An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 25, 2015

[This post is a continuation of the conversation about anarchism that I have started in this blog in months past—the most recent post was “More thinking about an ‘anarchistic’ Christianity” on December 15, 2014. It’s an introduction to a series of seven or eight posts that give a quick survey of some anarchistically-inclined dynamics in the Bible.]

I have become motivated to pursue, as a thought experiment, an anarchistic reading of the Bible, for several reasons. For quite some time, probably going back to my discovery of Christian pacifism now nearly 40 years ago, I have found the Bible to be a great resource for thinking politically. However, it has been rather difficult to find connecting points between biblical politics and our current political landscape. I don’t find attempts to link biblical politics with liberal democracy all that attractive; likewise with Marxism. Yet, I also am uneasy with the way numerous, say, “post-liberals” (most notably Stanley Hauerwas) link biblical politics with the institutional church (or is it an idealized “church”?).

But what about anarchism? I can imagine anarchism as a more fruitful philosophical partner than liberal democracy or Marxism. And as more creative and more easily engaged with the entirety of human social life than the institutional (or idealized) church. And I have suspected for some time that the politics most characteristic of the Bible links fairly closely with at least some construals of anarchism, even if anarchists have tended to be quite anti-Christian and Christians anti-anarchist.

At this point, though, I am not as prepared to discuss anarchism itself as I am to think about a general anarchistic sensibility in relation to the Bible. So my definition of anarchism is purposely quite broad and simple. I am thinking of anarchism as having two main components, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is a suspicion of authority, especially in relation to the state (though I think an anarchistic sensibility should be just as suspicious of corporate power and the power of other large institutions). This leads to a de-centering of the state as the basic instrument of human political life. The positive component is the affirmation of human possibilities to self-organize, to manage our affairs in decentralized, self-managed communities.

At this point, I am not so interested in refining that definition, nor in debating how “realistic” it is in actual life. My interest right now is simply in looking at the Bible with this sensibility in mind and paying attention to ways the Bible shares it (and doesn’t share it). Or, I should say, how parts of the Bible do or don’t—acknowledging that there certainly isn’t just one “biblical sensibility.”

What kind of book?

On the one hand, the Christian Bible is a collection of widely disparate writings—spanning close to 1,000 years from the earliest to the latest books, numerous social and political settings, various genres of literature, and two main languages. It is clearly a human book, its separate pieces written as occasional statements that address specific issues and settings.

On the other hand, the Bible as a collection of writings is the master story for Christians. It is assumed to have, on some level, a meaningful coherence that allows it to be used as sacred scripture. Some parts are seen as more clear and definitive than others, but as a rule Christians think of the authority of the Bible involving all of its parts.

How the Bible works as an authority is a complicated and contested issue. One general approach, that stands in profound tension with an anarchistic sensibility, it to approach the Bible as the source of absolute truths that simply need to be heard and followed (“the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it”). In this view, though, the Bible never actually stands alone as an authority. Theologian Edward Farley has developed a critique of what he calls “the house of authority” which requires three authoritative presences: the Bible as the revealed truth from God, official doctrinal statements (creeds, confessions, etc.) that provide definitive interpretations of the Bible, and institutions of authority that enforce the official interpretations (See his book Ecclesial Reflections). In light of this analysis, we can see why biblical authority is a problem for an anarchistic sensibility—it is tied in with centralized human authority (often centralized human authoritarianism).

However, I suggest that though a house of authority type of approach to the Bible is by definition deeply problematic (and if the Bible itself calls for such an approach, the Bible’s authority should be denied), it actually is not true to the Bible’s own self-presentation. The Bible actually presents itself as a very non-authoritarian collection of writings.

The biblical style of authority

When one simply picks up the Bible and reads from it, likely one will be struck by what we could call an epistemological humility. The Bible makes few claims for its own truthfulness. It mainly just gives us a bunch of stories that upon reading together, numerous times, does seem to have a kind of coherence. But the coherence is more suggestive than explicitly asserted. And in its weak coherence, the Bible’s message is invitational. The reader can choose to enter the story or not.

