By Graham Cameron | Apr 25, 2007
Aotearoa New Zealand held its very first Christian Anarchist conference last year. Perhaps the most important question we were asking was: what is Christian Anarchism?
In the run-up to the conference, Challenge Weekly, a national Christian newspaper, (when receiving our conference advertisement) clearly regarded christian anarchy as an oxymoron:
Challenge Weekly has guidelines on what we can or cannot publish whether editorial or advertising¦. Anarchism is normally associated with anti government behavior and overseas this often means violence eg skinheads and Nazi sympathizers etc. (C. Mellors, Customer Services, Challenge Weekly; email communication 19 April 2006)
This particular email response demonstrates a commonly held belief: christians are not anarchists, and anarchists are not christians. Indeed, it suggests that for christians it is an offence by association.
As a starting point for us all, we would accept that there was a time when being associated with Jesus of Nazareth was an offense. Such subversives were called atheists because they refused to worship the Emperor. They called themselves Followers of the Way.
The turning point from subversive movement to religious empire wasÂ quite a rapid process, and the most important symbolic event was Constantines conversion, at which point itÂ appearsÂ he became the highest profile nominal christian in the Roman world and by proxy made Christianity the preferred religion of the state.
I would contend the church has been in a long, slow wrestle with Hell for its soul ever since.
Christian Anarchism is a relatively newÂ term (less than a century old) in a long and fertile power-less movement that claims whakapapa to Christ's legacy. This power-less view contends with Christendom, a power-full movement that has presumed its full ownership of Christ's legacy. This power-less movement has been modeled since the inception of the church by many communities: the underground church in the Roman empire, the Anabaptists, the Amish, the Mennonites, the incredible scope of the 20th Century international inter-faith non-violent writings of Gandhi, Khan, Kagawa, Jones, Andrews, and Tolstoy. Here in Aotearoa it has been modeled by Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai at Parihaka, by Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu, by Archibald and Hemi Baxter and all their supporters. There have been others as well, making the case that power-lessness is not a new idea.
Christian Anarchism was really only termed 20 years ago by Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and sociologist. Ellul saw no contradiction, but definitely some tensions in the relationship between the political movement anarchism and the faith movement of power-less christianity:
"The only Christian political position consistent with revelation is the negation of power: the radical total refusal of its existence, a fundamental questioning of it, no matter what form it may take." (Ellul 1988:173)
"biblical thought leads straight to anarchism"(Ellul 1988:157)
"Anarchism is the only answer to the modern state and politics when the milieu and action become technical and order and organisation are imposed" (Ellul 1964:198)
The particular challenge that christianity poses to anarchism is the anarchist belief in progress. Christianity offers hope that is not predicated on outcome, that is not discouraged should an anarchist society not eventuate. Indeed, christianity clearly doubts the capacity of humanity to bring about revolution within itself. We have a pessimistic hope.
Yet Ellul's concept of Christian Anarchy is founded on the belief that a radical personal and collective revolution is needed to subvert/replace/transform/over-throw the social and political structures and technology that destroy the human person. Importantly a purely political revolution will not achieve this. Nor is it that christian social or political action has more meaning in itself.
Rather it is that Christan Anarchy is a prophecy, a counter-cultural voice of hope that states that it is the action of God and humans fully realizing their God-given potential, which will fundamentally change society. Based on this theoretical foundation, what is Christian Anarchism in Aotearoa New Zealand?
First and foremost, Christian Anarchism is consciously counter-cultural in that it:
-Does not claim to be a theory, but an impulse of humanity
-Seeks to create an ethical society free of the assumed need for constraint
-Will only move towards that society by the use of ethical strategies and tactics, notable in its commitment to non-violence
-Seeks to disperse power, not seize it, so can be lived out now as power-seizing systems crumble.
-That ethical society is incarnated by small intentional communities who seek:
The devolution of authority
The decentralisation of power
The redistribution of wealth
To unmask the idolatrous worship of wage-slavery
The conscientization of people
The constructive criticism and remoulding of technology
To protect and nurture our brother creation
The grand themes of scripture support ethical societies, the need to transcend and overthrow abusive systems, and the community as the keystone of human physical and spiritual development. Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of those grand themes, and continues to partner with us as we seek to follow his example.
The particular charism of Christian Anarchists in the South Pacific is to struggle alongside indigenous peoples as our tuakana (elder sibling) to realise their dreams and as a model for us of community that is in balance and harmony with our respective lands.
For our part, My wife, daughters and I live in a small intentional community in Merivale, Tauranga. Our neighbourhood is the detritus of the much-hyped Tauranga urban development. For that reason, I consider Merivale to be full of possibility for revolution. We are excluded from riches, success, status and fame by virtue of being here. For that reason we are more likely to see that the empire around us is unsustainable, destructive and hateful. Merivale is a seeding bed for the revolution of hope.
Christian Anarchism offers a significant pessimistic hope in a world that is drowning in noise and consumption. Further I think it offers hope to communities because it encourages us to be eternally imaginative in how we deal with power. Many communities founder on the issue of how power is used as we transfer societal attitudes and beliefs into small communal relationships.
I believe Christian Anarchism supplies an immanent and transcedent hope to people of faith looking for another direction. To paraphrase, this revolution is not being televised.
Elliott M. Freedom, Justice and Counter-Culture London: SCM Press; 1990.
Ellul J. The Technological Society Trans. John Wilkinson, New York: Knopf; 1964.
Ellul J. Jesus and Marx: From Gospel to Ideology Trans. Joyce Main Hanks, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1988.
Ellul J. Anarchy and Christianity Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1991.