John Howard Yoder and anarchism

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2013

A number of years ago when I read George Woodcock’s classic history of AnarchismI found the thinking he described quite attractive. I spent some time considering how compatible anarchism would be with my Christian pacifism. I have believed it would be, but never quite found time to pursue the issue in more depth. At some point, though, I was struck with the thought that John Howard Yoder’s “politics of Jesus” could perhaps be understood as a version of anarchism.

I have resolved to spend some time pursuing this line of thought in the months to come. I just started reading a massive, well-written, wide-ranging and fascinating history of anarchism, Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of AnarchismI plan to write more about that book as I read through it. This fall, when I teach my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class (which includes reading Yoder’s Politics and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination), I expect to devote quite a bit of attention to thinking about anarchism in relation to Yoder’s and Wink’s ways of reading the Bible.

Happily, I encountered a recent article that encourages me to pursue this project. This article (Ted Troxell, “Christian Theology: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7.1 [2013], 37-59) came to my attention at just the right time. It’s already one of my favorite essays on Yoder’s thought.

Troxell helps me understand quite a bit about the current terrain in discussions about anarchism, and better yet confirms my sense that bringing Yoder and anarchism together is a good idea.

What is anarchism?

The term “anarchism,” similarly to “nonviolence,” is a negative term that in its most profound sense speaks of a positive approach to human social life. It’s not simply against “authority” (arché); it is for freedom and for decentralized ways of organizing social life that enhance human well-being.

Anarchism has an unfair, though not totally unfounded, reputation for being violent, even terrorist. There indeed have been numerous acts of violence in the name of anarchism, perhaps most notably in the United States the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley at the hand of a self-proclaimed anarchist (though one who seemingly had few links with other anarchists).

The great thinkers in the anarchist tradition, however, generally were not people of violence and did not advocate terrorist tactics. Late 19th and early 20th century writers and visionaries such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin (perhaps the most pro-violence of the lot), Peter Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman had ambivalent feelings about violence, but for all of them, the main concern was imagining how human life might be organized in ways that enhance human freedom and self-determination.

Still, what probably unites classical anarchists as much as anything is a strong antipathy toward the state. There is a sense that the spirit of anarchism is not unfairly described as a spirit of rebellion versus centralized nation states as much as any one commitment. To achieve political life that is genuinely free and un-self-determined, the state must go—root and branch.

However,  Troxell suggests that current discussions about anarchism are pushing toward redefining the philosophy in ways that are less state-centric. Two variants he spends significant time on are “postanarchism” and “Christian anarchism.” He suggests that attention to Yoder’s thought might be useful for both and might help them to find more common cause.


“Postanarchism” is a term that has arisen in the 21st century to refer to attempts to bring apply postmodern or poststructuralist thought to anarchism. Troxell writes, “this term does not mean ‘to be finished with anarchism,’ or that anarchism’s moment has definitively passed, but instead denotes the introduction of poststructuralist and postmodern critiques into anarchist theory” (38).

One important postanarchist thinker, Todd May, differentiates between what he calls “strategic” and “tactical” thinking. A strategic-thinking-oriented anarchism focuses on a “single problematic” (i.e., the state), while a more tactical-thinking-oriented approach “questions the strategic calculus by which a single site becomes the focus of resistance” (Troxell, 39).

Troxell welcomes this increased flexibility, partly because it allows anarchism better to respond “to neoliberalism, in which the state is no longer the primary political actor” (39). In general, a more tactical approach creates possibilities of heightened creativity in navigating the particular issues facing people seeking a more humane politics in the contemporary world.

Postanarchism, as presented by Troxell, also makes a closer link between Christianity and anarchism more possible. One aspect of this dynamic, the growth of the sense that we are living in a time of “postsecularity”—challenging the “presumption of secularity as the background for anarchist resistance” (40).

Christian anarchism

As a rule, not without reason, mainstream Christianity has been seen by anarchists as part of the problem. However, ever since the rise of Christendom in the early Middle Ages, a few Christians have joined the resistance to the domination system (e.g., “the poverty of the early Franciscans, the uncompromising witness of the Radical Reformation, the labor resistance of the Catholic Worker movement,…not to mention the role of Christian theology in the Civil Rights Movement,” [40]).

Troxell suggests it is even possible to talk about “Christian anarchism,” though this is anarchism that does not see its goal as overthrowing the state so much as “living out an alternative that prefigures the more just and peaceful world that will be realized in the eschaton, or final deliverance” (41).

