Is there such a thing as a Christian political philosophy? [Questioning faith #22]

Ted Grimsrud—April 22, 2023

As long as I have cared about Christianity and politics, which is about as long as I have been a pacifist, I have thought that we need a political philosophy that captures key elements of the biblical vision of human social life. None of the main options one encounters in a political theory class (such as liberal democracy, communism, or monarchy) seem to come close to doing that. That leaves pacifist Christians with a kind of disembodied political philosophy—which is surely part the reason that pacifism seems too unrealistic. To try to fit pacifism into a philosophy of liberal democracy where a core principle is that the meaning of the state rests on its monopoly on legitimate violence is like trying to fit the proverbial round peg into a square hole.

Not long after I embraced pacifism, I learned to know a couple of anarchists. They helped open my eyes to a possible option. Then, when I took a class on the history of political theory in graduate school, I was pleased that the professor treated anarchism as a legitimate theory within the cacophony of theories that have been articulated in the western tradition. He didn’t spend much time on anarchism in the class, but that recognition of anarchism as a serious political philosophy planted a seed for me. I am still trying to make sense of Christian pacifism as a realistic and important set of convictions for people of good will. In this post, I want to reflect on the possibility that something like anarchism (or, more precisely what I will call an “anarchistic sensibility”) actually may help us imagine better the political relevance of pacifism.

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. Though the term “anarchism” literally means against “authority” (arché), it is at its heart—as I understand it—not mainly against something. 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 US the 1901 assassination of President McKinley at the hand of a self-proclaimed anarchist (though one who had few links with other anarchists).

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