More thinking about an “anarchistic Christianity”

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2014

My sense is that the anarchist tradition and its messy diversity, going back to the early 19th century and continuing into the present, offers some interesting resources that might prove useful for peace theology. Right now, my knowledge of anarchism is fairly limited, but I am learning more about it all the time. I would at this point identify with an anarchist sensibility that centers on a negative view of centralized political authority and a positive view of human possibilities of ordering social life in ways that enhance human flourishing from the bottom up.

I am not interested in a rigid political ideology, nor in debates about what is and is not authentic anarchism. Rather, I am interested in a looser sensibility that can provide lenses for interpreting the Bible, Christian tradition, and present social issues in peaceable ways. I want to keep learning more about the anarchist tradition—including the most famous “classic” anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, and Goldman; their less well-known contemporaries such as Landauer, Reclus, and Malatesta; and various post-World War II expressions. However, for now my main interest is to go ahead with an exercise in looking again at the biblical materials with an anarchistic sensibility.

My posts from the other day, “‘Saving’ the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading,” and from August, “Does the Bible teach anarchism?” got me started. Over the next several weeks I hope to post a number of summaries of class discussion about the Bible from my “Christian anarchism” class at Eastern Mennonite University this past semester.

However, first I want to take a little time to reflect on some issues brought up in several comments in response to the “Joshua story” post by John Miller and Bob Herr (follow the above link and scroll down to see their comments). Both gave some push back that focused more on the political ramifications of what I wrote about than the theological dimension that is more my area of expertise. But thinking about their points ultimately can be helpful for theological reflection.

What about government?

John Miller responds as if what I have in mind is a stereotypical anarchist rejection of government altogether. I am more comfortable using “anarchistic” as an adjective than claiming to be a full-fledged “anarchist.” As I discussed in my July 10, 2013 post, “John Howard Yoder and anarchism,” I am attracted to what is being called “post-anarchism.” One of the main ideas is that we shouldn’t make the state central—either in terms of making overthrowing it our main focus or in terms of looking to it as our main source of social justice.

In my 2004 essay, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” written before I became directly interested in anarchism, I made a sharp distinction between two American stories, the democracy story and the empire story. Perhaps my affirmation of the “democracy story” would separate me from some more strict anarchists. However, I see anarchist sensibilities as helpful resources for seeking the “well-functioning society” John also seeks.

There certainly is nothing sacred or “God-ordained” about the modern nation-state. Since, for Americans, it’s the only state we have, we certainly should work to make our state the most just and life-enhancing state it can be. But we should also work against our state as strongly as possible when it is unjust and undermines life. An anarchist critique of the state and an anarchist affirmation of the human capacity for self-organizing can help to resist the undermining and, even more, can help us as we seek to construct a well-functioning society.

I find the Bible extraordinarily helpful for the resistance work and for the constructive work—though not as a blueprint giving us a direct plan for social organization. Rather, the Bible’s helpfulness lies in its stimulation of its readers’ imaginations, its unalterable call for love to be at the core of all social life, and its envisioning patterns of social life that place the priority on justice and love over loyalty to any particular human institution.

John Miller does a nice job of setting up the issues when he writes: “God’s frame for human well-being can include having a geographical home in the midst of the nations. The issue is how that space is acquired and how it is occupied. It may be as a prior nomad finding space in Canaan or as the exiles seeking the wellbeing of Babylon, or as the church in pilgrimage in the nations seeking the city without foundations.” I think the key issue is indeed “how that space is acquired and how it is occupied.”

In the first case, the story ultimately tells us, the “prior nomad finding space in Canaan” does not provide “a geographical home” that is just or sustainable. This is because securing the land through violence and living as a possessive people inevitably led to centralized power and unjust social stratification. That doesn’t mean a certain level of justice within such a society wasn’t possible (just as in our society now even with our centralized power and unjust social stratification). And it doesn’t lead to a call for violent overthrowing of the state (such an option is later rejected by Daniel, Jesus, and Paul). But it does lead to a de-centering of the state as an object of loyalty and to a sense that justice work should as a rule (though not always) find other areas of expression than through the state.