A contemporary theologian, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, has written a book, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel, that articulates a vision that “does not call for overthrowing existing systems so much as subverting them, usually in the form of alternative communities (more specifically, seeing the church as a collection of such communities) that embody the values of the world to come” (Troxell, 42-3). The hoped for revolution will lead to social transformation, but through love, patience, and forgiveness not violence and terror.

For Christian anarchism, radical living in the present is made possible by trust in God’s guidance of history that will in the end culminate in an authentically anarchist social reality. Troxell presents Christian anarchism more as “a kind of trend or gesture toward an ideal that is sometimes made explicit and other times merely hinted at or left dormant” than “a coherent, self-identifying movement” (41). But it clearly seems like a growing “trend,” and Yoder is an important resource for many Christian anarchists.

Yoder’s contribution

Yoder never called himself an anarchist. He actually rarely if ever directly engaged anarchist thought, though he was positively disposed toward the Catholic Worker movement with its strong tendencies toward anarchism. Troxell writes, “Yoder theorizes the state differently than classical anarchism insofar as his critique of the state does not call for an outright abolition of the state. The state apparatus, problematic as it might be, serves a restraining purpose, and to call for its wholesale dissembly would be to foist upon millions of people an anarchism for which they are not prepared” (44; Troxell’s emphases).

However, the burden of Troxell’s paper is to emphasize the compatibilities between Yoder’s thought and the emerging postanarchist perspective. The postanarchists, as mentioned above, also do not make the abolition of the state the be-all and end-all of anarchism. Though postanarchism is not explicitly committed to pacifism in the way Yoder is, Troxell seems to sense that it is not far from such a commitment and engagement with Yoder could help make explicit and self-conscious an affirmation of nonviolence that would be the logical conclusion of postanarchism’s sharp critique of violence.

Another insight from Yoder that could help postanarchism is his understanding of power. “Yoder rejected a univocal understanding of power in favor of a more nuanced recognition of powers in the plural, referring to the ‘powers and principalities’ mentioned in the New Testament.” Similarly, postanarchism proposes an understanding of power that sees it arising from “many different sites….There is an interplay among these various sites in the creation of the social world” (Troxell, 45, quoting Todd May). Yoder himself wrote, “the notion that ‘power’ is univocal and unilinear is one of the mythical dimensions of modernity” (from For the Nations, quoted by Troxell, 45).

At the heart of Yoder’s thought is a sense that the focus of social action should be on constructing humane spaces for creativity and peaceable living more than on directly overthrowing the existing order. Troxell summarizes: “Yoder offers what we might call a structural indifference to the state: it is not that the state is unimportant or inconsequential on a practical level, but that neither the existence of the state nor the particular shape it takes is the primary locus of the community’s political considerations” (47, Troxell’s emphasis). These thoughts closely parallel what Troxell calls postanarchism’s “rejection of vanguardist politics” (47). “For both Yoder and May, because there is no central locus of power of which humans might gain control, there is no group of humans who can claim to occupy it legitimately” (48). Thus, one implication of this “structural indifference to the state” is to resist the idea of creating a vanguard that can overthrow the state and take its place. A commitment to decentralized power must go all the way down.

When the focus is on constructing decentralized spaces to be humane more than concentrated efforts at overthrowing the state, the emphasis will be on the practices that sustain that humaneness—another point of close connection between Yoder’s thought and postanarchism. Yoder’s important book, Body Politics, is in essence a meditation on these kinds of practices as the true sacraments of Christian communities. Postanarchists, of course, don’t use language such as “sacraments,” but thinkers such as Todd May write about “micropolitics” and David Graeber about  “an ethics of practice” (48).

A central practice is that of patient listening to various points of view. This is a central emphasis of Yoder. “Patient listening even to one’s adversary is part of the process of seeking knowledge” (Troxell, 49, paraphrasing Body Politics). David Graeber’s thought is quite similar: “If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don’t have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore generally speaking, you don’t” (quoted in Troxell, 49).

Troxell perceptively discusses how Yoder’s politics follow from his convictions about God and Jesus. He has a metaphysical grounding not available to postanarchists (52). However, because of Yoder’s theology of creation, he would not be surprised to see postanarchism’s political insights that parallel the “politics of Jesus.”

One crucial insight in Yoder’s politics is how he grounds his emphasis on stable, even transcendent, values in the nonviolent witness of Jesus. This is one way (perhaps even the only way?) to affirm values in a way that is not dominating and coercive. Such an approach emphasizes radical patience. “Patience implies trust. To engage in the consensus process is an act of trust. To forgo hegemonic and counterhegemonic strategies of change is an act of trust. To renounce violence at any level is an act of trust—to renounce it at every level even more so” (54).

