The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2021

I would say that I got politicized in the mid-1970s, about the time I finished college. I grew up paying attention to the news. My dad was a high school social studies teacher, so keeping up on current affairs was part of his job—and that spilled over to me, too. However, when I started college in 1972, I was pretty apolitical. My Christian conversion when I was 17 had actually influenced me to pay less attention to politics.

Radical Christianity and politics

Still, these were turbulent times. I remember that terrible spring and summer of 1968 when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both were assassinated, and so much else was deeply chaotic. I registered for the draft when I was 18 in 1972 and thought it likely that I would have to go to Vietnam. I’m sure I was paying more attention than I remember, and within a few years I was highly engaged. The key factor for me, it turned out, was my exposure to the “radical evangelical Christians” affiliated with several magazines—The Other Side on the East Coast, Post American in the Midwest (then Sojourners when the community moved to DC), and Radix out West. Just as fundamentalist Christianity depoliticized me in the early 1970s, radical evangelical Christianity had the opposite effect a few years later.

I would read each of those magazines as soon as possible when it arrived. After voting for Richard Nixon in 1972, I grudgingly voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976—grudging because I thought he was too conservative, especially too pro-military, but preferable to Gerald Ford. Carter proved my fears well-founded, and by 1980 I was ready to go third party. One of Carter’s acts that got my wife Kathleen and me on the streets was his reinitiating registration for the draft. We joined the protests and met another young couple who introduced us to a political philosophy of which we had been ignorant.

Karl and Linda were young radicals who had recently moved to Eugene, Oregon, where we lived at the time. They moved specifically to join with an emerging community of anarchists. We had numerous lengthy conversations with them about anarchism, Christian pacifism, nonviolent resistance, violent resistance, and other related issues. Karl and, especially, Linda were smart, compassionate, deeply committed to social justice, and thoroughly against war.

We discovered the appeal of anarchism. For Kathleen and me, the path toward anarchism had mostly to do with war. Centralized, territorial nation-states have become a curse. The 20th century was the century of mass war and was showing littles signs of changing. In 1980, a rising tide of opposition to nuclear weapons was heightening awareness of the link between centralized government, large corporations, and the likelihood of the destruction of the earth.

Kathleen and I weren’t ready to go full anarchist, largely because of our commitment to working in the church. When the anti-draft movement petered out, we lost touch with Karl and Linda and our interest in anarchism moved to the back burner. We certainly didn’t get any encouragement to pursue it from the Mennonites we were by then hanging out with.

Continue reading “The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]”

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. Continue reading “More thinking about an “anarchistic Christianity””

“Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading

Ted Grimsrud—November 13, 2014

One of the more challenging passages in the Bible is the story told in the book of Joshua. God’s chosen people enter the “promised land,” meet with opposition from the nations living there, and proceed—with God’s direction and often miraculous support—the kill or drive out the previous inhabitants. The book ends with a celebration that now the Hebrew people are in the Land, poised to live happily ever after.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the story to stomach is the explicit command that comes several times from God to the Hebrews to kill every man, woman, and child as part of the conquest. This element of the story is horrifying, even more so in light of the afterlife of this story where it has been used in later times to justify what are said to be parallel conquests—such as the conquest of Native Americans and nature southern Africans. So what do we do with it as pacifists? Or, really, even if for those who are not pacifists, how could an moral person want to confess belief in such a genocidal God?

The dismissal strategy

Probably the easiest response to the Joshua story is simply to dismiss it. To say, this is not part of our story. The God of conquest is not the God of Jesus Christ. One way to think of this is simply to say that the Bible here contains stories that cannot possibly have been true. We can’t know why these stories were included in the Bible, but we can know that we need to repudiate them—or at least agree to ignore them.

I hope some time in the not too distant future to reflect in more detail on this problem. There are various strategies to read Joshua in ways that don’t go to the total dismissal extreme but to in fact see some truths expressed there that may be appropriated for peace theology (this may be said to be the strategy taken by Mennonite scholars such as Millard Lind and John Howard Yoder). And there are other strategies, not necessarily with a peace theology agenda, for coming to terms with the story in ways that do not require its repudiation but still allow us to place our priority in reading the Bible on the message of Jesus.

For now, though, I simply want to reflect on a particular reading strategy I just thought of. To me, it’s quite different than the total dismissal strategy, though since I do not accept the historicity of this story, some might see it as pretty close to dismissal. I don’t actually feel much of a need to protect the Joshua story from dismissal—however, I still tend to want to see if we can find meaning in the story that at the least will help us put it in perspective and protect us from the uses that find in the story support for our violence. More than defending Joshua per se, I am interested in defending the larger biblical story of which it is a part—an essential story for faith-based peacemakers. Continue reading ““Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading”