This article is the second part of a series adapted from the ideas in my thesis, The Trump Shall Resound: Christian Anarchism as Eschatological and Apocalyptic Witness; but it’s basically a total rewrite, because the paper is far too long and far too academic to post on this blog. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, though, feel free to check it out, and don’t forget to read the intro post to the series.
In this series, I am going to follow the general outline of my thesis, even though I am completely rewriting it. In the paper, I propose that there are three major “genes” in the DNA of Empire, and by comparing this genome with the totally opposite one of the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot about what makes the vision of Jesus so special. By engaging in conversation and contrast between the two kingdoms, we end up with a clearer vision of what both of them really are.
The first gene of Empire: Power
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
It is very significant that, of the texts contained in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this is one that all three authors choose to include almost word-for-word.* John, too, has his own version of this teaching in chapter 13 of his work when Jesus takes on the role of servant-leader and washes his disciples’ feet. The contrast between the “coercive power over” of Empire and the “influential power under”** of Jesus and the Kingdom could not be more strongly emphasized.
The very fact that hierarchical and coercive power exists is symptomatic of a broken world; and as citizens of a very different Kingdom, we are able to live into a different reality instead of forging alliances with sub-standard substitutions for God’s intent for humanity. (Click to share on Twitter)
It is impossible to imagine a nation or Empire that does not operate with hierarchical power. It’s a total contradiction of terms, and a government of any kind run without hierarchy would fall apart immediately. This is one of many reasons that the goal of Christian Anarchism is not to overthrow the nation-state and create a stateless society or even set up a new “government” run by the teachings of Jesus - because that is also a contradiction of terms.
The power of love and submission
Now, the Church does have power, because every social group has power - it just doesn’t always look the same. Before I unpack that statement, let’s take a very brief theological detour: in Philippians chapter 2, we are given the “Christ hymn,” which many believe to be one of the earliest songs of the Church:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing [emptied himself]
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The key phrase here is “made himself nothing.” Other translations say “emptied himself,” which is a much better translation of the original word, which comes from the Greek word kenosis. This word has become central to much of Christian theology. The very idea that God would empty himself of his divine privilege and position to take on the form of a human being - and a very lowly human being at that - is so radically unprecedented and so often underemphasized that the word kenosis has been reclaimed and proclaimed by many theologians to remind us of a central doctrine of the Christian faith as well as our understanding of God.
We must constantly be reminded that our goal - and Jesus’ goal for us - is not efficiency, pragmatism, practicality, or “effectiveness.” It is purely and simply faithfulness. (Click to share on Twitter)
Okay, detour over - you’ll see why it’s important in just a minute though. Let’s get back on the main road here. The Church, too, has its own power; but as we have seen, true power looks like taking on the role of a servant and emptying oneself in imitation of the kenosis of God. Jesus called us to do just that:
If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:14-16)
If this is what true power looks like, then we are called to neither hierarchy nor (literal) anarchy. To put it differently, we are called to neither coercion nor chaos. Instead, we are called to what Roger Mitchell calls kenarchy. Our model for “church politics” and the life of the Church in the world is kenosis, which is self-emptying and sacrificial love expressed through service and taking the role of the lowest and least. It is mutual submission of each one to the other.
Rather than commanding authority through coercion, the “authority” of kenarchy comes from this mutual submission. In fact, this functions as a source of “perpetual motion” or “renewable energy,” because each human being (empowered by the Spirit, of course) has an infinite capacity for submission so long as there is an ‘“other.” In the kenarchy of the Kingdom, we follow the example of Jesus and find ourselves in an infinitely scalable system of un-hierarchy.
This is also not to say that there is no power or authority within the Kingdom of God, but that everything is under Christ as the center of power. Indeed, kenarchy is impossible without Christocracy (Christ as ruler of all things). After emphasizing Christ’s kenosis, the second half of the passage from the hymn from Philippians says,
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In the kenarchy of the Kingdom of God, there is no limit to the service and submission that can be offered as long as we follow the King who is both slain lamb and suffering servant. In this mutual submission - I must emphasize that mutuality is essential to the vision - there is no limit to what the Spirit can do. In kenarchy, we find not only sustainable energy but creative energy by being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led in the truest sense of the phrase.