Acknowledging the centrality of trust leads to the question of the object of the trust. Troxell suggests, “Yoder has the language of Christian theology to draw upon in naming this trust. For him, it was a matter of faith in God, of ‘waiting on the Lord,’ of believing there to be a deeper logic to existence, in which patient nonviolence might make sense” (54).

The limits of a relatively short journal article do not allow Troxell to do much more than simply name this place for theology. As the conversation of Yoder’s kind of politics with postanarchism continues, this issue of the object of trust will be of crucial importance. I actually think this is where we may bump up against the limits of Yoderian thought, because (in my view, at least) Yoder (and most of his acolytes) can seem a bit trite when they talk about God. I think Yoder’s fellow Mennonite pacifist theologian Gordon Kaufman has a crucial contribution to make here.

More from Yoder’s thought

I hope I have said enough in this summary of Troxell’s extraordinary essay to give a sense of why I am so excited by it. He helps bring together two extremely important resources for Christian social ethics—the traditions of Christian pacifism and of anarchism—and in doing so shows even more the on-going relevance of John Howard Yoder’s thought.

The direction I have been hoping to take (and Troxell’s essay only heightens my motivation to do this) is to draw on Yoder’s overall reading of biblical politics (John Nugent’s recent book, The Politics of Yahweh : John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God, is a most helpful resource for getting a coherent sense of how Yoder read the Old Testament) to begin to construct a biblical politics in conversation with anarchism.

Yoder suggests a line of continuity from the formation of the people of God around the liberating work of Yahweh (with the prophetic word and not human power politics at the center) through the failure of the geographically-bounded kingdom option through the continuation of peoplehood based on Torah and not the sword culminating in Jesus as king, reinforcing a politics of servanthood. Many of the anarchist thinkers and practitioners (maybe most especially Peter Kropotkin) have sought a similar kind of politics.

My concern is not so much with converting anarchists to Christianity or to convert Christians to anarchists. I don’t even know yet if I want to call myself a full-fledged anarchist. More so, I want to work at a way of reading the Bible that would challenge Christians to embody a radical politics. And if doing so would make biblical and theological resources more available to anarchists and other activists, so much the better.

43 thoughts on “John Howard Yoder and anarchism

  1. Hi Ted, nice essay. I will need to come back and read it more closely when I have more time. Briefly, though, I wanted to point you to two books that were formative for me in my work on this topic: Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, and Vernard Eller’s Christian Anarchy. Jesus Radicals has a nice page on Ellul:

    1. Thanks, Dave. I’ve read Ellul and need to again. I haven’t read Eller yet but plan to soon.

  2. I don’t trust Vernard Eller’s interpretation of the dialectic of Ellul. But here’s a sample from Eller using Barth:

    “The travesty is that men should, as a matter of course, claim to
    possess a higher right over their fellow men, that they should, as a
    matter of course, dare to regulate almost all their conduct, that
    those who put forward such a manifestly fraudulent claim should be
    crowned with a halo of real power and should be capable of requiring
    obedience and sacrifice as though they had been invested with the
    authority of God, that the Many should conspire to speak as though
    they were the One… This whole pseudo-transcendence claimed by an
    altogether immanent order is the wound that is inflicted by every
    existing government–even by the best–upon those who are most
    delicately conscious of what is good and right. The more successfully
    the good and the right assume concrete form, the more they become evil
    ….. If, for example, the Church of Calvin [for Barth, the
    nearest-to-the-truth church] were to be reformed and broadened out to
    be the Church of the League of Nations, this doing of the supreme
    right would become the supreme wrong-doing. (Romans, p. 479)

    From this perception of the evil that lies in the very existence of
    existing government, Revolution is born. The revolutionary seeks to be
    rid of the evil by bestirring himself to battle with it and to
    overthrow it. He determines to remove the existing ordinances, in
    order that he may erect in their place the new right…. The
    revolutionary must, however, own that in adopting his plan he allows
    himself to be overcome of evil (Rom. 12:21)

    He forgets that he is not the One, that he is not the the creator of the freedom which he so earnestly desires, that, for all the strange brightness of his eyes, He is not the Christ…. What man has the right to propound and represent the “New,” whether it be a new age, or a new world, or a new … spirit? … Far more than the conservative, the revolutionary is overcome of evil. This is the tragedy of revolution. Evil is not the true answer to evil. (Romans, p.480)
    Overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