So, when the other two ways of finding a geographical home to which John refers emerge, they do not exist as two out of three valid options so much as existing as replacement for the territorial possession as a kingdom/nation state option. And, in fact, the two options (exile and church in pilgrimage) are essentially the same (especially if we understand “church” [ekklesia] more in its original sense as “assembly” and not as a large human institution or as the embodiment of a human “religion”).

I find learning about anarchism and trying to read the Bible anarchistically to be helpful for perceiving the fundamental difference between these ways of finding a “geographical home”—and seeing that this difference is in fact one of the main themes in the overall biblical story.

Is small actually beautiful?

Bob Herr’s main concern seems to be that he reads me to imply that “less social structure is inherently better.” Drawing on Steven Pinker, Bob suggests that “territory” (as for a state or kingdom) is an inherent human need and that bigger territories tend to be better and more peaceful than smaller territories. Bob writes: “Pinker, a sociologist, holds that violence today is less and less a part of our human experience…. Territory (land for a nation, tribe, clan, etc.) is part of a core human need (to raise children, have food, care for those who cannot do this for themselves, etc.). From more recent empirical research, he suggests that small ‘territory’ has proven to be more violent than larger ‘territory,’ so a critique of larger ‘territory’ should respond to this.”

This concern actually goes beyond the intent of my discussion in that I am mainly trying to interpret the Bible and draw some general theological and ethical lessons—more than speak to current day macro-political themes. Certainly, though, I want to acknowledge a valuable warning I see in Bob’s concern—it is wrong to romanticize decentralized political entities and assume that simply being small makes a group peaceable. Often the breaking apart of large political entities does lead to more violence. To apply the ideas I am touching on in the macro-political arena of, say, Africa and the Middle East, would require careful research and discernment.

It is interesting to me to see Steven Pinker cited in this context, though. I hadn’t thought about Pinker for some time, but I perceive that he would be kind of an arch-enemy for anarchism. As a sociobiologist (or, as labeled more recently, an evolutionary psychologist) who affirms our inherent selfishness, he has a strong stake in refuting the anarchistic optimism about our innate human capacity for self-organization (a capacity championed, for instance, in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell).

It does seem important to note that Pinker is not, as Bob says, “a sociologist.” He is a research psychologist or, another label, a cognitive neuroscientist. That macro-politics and social life are not his specialty certainly doesn’t mean that he can’t write insightfully about them. But it does raise the possibility that his work might be more ideologically driven than “empirical” in spite of his use of abundant charts and diagrams. This, at least, is a possibility many of his numerous critics raise.

I definitely see that I need to take Pinker into account as I develop my thinking—his negative anthropology, embrace of “civilization,” and sanguinity about the American empire are all widespread positions in our society. They must be accounted for in an anarchistic-leaning peace theology that wishes to be relevant to the current scene.

Critiques of Pinker

Thanks to a most helpful Wikipedia article on Pinker’s bookThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, it has been easy to track down numerous negative reviews. It is remarkable how diverse these negative reviews are. There are critical reviews from the religious right (David Bentley Hart in First Things and Craig Lerner in The Claremont Review of Books) and from the political left (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson in Internationalist Socialist Reviewgreatly expanded as an e-book). Then there are reviews from the prominent political thinker John Gray in Prospect Magazine, the prominent historian Timothy Snyder in Foreign Affairs, the prominent journalist Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, and the prominent anthropologist Douglas P. Fry in Book Forum.

These are a few of the criticisms: David Bentley Hart points out that what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Modernity has fueled extreme population growth that has actually led to a lot more violence on a lot bigger scale—it’s only by saying there is less violence per person can we say there is a decline in violence. And it is only because of the modern, centralized nation-state that we can have created the weapons for mass violence we have.

