again. In one sense, a certain type of anarchy is an impossibility because it is bound to end in failure: that which opposes, in Milton’s word, “the throne and monarchy of God”. Anarchy in the Christian sense may perhaps be understood to oppose not true power, authority and government which comes from God, but that which is a travesty, an usurpation thereof. And the modern secular “laic” nationstate is nothing but this : an usurpation.

      First, it denies the first principle and source of all power : God. (The exception in all this would be the Hungarian Fundamental Law of 2011 which is quite courageous and bold in its wording and rightly so – it is highly significant that the EU contested the text :

      Secondly, it claims to be a totality that encloses nature. What else can intentionally acephalic political entities do but claim the whole of nature under itself and claim the right to define it? In the cases of Communism and Nazism, this was obvious had seduced many right-thinking persons to its allegiance, and that habits of obedience have become part of “common sense”. It is “liberal” on its own terms.

      Now, all three types of government are good in themselves: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. They are even made better if they are founded on God and the respect of the human person. The problem is unlimited power. Not in the usual sense of separation/balance of power and elections, etc. Rather, in the sense of what the Government can (or pretends to) do, instead of when and how. Ultimately, it will be easy for rulers in a democratic regime to reply to God, when asked, at the Judgment-seat, why and on whose mandate they chose to do this or that, to reply: the people wanted it, and we did it on their authority. This is eminently a question of responsibility, but of an ultimate kind.

  2. Neil Hailstone says:

    Thanks to both Ed and Fr Anthony for those further comments. Ed like yourself I do of course accept that democracy has its problems and yes I agree with you that it is better than anything else we have available.As ever Fr Anthony you provide much food for thought on matters relevant to us as Catholic Christians.

  3. Michael Frost says:

    Saw this on Finland’s national public broadcaster, YLE. Don’t know if anyone has ever encountered any of these Lutherans. I haven’t. But they are fascinating. A bit like our Amish? From Wikipedia they sound a bit like radically conservative Lutherans. Somehow that seems oddly appropriate. I think Martin would like them. Good to know there is some life left in Finnish Lutheranism!

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