    What more radical action can one perform than the action of turning
    back to the original root of “not-doing”–and NOT be angry, NOT engage
    in assault, NOT demolish? This turning back is the ethical factor in
    the command, Overcome evil with good. There is here no word of
    approval of the existing order; but there is endless disapproval of
    every enemy of it. It is God who will be recognized as He that
    overcomes the unrighteousness of the existing order. (Romans, p.481)

    Let every man be in subjection to the existing powers (Rom. 13:1).
    Though “subjection” may assume from time to time many various concrete forms, as an ethical conception it is here purely negative. It means to withdraw and make way; it means to have no resentment, and not to overthrow. …. Even the most radical revolution can do no more than set what exists against what exists. Even the most radical
    revolution–and this is so even when it is called a “spiritual” or
    “peaceful” revolution–can be no more than a revolt; that is to say,
    it is in itself simply a justification and confirmation of what
    already exists (Romans, pp.481-82)

    It is evident that there can be no more devastating undermining of the
    existing order than the recognition of it which is here recommended, a
    recognition rid of all illusion and devoid of all the joy of triumph [
    a recognizing of them for what they are, “full of sound and fury,
    signifying nothing”]. (Romans, p.483)

  3. More from Vernard Eller:

    Barth speaks of “the principle of legitimism vs. the principle of Revolution.” Same difference. Barth, along with
    all Christian anarchists since Paul himself, is clear that the apostle
    has not the slightest desire to legitimate any human arky as being “of
    God” (perhaps the Roman arky least of all). Yet there was certainly no
    reason for Paul to hammer that point. After all, his readers were
    Christians living in Rome within recent memory the Emperor Claudius’s
    having strong-armed and man-handled them a bit. Who there would feel
    any temptation to hallow Rome, of all arkys?

    No, Barth agrees with what we said earlier, that Paul (as also the
    case with Jesus and the tribute money) immediately is concerned to
    apply the anarchistic warning much more against Leftist revolution
    than against Rightist collaboration. Paul certainly has no interest in
    legitimizing Rome; but his particular concern is that his Christian
    readers not legitimate revolution against Rome, either.

    However, when it comes to the question as to why God wants a Roman
    Empire in place, why he wants it left there rather than being knocked
    out and replaced by a truly godly arky of the Christian
    revolutionaries, Barth offers a new interpretation. Our earlier
    suggestion was simply that God was “putting up with” the Roman empire
    out of his respect for human freedom–the freedom of allowing the
    world to be as sinful as it chooses to be. If God grants the Roman
    Empire the freedom to be whatever it has in mind for itself, who are
    we to try to deny it that freedom?

    But Barth comes at the question from an entirely different (and most
    intriguing) direction. He proposes that, in God’s eyes, the Roman
    Empire of Paul’s day–and thus any state, or in our parlance, any
    human arky–stands as a “sign” of God’s own Arky (the kingdom of God).

    Hey, wait a minute! That’s the liberal line–in fact, a gross
    extension of the liberal line. Liberals would say that only their holy
    leftist arkys are signs of God’s Arky–not that rightist Roman arkys
    are, for goodness’ sake. Barth’s idea doesn’t make any sense at all.
    He is actually ‘pairing’ the things he supposedly set out to

    That’s what you heard, because you didn’t let me finish what I was
    saying. Barth’s understanding is that every human arky is intended by
    God as a NEGATIVE sign of his own Arky. He wants all those arkys in
    place to keep his people reminded that anything we have now is not yet
    the kingdom, that even the best of human arkys is no acceptable
    substitute for God’s Arky. And come to think of it, the Roman Empire
    did serve God’s purpose very well in that regard. The book of
    Revelation makes it clear that the early Christians owed it solely to
    the Roman Empire that they kept praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.” The very
    presence of the empire added a certain fervency to that prayer. Thanks
    to the empire, among them, the kingdom of God became what might be
    called “a felt need.”

    It was no accident that the church’s taking that arky to its bosom as
    being the HOLY Roman Empire coincided in point of time with its
    ceasing to pray for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Once we get in with
    an arky that treats us all right and serves our own personal
    interests, we tend to lose all hunger for the Arky of God. We think a
    Holy Empire which befriends rather than persecutes the church is “good
    enough,” “as much as can be hoped for”–no matter what it may be doing
    on other counts. Yet this experience is no indication that God’s idea
    of “negative pairing” was a bad one but, rather, that we exercise our
    penchant for misusing every good thing (such as a bad arky) the Lord
    provides us.