John Gray criticizes Pinker for his statement that “today we take it for granted that war happens in smaller, poorer, and more backward countries,” and suggests that “a skeptical reader might wonder whether the outbreak of peace in developed countries and endemic conflict in less fortunate lands might not be somehow connected”—that is, for example, the United States is in this period of “long peace” since 1945 responsible for extraordinarily more violence in the world than it had been prior to 1941. It’s just that the violence has been visited (directly and indirectly) on “smaller, poorer, and more backward countries” as opposed to having the violence happen here or in less backward, civilized countries.

Gray also suggests that Pinker seems to view the exponential growth of the profoundly violent prison-industrial complex in the United States as “an integral part of the recivilizing process” though it is clearly only shifting the loci of violence in our country. The crime rate drops a bit, but the amount of violence visited on convicts increases by leaps and bounds (our rate of imprisonment has increased more than seven-fold in the past 45 years).

Edward Herman and David Peterson also refer to how Pinker focuses, as evidence of the decline in violence, on how there has not been one war among the “great democracies” since 1945, while ignoring or downplaying “the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World.” They cite Pinker’s statement that “the three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”—as if in the latter two conflicts the major agent of violence wasn’t the United States initiating imperialistic warfare.

Elizabeth Kolbert points out that Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures—as if it’s evidence of a “decline in violence” when the British turn “away from such practices as drawing and quartering” while at the same time “shipping slaves across the Atlantic.”

Timothy Snyder makes the point that “to rescue his argument from the problem posed by the mass killings of the mid-20th century, Pinker resorts to claiming that a single individual, in the German case, Hitler, was ‘mostly responsible.'” It would contradict Pinker’s argument to show that it was the inevitable outworking of the dynamics of civilization that nation-states developed weapons of mass destruction that created a tinderbox awaiting only the spark of a Hitler.

Douglas Fry critiques Pinker for having too narrow of a definition of violence. “If we follow Johan Galtung in adopting a wider perspective on violence, then we can readily apprehend that structural violence exists at very high levels in the 21st century. This brand of violence stems from unjust political and economic social structures that inflict pain and suffering through extreme poverty, malnutrition, the lack of safe drinking water, the degradation of the planets biosphere, the gross inequalities in wealth within and among countries, and the lack of access to health care, educational opportunities, and social security.”

The sum of these critiques seems to be that Pinker is too eager to celebrate the “victory” of Enlightenment progress that has resulted in wealth and relative peace for the elite in western societies—and that he cooks the books in order to claim that this “victory” is a victory for all of humanity. In fact, it is likely the case that the opposite is the case. I would suggest that an anarchistic sensibility is one helpful angle for seeing through Pinker’s smoke and mirrors.

The “social contract” and violence

James C. Scott, a writer I greatly respect, helps get at one of the core issues. In his critique of Jared Diamond‘s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Scott discusses Diamond’s reliance on Thomas Hobbes’s notion of the “social contract” (Pinker also uses Hobbes extensively), quoting Diamond: “First and foremost, a fundamental problem of virtually all small-scale societies is that, because they lack a central political authority exerting a monopoly of retaliatory force, they are unable to prevent recalcitrant members from injuring other members, and also unable to prevent aggrieved members from taking matters into their own hands and seeking to achieve their goals by violence.” Scott suggests that Diamond implies that it was explicitly to end this violence that subjects agreed to found a sovereign power that would guarantee peace and order by restraining their habits of violence and revenge.

It would appear that Pinker’s notion, cited by Bob Herr, that “larger territory” is more peaceable than “smaller territory” follows, at least in part, from Hobbes’s political theory—which a cynic could see not so much as an “empirical” observation as an after-the-fact justification of domination by the powerful.

Scott challenges Diamond’s assumptions. It does not follow that the state, by curtailing “private” violence, reduces the total amount of violence. What the state does is centralize and monopolize violence in its own hands. It makes violence more impersonal (as in war and criminal justice, both of which result from and enhance centralized state power) and larger scale.