The power of hierarchy and coercion
As promised, by contrasting the way the gene of power looks in the DNA of Empire, we will see just how radical Christian Anarchism’s version of power is - and how broken the power of Empire is. I think it’s important to clarify that by “broken,” I don’t mean to say it’s something that we can fix - although it certainly can always be made a little more humane and less oppressive. Instead, I mean that the very fact that hierarchical and coercive power exists is symptomatic of a broken world; and as citizens of a very different Kingdom, we are able to live into a different reality instead of forging alliances with sub-standard substitutions for God’s intent for humanity.
The State/Empire operates by using power over both individuals and communities. Although this power is stated to be for the common good, it is always willing to sacrifice (or incarcerate) those who do not fit into the leadership’s vision of what is good for the people. If we are not willing to conform, then we have no hope of obtaining any “power” in the eyes of the Empire.
What makes this power particularly toxic is that when it comes to Empire, the hegemony (dominance over people or a group of people) is extended to other nations and cultures. As I explained in the first article, I think it is quite clear that the United States is the Empire of today - and Empire is always opposed to the people and plan of God because it is the complete antithesis of the Kingdom. Through military dominance, political coercion, and economic and cultural influence, the USA has hegemonic power throughout the world. You might not believe it if you’ve never left the country, but trust me, the rest of the world knows it.
When it comes to Empire, this huge amount of power and influence always leads to a belief in exceptionalism - that we are the best. It might not always be as blatant (and blasphemous) as people I know who say America is “the new Israel,” God’s called and special people for this day and age; but it always exists. Along with this exceptionalism comes the belief that the Empire could never fall. As the greatest force in the world, it is necessarily “immortal” in some sense. If we could ask a first century Roman citizen, the idea of the Empire collapsing would have seemed unimaginable - and yet it fell to ashes, just like every other Empire throughout history.
The thing about the power of Empire is that it pretends to be a source of perpetual energy, but it really isn’t. In fact, it is actually entropy - the gradual loss of energy and decline into disorder that is one of the basic laws of thermodynamics and, it would seem, political regimes. The reason imperial power must be finite is because it rests solely on having the ability and resources to continue to exercise authority, and those resources are not infinite. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Power, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power.” Competition and the coercive power of “lording it over” are inevitably doomed to reach a point of critical mass, to collapse in on themselves like dying stars.
Living “out of control”
As I said, the power of the Kingdom is the exact opposite, because there is always an infinite capacity for mutual submission and service to other human beings. This is why the term “Christian Anarchism” makes any sense at all. As I’ve said, it is not a political agenda (not in the terms we think of, at least) whatsoever; it is simply a proclamation that there is no King but Jesus in a world that has said, “We have no king but Caesar [or insert political affiliation of choice].” We are not just citizens of that Kingdom, but ambassadors for it; by living out the Kingdom vision in the here and now, we proclaim a different reality to a broken world.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not proclaiming a new kind of Christian exceptionalism. We are broken as well, but by living into that reality as best we can, we find ourselves caught up and captivated by the truth. This kind of life looks like what Stanley Hauerwas calls “living out of control.” We surrender any claims to the worldly kind of power and submit ourselves to Kingdom power.
It’s not a very good plan for running an organization, which is why it could never work at the level of government. It is not practical or pragmatic. It is not efficient, and it is certainly not “effective” in terms of the broken power structures of our world. Yet it is the fundamental reality, the way the universe was intended to be, and all we can do is jump into the river and flow with it.
And ultimately, we must constantly be reminded that our goal - and Jesus’ goal for us - is not efficiency, pragmatism, practicality, or “effectiveness.” It is purely and simply faithfulness.
In a future episode in this series, I will explore what this means in more practical sense. What exactly does living out of control and giving up hierarchical and coercive power mean? Is it really possible for the Church to forsake all forms of leadership and therefore organization? I think the answer is much more nuanced than “yes” or “no,” so I will do my best to unpack this next time. Grace and peace, everyone.
Check out the rest of the series:
Part 1: Why I am a Christian Anarchist
Part 2: The love of power or the power of love?
Part 3: The American mythology
Part 4: A war of myths
Part 5: Built on violence
*Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42, Luke 22:25
**I credit these terms to Greg Boyd. They can be found in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, page 94.