    In this, the logic of Barth’s thought might say that the worst arky
    (from our standpoint) is the best (for God’s purposes). Yet this
    cannot be taken to mean that Christians ought to be out encouraging
    bad arkys for the sake of their spiritual benefit. The natural supply
    of bad arkys certainly is sufficient for our every need. And if we had
    our eyes open, we would see that even our best arkys are bad enough to leave the Arky of God a consummation devoutly to be wished. For
    Barth’s “negative pairing” to drive us to God does not call us to do
    anything regarding the arkys, but only to clarify our own perceptions
    of them. Yet, by negatively pairing human arky and divine arky, Barth
    has gone beyond even the mere “unpairing” of them. Let’s call this

  4. And then Eller gets to his reading of Anabaptist history:

    the sixteenth-century Anabaptists generally derived their Romans-13 anarchism by an argument different from either of these other two. Why does God want the arkys in place and forbid his people to try to overthrow or revamp them? The Anabaptists tended to latch onto Paul’s observation about the arkys being a threat only to bad conduct and an instrument of God’s punishment of evildoers. The argument then went that God’s own people, the Christian believers, are not evildoers, that the arky license therefore does not extend to them, and thus they are
    free from any arky power or authority. It did not necessarily nor even
    regularly do so, but this interpretation could lead to a certain
    disregard over whatever hurt the arkys might be inflicting on
    non-Christian “evildoers.” .

    Now, whether or not it proceeds from a common negative principle,
    Barth’s proposal that God “negatively” correlates his Arky and human
    arky is paralleled by another. His new proposal is that Paul actually
    is counseling that our relationship to the arkys should take the form
    of what we “not do” concerning them rather than what we “do” do. This
    idea of “doing” God’s will by a deliberate “not doing” that of the
    arkys can be very helpful in our reading of Romans 13. However, it
    will not work as a general principle that can be used independently of
    very careful attention to what the apostle actually says. The
    difficulty is that any command of either “doing” or “not-doing” can be
    worded the other way around and still mean the same thing.

    For instance, revolutionary civil disobedience and tax withholding
    could be thought of (and perhaps most often are) as belonging to the
    “not-doing” alternative, i.e., as being a defiant refusal to do what
    the civil-arky demands. By the same logic, Paul’s “being subject to
    the authorities” would be seen as the “doing” alternative, the doing
    of whatever the state asks of you. Yet, in effect, Barth argues that
    Paul means things to be worded the other way around.

    Revolutionary civil disobedience and tax withholding are now the
    active and aggressive “doing” of entering the worldly contest with an
    offensive play (i.e., the political power of a good arky) intent to
    bring pressure against those arkys perceived to be evil. Conversely,
    for Paul, “being subject” is the Christian “not-doing.” It is the not
    doing of any arky-style response, the not doing of rebellion and
    self-assertion. It is Paul’s own “not being conformed to the world”
    and “not paying evil for evil.” It is Jesus’ “not resisting one who is

    Paul, of course, is one who knew best that “being subject to the
    authorities” in no way threatens the prior principle that we must obey
    God rather than man. He had been in trouble with the law no telling
    how many times for not stopping preaching when the authorities had
    ordered him to. Yet, even when such obeying of God necessitates the
    disobeying of an arky, this is no abrogation of the principle of
    “being subject.” It does not amount to a “doing” of revolt and
    contest. It probably shouldn’t even be called “civil
    disobedience”–that term customarily denoting a disobedience for the
    sake of disobedience, as a political means of attacking the bad arky,
    challenging, protesting, provoking, and exposing its evil. No, in
    cases like Paul’s refusal to stop preaching, the action is still a
    “not-doing” of revolution. The intent is entirely that of obeying
    God–it being entirely incidental that, unavoidably, the arky had to
    be disobeyed in the process. Indeed, the disobeyer can even remain
    entirely subject to the authorities by expressing regret that his
    obedience to God left him no recourse but to disobey the arky.

  5. Well, if you are going to be an anarchist be brave enough to be a real anarchist like Sasha and Emma. This must include some sexual anarchy mixing free bread with some free love. See the recent book, Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (Cambridge: Bleknap/Harvard, 2012).

    Or be as bold as Berkman who carried a pistol into the office of Andrew Carnegie’s Mennonite robber baron capitalist colleague Henry Clay Frick and shot him! Frick was an Overholt from Scottdale, PA whose grandfather distilled the famous Mennonite whiskey, Old Overholt.

    Or be as consistent in your anarchist philosophy as the great Mikhail Bakunin and his “Anti-theologism.” Why would an anarchist want or need a God? Bakunin wrote, “If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him.”