Also, Scott continues, Hobbes’s fable, from which his idea of the social contract follows, has at least nominally equal contractants agreeing to establish a sovereign for their mutual safety. The actual reality in the ancient world where this fable was set was that all states without exception were slave states (with a minimum of 30% of their populations enslaved, ranging up to 85% enslaved). Those who fell under the domination of kings were not agents in a Hobbesian social contract but people coerced into an unequal and oppressive social system.

As Scott points out, it is difficult to imagine indigenous peoples giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, and their relative freedom from devastating problems such as famine, large-scale wars, taxes, and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be “the king’s peace.”

Scott, in all of his books (e.g., Seeing Like a StateThe Weapons of the Weak, and Domination and the Arts of Resistance), provides persuasive evidence to counter Steven Pinker’s assumptions that centralized state power results in a more peaceful world. Scott, himself at least a quasi-anarchist (see his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism), helps us see that the old judge Samuel had it just about right back when the elders of Israel wanted a king—the main thing kings and their centralized states do is take and take.

8 thoughts on “More thinking about an “anarchistic Christianity”

  1. Ted,

    I’m thankful you are contributing on this topic.

    I’d commend the distinction between Big-A Anarchism and small-a anarchism. The Big-A types are into the ideology of anarchism and lots of canon formation, traditionalism and boundary-setting (ironic eh?).

    Small-a anarchism is about those who see anarchism as a way of acting, a disposition against illegitimate, oppressive authority. Small-a anarchism is more about practicing decentralization, voluntary association, mutual aid, and maintaining the essential connection between ends and means. You can do this and even deny that you’re an “anarchist” like David Graeber does. (“Anarchism is not who I am but what I do”).

    I think that’s what James C Scott is about and I’d also include Graeber and Andrej Grabacic. Paul Goodman’s work (recently republished by AK Press) is another example.

    Grubacic’s A Living Spirit of Revolt: The Infrapolitics of Anarchism is an interesting essay on American Transcendentalism (in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) as a small-a project.

    The strength of the small-a project is that it can link anarchistic practice to radical democracy and thus avoid the sectarian bondage that big-A Anarchists remain captive to (IMHO).

    I find the New Testament “living spirit” to be almost completely compatible with this.

    1. This is very helpful Ric—and makes a lot of sense! Thanks. I agree with you about the New Testament “living spirit.” What I hope to illustrate soon is that the Old Testament fits also.

  2. Hi Ted, this comment is not related to your blog post. Many weeks ago, I sent an email to your university address about AAR and Gordon Kaufman. I’m wondering whether you received it (sometimes my emails get caught by SPAM filters). To reply, you can email me at my public “editor’s” address:

  3. I recently finished reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s book “Rebels Against the Future,” which studied the Luddite Rebelion in England from 1811 to 1814ish. One of the thoughts that came away with me is that the amount of force applied by the state to support industialism can be massively overpowering, and the conclusion is that violent rebelion will never work in an industrialized state (in fact there never has been a successful rebellion in an industrialized state).
    I would also recommend “Christ and Empire” and “Religion, Theology and Class,” both by Joerg Rieger. While they are of a more Marxian slant, they are worth reading.
    I became a Big-A anachist when I left the Marines after 15 years. It was not until I joined the Mennonite Church that I realized that the little-a anarchists held closer to Scripture.

  4. I think my biggest question right now is how ecclesial communities, and especially the denominational structures which govern them, can learn from anarchist communities like The Common Ground Collective.

    As a United Methodist, it is hard to read stories of Anabaptist leaders like Michael Sattler and not see a kind of anarchist impulse. My own prayer and study around issues of power and authority has, unfortunately, led me to identify more with anarchism than the church context in which I currently live out my faith. The more my own anarchist impulse grows, the less I feel at home as a United Methodist.

    What are some ways an anarchist framework might support/critique the denominational systems of some Anabaptist traditions?

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