The characters in the Bible are quite human—sometimes strikingly so. Heroes such as Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul have feet of clay. Even the greatest of the heroes, Jesus, comes across as gentle, respectful, and compassionate. And, if one looks for it, one can see an on-going conversation within the Bible where different points of view challenge each other.

Beyond the internal dynamics that humanize the Bible and present a non-authoritarian kind of authority, we need also to recognize that the humanness of the text for us is reinforced by the fact that what we have in our English Bibles are translations made by human beings from ancient languages that at best provide us with what has been called “dynamic equivalence” where the translators can do no better than approximate the meanings of the original.

So, the authority of the Bible, when read in ways consistent with how it presents itself is anarchistic. It is an authority that requires the participation of the reader—and, actually, the participation of many readers. Its power on its own terms—different from the power that comes from being expropriated by human authoritarian institutions—is power than empowers the reader. It is not power that lends itself to being concentrated in top-down structures but the power that enhances diversity and decentralization.

While many have decried the dynamics loosed by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that shattered the institutional unity of western Christianity, partly in the name of Luther’s sola scriptura (scripture alone is authoritative), the result has been what those tending toward anarchism could claim is a life-giving decentralization of Christianity. The principle that the common reader of the Bible, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, may read the Bible and find direction from it for oneself, while certainly an invitation to disputation and even schism, underwrites the disintegration of Farley’s house of authority.

This disintegration, troubling and frightening as many of its consequences have been, nonetheless seems a necessary prerequisite for a development of biblically-oriented Christian faith and practice that actually makes a constructive contribution to healing the world. At least that’s how this anarchistically-inclined Christian sees it.

Looking at the story

Over the next several weeks on this blog, I will post a series of short essays surveying the biblical story to highlight ways in which this story reflects an anarchistic sensibility from start to finish. These will be thought experiments more than definitive analyses. The idea is to test the thesis that the Bible, in general, points in an anarchistic direction.

Some of the ideas I will test include these:

  • The Bible mostly critiques human authority, especially as embodied in large structures such as empires, kingdoms, and religious institutions. There are places where the Bible does celebrate people in power and where the notion of submission to such people is advocated. But I believe these incidents do not fuel the main story line and in fact generally they are refuted even within the story (for example, the treatment of Solomon’s kingship in 1 Kings).
  • The core content in the Christian Bible comes from the story of Jesus. And this part of the story provides an angle of perception that heightens the anti-authoritarian orientation of the bigger story.
  • The Bible from start (Genesis) to finish (Revelation) is political down to the core. It is not giving us a message about preparing to leave this earth and go to heaven. It does not teach an ahistorical Augustinian “city of God” that is our future while we endure this historical “city of man.” To the contrary, the Bible is concerned for this life and it provides a pretty substantial political philosophy should we be alert to look for it.

This political philosophy, I am suggesting, may well be best understood as being full of anarchistic sensibilities.

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9 thoughts on “An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible

    1. Ted, I have been thinking much recently about biblical authority as I do the somewhat mindless tasks of caring for the pigs and routine farm work. We mennonites and related groups have brought a great deal of pain and separation in families and communities through insistence that the way we read scripture is definitive for all the ways we live. I will be reading your submissions.

  1. Perhaps the tension in the biblical storyline between authority and anarchy is reflective of the tension between the two throughout history. Too much authority leads to anarchy and too much anarchy leads to authority; it’s an endless loop. I know you’re not interested at this point in discussing practical matters, so I raise this not as a practical issue about anarchy but simply to suggest that within the bible itself there is the interplay between the two, which seems true to me, not only in observing the world out there but within myself: writing poems in the morning and at night is by nature anarchistic; directing programs during the day is by nature authority-based.

    1. What you say makes sense, David, but I want to understand “anarchy” a little different—as an adequate, stand alone viewpoint not requiring “authority” for its meaning. There is a kind of authority within the kind of small-a anarchism I am attracted to. But let’s see how the biblical survey plays out….