    Many projected needs and desires are being poured into “the New Yoder” and this likely says more about the new writers on Yoder than JHY himself. From Yoder’s arguments in “The Christian Witness to the State” to many of his ecumenical addresses and engagements I think he would resist the anarchist baptism. Yoder, like Vernard Eller, could be relationally awkward and difficult, but to my knowledge, unlike Eller, he didn’t blame it on the lofty ideology of anarchy.

    1. As Ted Troxell tries to show in his paper there is no one (that I know of) arguing that Yoder saw himself as an anarchist or was influenced by anarchist thought or thinkers. Troxell’s argument is merely that there are affinities between Yoder and certain currents in contemporary post-anarchist thought (which has its own tenuous connection to classical anarchism) which illumine both.

      But I do agree that when we start to look at Christian discipleship through an anarchist lens then sexual ethics and mores also get refocused in open-ended ways. If improvisation is to become a central theme in Christian ethics (as it is in my understanding of anarchism) then we can’t predict what this might mean for easily approved sexual practices. However, neither can we assume that it will look like a new age hippie commune.

      Being a “Christian anarchist/anarchist Christian” will mean some mode of critical correlation that will inform both poles.

      1. Helpful reply, Ric, about the Troxell paper and Yoder.

        I’m not trying to put the brakes on sexual anarchism and I’m all for theology as mutually critical correlation. I suppose I wonder why “anarchism” with all its inherited baggage is seen by some of you as such an attractive analogue for socially engaged Christians? In many ways its sectarianism nicely underwrites the kind of genetic, ethnic and cultural Mennonitism Ted critiques in his previous blog. I do understand why anarchism would appeal to separatist Mennonites and not to public theologians.

        Those of us who look at this psychologically ponder what the new Christian anarchists need in their own identity-politics to claim the anarchist signifier when we know damn well they would be terrified to dirty dance with Emma Goldman in her revolution.

      2. I can track with that, though I’m not as in love with shiny new progress as Thoreau and Emerson. And Caputo can’t stop talking about Derrida and Jesus: certainly not classical, but it’s a little like reappropriation. 🙂

      3. I question whether anarchism is any more sectarian than mainstream party politics. [I do agree however that many Christian anarchists are sometimes just as sectarian as their conservative anabaptist ancestors.] I don’t find the concept of an anarchist public theology to be necessarily self-contradictory. The appeal of anarchism to me is its focus on decentralized, horizontalist, radically democratic practices that (1) do not depend upon the sanction of oligarchic elites (2) create alternative “prefigurative” social processes (3) ally themselves with similar entitities working for shared goals (4) maintain a flexible but persistent determination to remain effective within a variety of non-anarchical political systems. The (3) and (4) make this a “public theology”. However, admittedly Christian anarchism has not always been “public” in this way. My point perhaps is that the prior history need not constrain its necessary future evolution. “Anarchism” does not necessarily require sectarianism. “Christian” does not neccessarily require “private theology”. “Christian anarchism” does not necessarily require dirty dancing with Emma Goldman (although speaking for myself I would welcome the opportunity).

      4. I like what you say here (though I’m willing to let others dance with Emma).

    2. Not sure I really want to dive into this debate, since Ric did a fine job in his response. But for someone who enjoys a little deconstruction, Scott, you seem to be mired in a pretty essentialist view of anarchism. Quite a few others before and after Enlightenment moderns have considered anarchistic themes. Goldman and Bakunin aren’t the only or final words.

      And others also think about this psychologically:;

      1. I might add that most helpful concepts have heavy inherited baggage. Anarchism certainly has its fair and unfair share, but I’m not convinced that’s a good enough reason to ignore it.

      2. Sure, Jonathan, but isn’t there enough bad baggage in the Christian canon and tradition without throwing Bakunin’s bags onto the cart?

        Here’s what I suspect. Some Christian anarchists are drawn to the self-righteous sectarianism but many are just plain bored. After all, how many times can you read The Politics of Jesus? So Yoder is re-appropriated and linked to a re-appropriated and revised version of anarchism called post-anarchism.

        Why not write something new in face of real questions asked by thinking, searching, seeking people in the pews who even find this new academic fad of Christian anarchism as boring as the lime green jello with shredded carrots served up at Grandpa Yoder’s pot-luck?

      3. My original comment is still waiting moderation. Must’ve been somethin’ I said!

        We’ve all got baggage, so maybe we need to build a few more carts! Bakunin’s not the only voice and I’m not sure his critiques of religion offer anything new: with or without him his bags are probably already loaded on the cart somewhere. And I think your suspicion may be right at times, but the operative word is “some.” Some are jackasses and some are genuinely exploring better ways to live and die in this “blessed and broken world.” Anarchists aren’t immune to self-righteous sectarianism, but they aren’t automatically predisposed either. All we have is reappropriation, but I haven’t read enough Yoder to know whether this interpretation is off-key or not. I heard Ted present this at a small conference and spoke him for a while afterward and doesn’t seem like someone lacking in creativity.

