April 29, 2014 Editor

Christian Anarchy

Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, Vernard Eller, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Jacques Ellul first introduced me to this theme after I had been raised in the faith for over 25 years. Strange to say that, when the Bible begins with the theme in Genesis One! (See my book review of The Lost World of Genesis One.) Something was amiss in my Fundamentalist/Evangelical formation…

Jacques Ellul may be read on this here: Anarchy and Christianity. There is a fee to download the entire book.

Theologian David Gill in the Introduction to the book says:

Introduction by David W. Gill (See David Gill Home Page)

Jacques Ellul often made brief comments, in his fifty or so books, affirming a kind of anarchism as the most serious response to the crushing constraints of modern technological society and its invasive, bureaucratic political and economic organization. Anarchy and Christianity is his extended essay on the subject in which he defines what he means by anarchy and explains why he favors this stance. He tries to help his readers get beyond stereotypical misunderstandings and the kneejerk repudiations of Christianity by anarchists and of anarchism by Christians.

Ellul proposes an anarchy “not, of course, in the common sense of disorder, but in the sense of an-arche: no authority, no domination” (p. 45). Ellul wants to “rule out violent anarchism” while retaining a “pacifist, antinationalist, anticapitalist, moral, and antidemocratic anarchism (i.e., that which is hostile to the falsified democracy of bourgeois states). . . . which acts by means of persuasion, by the creation of small groups and networks, denouncing falsehood and oppression, aiming at a true overturning of authorities of all kinds as people at the bottom speak and organize themselves” (pp. 13-14).

Ellul rejects violence because tactically it is unable to produce freedom or justice and because, for a Christian, it betrays the command to love which is at the heart of Christian faith. Specifically, Ellul urges avoidance of normal politics (even Green Party politics) and conscientious objection to military service, taxes, vaccination and compulsory schooling. He differentiates his anarchism from other varieties be (a) rejecting violence and (b) refusing any utopian optimism about the possibility of a pure anarchist society. An anarchist destruction of social organization cannot lead to a sinless, blissful social situation because humanm sinfulness is not just a product of political-social arrangements. Thus, anarchism is a stance and a strategy, not a millenarian possibility. What is “possible, livable, and practicable” and even “just” is “the creation of new institutions from the grass-roots level,” “a new social model” (p. 21).

Historically, Christians have too often been guilty of collusion with political powers that oppressed the people. But while Ellul regrets this sad story and calls for humility and repentance, he argues that any “metaphysical” objection to Christianity by anarchist thinkers is misplaced. Such texts as Romans 13 (“the powers that be are ordained of God”) need to be understood in context. Ellul reviews the biblical narrative and concludes that it teaches a fundamental opposition to excessive power and authority. The God of Scripture is not an imperial authority endorsing other emperors but rather a God who is self-limited in love and who walks alongside of the people.

The biblical prophet and people stand over against the political authorities and are much more important than kings and generals in speaking and doing God’s will. Jesus’ relation to the powers begins with Herod’s attempt to kill him as a baby, confronts or sidesteps the political temptation, forms an alternative kind of community, and ends with a Roman crucifixion—and then the radical surprise of the resurrection. Ellul urges a second look at Revelation, Peter, and Paul in which the call to a “warfare” waged with love is the major theme, qualifying the passages traditionally invoked on behalf of state power and authority. He concludes with some brief appendices concerning the interpretation of Romans 13 and civil disobedience.

Ellul is at his very best in showing the spectrum of biblical story and thought about political power, ranging from ambivalence to opposition. Anarchy and Christianity is a brief, intense re-statement of positions he developed earlier — sociologically in The Political Illusion and Autopsy of Revolution and biblically in The Politics of God and the Politics of Man.

Not all readers will be convinced that a refusal to vote, run for office, pay taxes or participate in the public school system is the best way to relate to our society and its political organization. It is possible in some cases to have at least a modest impact on our common life by means of school board, rent control board and city council participation. But even if such hopes are thwarted, remember that Ellul often criticized the technological society for its subservience to “effectiveness” or “efficiency.” So his observations here that voting and other forms of political participation are ineffective cannot be decisive. Provided all idolatry and pretension are ebunked in favor of modesty, humility and truth, political participation could be a symbolic way of standing alongside our neighbors. After all, Ellul and we don’t abandon the church despite its conformity, weakness and failure to live up to its charter. So too, we will not all abandon the state and politics despite their corruption, hypocrisy, weakness and failure. If for no other reason, such participation is a reminder of the fact that God will not stop participating in our lives despite what we are.

Still, some form of depoliticization (a refusal to define all problems in political terms requiring political
solutions) is probably called for — not on the grounds of modern “Tea Party” selfishness but on the grounds of giving communities and individuals freedom and responsibility. But the “arche” are not, finally, limited to political powers and authorities but include giant, life-dominating financial, commercial, and media institutions. Ellul’s Anarchy is a call to freedom over against all such powers and authorities. As such, it continues to be a fresh, rare, and insightful voice much in need of a hearing.

This approach to politics seems about opposite to the Constantinian arrangement (see Constantine Versus Christ by Alistair Kee) so (tragically brilliantly) reinforced by Saint Augustine. “Just War”, “Just Deserts”, and “Just Hell” are the counter-trinity of devastating theories of justice developed by Western Christianity in response to enemies.

An excerpt from my review:

Vernard Eller is a Church of the Brethren (U.S.) theologian, author of a score of books, and never dull! He writes in a lively, offhanded manner that is not remotely “stuffy”.

He has written a book entitled: Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, which for him is a kind of capstone to what he has been wrestling with for many years in some of his other writings. He says he finally knows a name for what he has been for years through studying the Bible: a Christian anarchist, and he argues that anarchy is the only consistent biblical political option for God’s people.

The book is dedicated to Jacques Ellul, who wrote a piece several years ago, which recently appeared in English translation in Jesus and Marx, entitled “Anarchism and Christianity”. In it, Ellul, an internationally respected French sociologist and lay theologian, says: “… the only Christian political position consistent with revelation is the negation of power: total refusal of its existence, a fundamental questioning of it, no matter what form it may take.” But for Ellul, this does not mean non- engagement in the sociopolitical realities of our society. Rather, he says, “…as Christians we must participate in the political world and the world of action, but in order to deny them, to oppose them by our conscious, well-founded refusal.” (both quotes from Ellul, Jesus and Marx, Eerdmans, 1988, pp. 172 & 173)

Please click on: Christian Anarchy

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Genre: Christian politics, politics, Retributive Justice, Theology
Subjects: Anarchy, Creation, Nationalism, Politics, Theology


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.