  2. Reblogged this on Stepping Toes and commented:
    As human beings we do have to make a lot of choices in our life. the first one is who we want to follow and trust. First of all those we consider our parents, but next we can see many human persons asking for our attention. They have written loads of books, but none of them can really compete with a master-work which has different styles of literature bundled together to offer us a lot of knowledge and advice for life.

    Many do ignore it and neglect what it can bring to them.

    Believer or not a believer in the Most High Divine Creator of all things, that book which Christians consider to be the infallible Word of God, has a lot of knowledge, wisdom and idioms we should look at, in it.

    The Bible actually presents itself as a very non-authoritarian collection of writings. It never pushes its ideas on others, contrary it tells itself that people are free to take it or leave it. It gives us one of those choices in life about which it speaks thoroughly. It let us see what happens if we go through life without seeing the many opportunities, without making use of the different choices laid in front of us.

    The Best Seller of all times does not demand that we follow this or that rule or saying but it presents openly the different possibilities, the many choices we can make in our life and tells us also what the consequences are of our choices made freely or deliberately.
    One of the difficulties of the book of books is that in some way it can not be taken up passively. It is impossible to read or to go though it without having questions posed to yourself.
    this amalgamation of works from the very old times is still accurate and actual, an authority that requires the participation of the reader — and, actually, the participation of many readers.
    That it has certain powers can be seen throughout history. Many people tried to destroy it but never succeeded. Lots of people tried to break it down and bagatelle it, but did not succeed and even several negative people reversed their standpoint and became a believer in God, became Jew, Christian or Muslim.
    This collection of books, as no other, can transform people. It has so much power, never seen by any other peace of literature or any written work of human beings.
    Yes “Its power on its own terms—different from the power that comes from being expropriated by human authoritarian institutions — is power than empowers the reader. It is not power that lends itself to being concentrated in top-down structures but the power that enhances diversity and decentralization.”
    The book of books breaths the Power of a much more higher Supreme Being, that surpasses all modern technology and human knowledge.

  3. Ted, thanks for this.
    I think this may be fruitful as a “thought experiment,” but also think it is very important to state that this may be particularly valuable for a US audience (or other similar contexts) that, despite its political challenges, has a relatively functional political system, policing system, judicial system, etc. (I know recent events, including several high-profile killings by police and the seemingly broadening gap b/t parties may make this seem like an odd statement to make…)

    My main point is, however, that an “anarchistic” reading may be particularly attractive currently in the US given frustrations with such problems, and as offering a critique that is not ‘authority-driven.’ At the same time, I think it is essential to recognize (and even state explicitly) that this is what gives rise to this interest — and that this approach may not be particularly helpful in other contexts. For instance, ongoing internal problems including repeated violence and killings, internal displacement, refugees fleeing over international borders in places like Colombia, Honduras, the Congo, Afghanistan, etc. (not to mention Iraq and Syria, more frequently in our news loops) suggest that an ‘anarchist’ reading might not be as contextually helpful elsewhere. In other words, there are many contexts where MORE emphasis on government stabiliity, ‘security’, etc. might be helpful — and where biblical passages that emphasize this angle might be important.

    This is not a rejection of your project, but rather a suggestion that we recognize the contextual and ‘imbedded’ nature of our biblical interpretation (and so also a caution against suggesting a universalized or universalizable mode of interpretation).

    Thanks for your thoughts. Derek

    1. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughtful comments, Derek. You are right, this is a “thought experiment” and as such is very preliminary. I accept the point that what I am writing here is by an American Christian and (essentially) for American Christians.

      And I don’t intend to be even hinting that people in other contexts should simply directly apply my thoughts to their settings (no “universalized or universalizable” reading here).

      However, your comments don’t convince me that an “anarchist” reading wouldn’t be helpful in the places you mention. I assume that in many, if not most, of these settings, one of the main problems is a corrupt and authoritarian state. However it might be achieved, it seems like an anarchistic-like empowerment of people from the bottom-up would be a part of the solution.

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