        Also, “new academic fad of Christian anarchism” strikes me as a bit disingenuous. I don’t think this is primarily an academic discourse. Marxists are usually the academics, tending toward theoretical discussions of revolution. But anarchists, even when they’re idiots, are usually trying to practice what they preach, even when it’s stupid. According to Graeber, it’s an “ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.” Your last point is an important one, which is why translation, adaptability, and openness should become something like virtues.

        I haven’t read Kauffman, but the way you described his theology sounds a little anarchistic to me. The same goes with Caputo’s The Weakness of God, which is still one of my favorites. But clearly we’re working with two different understandings of anarchism . . .

      4. Jonathan, All we have is re-appropriation in a classical Christian hermeneutic, but allow your ecotheological interests to lead you back to Thoreau and Emerson as they proclaim. “The coming only is sacred!”

      5. [Posted the comment in the wrong place!]

        I can track with that, though I’m not as in love with shiny new progress as Thoreau and Emerson. And Caputo can’t stop talking about Derrida and Jesus: certainly not classical, but it’s a little like reappropriation.

      6. Well, Jack has retired from Syracuse and Jacques is dead.

        You are beginning your career.

        On the dangers of re-appropriation, a true story. Derrida and Richard Rorty both died from the same rather rare form of pancreatic cancer. When Dick Rorty was on his death bed some philosopher friends asked, “What do you make of the uncanny fact that the two most famous philosophers of the late 20th century were smitten by the same disease?” Rorty winked and replied, “Well, I guess we both read entirely too much Heidegger.”

      7. John, I don’t know why this one got flagged. I didn’t think there was any moderation here….

      8. Just for the record, John, I do enjoy dancing with Emma. But she does not want to come to church with me and I have no need to convert her. She finds it strange that you missional guys need to appropriate her and her friends for your Jesus-movement. Sounds almost colonizing to prop up your religion. She says perhaps you should find the courage to become real anarchists since you seem so jazzed by anarchism. But she will warn you, “If you can’t dance you can’t be part of her revolution!”

      9. John, I did respond to this but it ended up in the wrong place in this long thread of a conversation. I do affirm dancing with Emma but she does not want to come to church!

    3. Thanks for the thoughts, Scott. I am not sure I want to be a “real anarchist”! I’m definitely a pacifist more than an anarchist (to the degree there could be a tension). I’m all for finding a way to do “public theology” in light of pacifism and anarchism.

      I think Gordon Kaufman might have something to say about why even an anarchist might “need a God”—but not a traditional head honcho God.

      I hope “sexual anarchy” is not necessary for the kind of humane politics I seek.

      1. Right. Gordon’s model of the divine does overthrow the head honcho God but his bio-historical creative serendipity is so organic, evolutionary and attentive to the interconnection of all things I don’t think he would be jazzed about the theological possibilities of anarchism.

        Glad to see your pacifist confession again, brother. For a minute there I imagined you reaching with one hand for Berkman’s pistol to shoot some mean Mennonites and gesturing to Emma with the other hand to join her in a wild dance!

      2. Ted, If you are serious about your question of the necessity of sexual anarchy for a more humane and emancipatory politics, I think the old man would say, “Possibly.” But this is a topic for another day.

    4. Scott, hopefully one day we can visit in person, because calling me “missional” reveals that you don’t know me very well. I have no interest in converting Emma and I don’t blame anyone for dancing with her. She probably wouldn’t be stoked about integrating anarchism with parables, but, well, she’s dead. 🙂

      I value good arguments and endorse clever wordplays, but occasionally rhetorical flair obfuscates nuance and hospitable conversations. I’m all for Ric’s suggestions: “ally themselves with similar entities working for shared goals.”

      1. Sorry for linking you with things “missional,” John.

        With the late Dick Rorty, I do feel the new left, unlike the old left, lacks both irony and humor. My God, you lads can have such an unbearable heaviness of being.

        Dick’s dead. Emma’s dead. We too will die. Dance more!

      2. I chuckled when you associated me with missionals; hopefully no heaviness of being here! I love good ironic humor, so maybe the irony is that you didn’t catch my humor! 🙂

        My only point with that comment was to suggest that some of your assumptions may be slightly unfounded. For right or wrong, my impression has been that you aren’t attempting to hear interpretive inflections in these conversations.

  6. Makes me thirsty, Ted. Might need to meet at Union Station in the near future and talk about some ways we could conspire. It’s important to show the complexity of anarchist thought and practice and that there isn’t some universal logical conclusion to its ethos . . .

    1. Hey, John. I’m out of town until next Wed (July 17). Let’s sit down then and you can start your tutorial….

  7. Will read this again more closely soon, but this does already look very interesting. Would love to see what you come up with. And for info, I use Yoder quite a lot in my book, though I do note that he’s no anarchist, because his pacifism does bring him very closely to other anarchists and because his analysis is sharp and compelling. Wink features a bit too, as of course do Ellul, Eller and many others. So you may well find it quite relevant (at least that’s what I hope), even if possibly aiming to do other things that you might have hoped (I always welcome feedback on my book by the way). If price is an issue (I didn’t set it…), an earlier version of it in the form of my PhD is available online for free. More info via my website: Anyway, I’m quite excited by your project!

    1. Thanks, Alex. After reading Troxell’s essay I checked your book out of our library (I was delighted to find it—I had forgotten that I had ordered it!). I plan to read it right after I finish Peter Marshall’s book. Let’s stay in touch.

  8. Perhaps You already know Tolstoy’s work…

    This is Leo Tolstoy’s classic work of “Christian Anarchism”/ the principle of “Non-Resistance”/ “Non-Violence”/ “Pacifism” …

    >> Christ does not say ‘Let a man strike your cheek, and suffer,’ but He says, ‘Do not resist evil. Whatever men may do to you, do not resist evil.’ These words, ‘do not resist evil’ (the wicked man), thus apprehended, were the clue that made all clear to me, and I was surprised that I could have hitherto treated them in such a different way. Christ meant to say, ‘Whatever men may do to you, bear, suffer, and submit; but never resist evil.’ What could be clearer, more intelligible, and more indubitable that this? As soon as I understood the exact meaning of these simple words, all that had appeared confused to me in the doctrine of Christ grew intelligible; what had seemed contradictory now became consistent, and what I had deemed superfluous became indispensable. All united in one whole, one part fitting into and supporting the other, like the pieces of a broken statue put together again in their proper places.

    This doctrine of ‘non-resistance’ is commended again and again in the gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ represents His followers – i.e., those who follow this law of non-resistance – as liable to be persecuted, stoned, and reduced to beggary. […]

    We may bring forward, as an objection, the difficulty of always obeying such a law; we may even say, as unbelievers do, that it is a foolish doctrine, that Christ was a dreamer, an idealist who gave precepts that are impossible to follow. But, whatever our objections may be, we cannot deny that Christ expresses His meaning most clearly and distinctly; and His meaning is that man must not resist evil; he who fully accepts His teaching cannot resist evil. <<

    Full Text:

    See Also:

    The full material:

  9. I suppose we would do well to call in Wittgenstein to assist us in the language games we are playing with “anarchism.” It seems several of us are using different definitions and thus missing one another in the dialog and debate.

    Now Tolstoy, unlike some of his contemporary Russian activist anarchists, writes on non-resistance like an Old Mennonite.

    The anarchists I know, and I just had a conversation last month with a circle of them up on the Hudson River, are very much about clever and cunning “resistance” to change the world. They do resist the evil of the culture of late capitalism. Like Bakunin, they are “Anti-theologists.”

    For most in the Historic Peace Churches, the old doctrine and practice of non-resistance has evolved into the work and witness of active and strategic peacebuilding from getting in the way like CPT to the pragmatic political involvement of pacifist realists.

    Some of us ask if Tolstoy’s theology was written for the soul or for society. That is, does he have a strategy for the soul in society or is this theology really composed for the separate, solitary, pacific life on Count Leo’s comfortable estate?

    1. Thanks for this Scott. I expect to learn a lot more from Kropotkin than Tolstoy ( or Bakunin). He appears to be neither a sectarian or anti-theologian.

  10. I am ignorant of anarchism as an intellectual, political stance, and have only heard about it in stories of Machnief’s bandits in Russia during the revolution from my great-grandmother’s stories. Her village was raided, home burnt down, and grandfather sliced to pieces. Machnief called himself an anarchist. I sure hope the anarchism spoken of here is not essentially related to his style of political action. As far as Yoder’s connection to anarchism, he seems quite critical of it in my reading of ‘Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution.’ Yoder seems to think that violent revolutions are never/rarely successful according to the criteria upon which they were first embarked upon. He thinks they are often taken over by violent leaders with ulterior motives, and that the economic imbalance usually persists even if a political change is made.

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