This article is the first 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.
Christian Anarchism. If you aren’t familiar with it, the term probably conjures up pictures of men with Bibles in one hand and Molotov cocktails made from communion wine bottles (or juice bottles) in the other. Or maybe a bunch of dreadlocked guys and gals in robes and Jesus sandals out in the desert somewhere, doing a Bible study with WikiLeaks as a discussion starter. Or maybe turning the annual men’s retreat into a boot camp for a church-sponsored militia. Or even worse, maybe you’re picturing a bunch of white-clad cult members stockpiling arms in a big mansion out in the woods.
But real Christian Anarchism isn’t nearly as strange or violent as any of that. It isn’t violent at all, since it is all about the non-violence taught by Jesus. Christian Anarchism is totally nonviolent (I might say “pacifist” - but that term implies non-action rather than non-violent action and resistance). In fact, it isn’t really about “anarchism” at all, at least not in the classical sense of trying to overthrow the government and live in a stateless society. Not only is that impossible, but it’s not even desirable as far as Christian Anarchists are concerned.
So what is it then? I'm going to give the briefest of introductions in this article, and hopefully I'll be able to flesh it out a bit more in the rest of the series; but it's not the easiest thing to sum up quickly if the concept is new for you, because it is literally a total paradigm shift from much of historical (Western, and especially American) Christianity. However, I am firmly convinced that paradigm shift is much more in line with the teachings of Jesus and definitely of the early Church.
Christian Anarchism is a way of doing theology and ethics - more specifically, theology about the State or the Empire and how we are to relate to it.* To sum it up simply, which necessarily means losing a whole lot of the content, it is the view that not only are the Kingdoms of this World different from the Kingdom of God, but they are actually mutually exclusive and antithetical to it. To make it even simpler, it is simply following “Jesus is Lord” and “No king but Jesus” to their logical conclusions.
Earthly kingdoms, and more specifically Empire, are built on hierarchy, oppression, and violence - three things which are completely opposed to the “politics” of Jesus and which will make up the next three posts in this series. Empires have their own “salvation stories” and “discipleship training” wrapped up in their political histories. And yes, I did just say Jesus was very “political,” but not in the sense we think of the word. He had a whole lot to say about Empire and oppression and how to subvert it, but not once did he try to set up a government. In fact, he was quite clear that he was a very different kind of king.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)
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)
When Jesus proclaimed the “Good News,” a term which we have over-spiritualized to the point of losing its original connotations, he wasn’t making up a new word. The word Jesus used for the Good News/gospel was euangelion, and it was a political term used to describe Caesar’s conquest of a new city or region. The Emperor would ride in on a war horse, proclaiming the so-called “good news” that the people were now part of the glorious Roman Empire - the fact that they had been killed, raped, and pillaged along the way didn’t matter.
When Jesus used this highly political term to describe the Kingdom of God, he was more than just being cute. He was being incredibly provocative and setting himself up as an ideological enemy of Empire - one who would proclaim peace, live homeless, and eventually have a coronation ceremony that involved riding into the city on a donkey (not a war horse), getting a crown of thorns, and dying on a cross (a punishment reserved for rebellion leaders and other enemies of the Empire) with a sign that said “King of the Jews” above his head.
So why use a term as provocative as “Christian Anarchism” at all? Isn’t there a better way to say all of this without sounding so edgy? Well, there are plenty of other words and phrases that could be used, but few of them cut right to the core of the issue as plainly as Christian Anarchism. Besides, I feel most comfortable using the term for the reasons I actually just described. Jesus used highly “political” terms but completely redefined them in order to subvert contemporary political ideas and proclaim the Kingdom of God; and in my mind, using the words “Christian Anarchism” is a modern-day attempt to do exactly the same thing.
Why do you keep saying Empire? Aren’t all the empires dead?
Empires seek expansive control and exploitation over other nations for the profit of the elite. It’s true, classical “Empires” like Greece and Rome are long gone. Even “modern” empires like the British and Spanish colonization projects have faded (although as anyone in a former colony will tell you, the impacts - both good and bad - have left a permanent mark on their society). So how could the United States possibly be an Empire? We aren’t sending fleets of soldiers and settlers to capture people and use their land for our own benefit, right?
It’s true, conquering large amounts of land isn’t really in style as far as Empire goes today. But this doesn’t make the US any less imperial - it’s just a new kind of empire. In the age of globalization, Empire remains, but it just looks different. America (ever noticed how the United States has made a sole claim to the word “America,” a word that actually refers to two entire continents?) has influence and even control all over the world, just like any good empire. She has the strongest military in the world, with soldiers stationed all over the globe and a particular passion, at least historically speaking, for getting involved in foreign conflicts and acting for her own interests, despite justifying every war with language about “working for the good.”
Less obvious, but even more imperial in the true sense, is the fact that the US wields massive political and economic power and is able to manipulate situations all over the world. However, it really isn’t my goal in this article to lay out a full case for why the USA is the best representation of Empire in our world. If you know, you know; and if you don’t, there’s plenty of good reading on the topic.
More important for my point here is how Christian Anarchists relate to Empire. By now, you’ve hopefully noticed that I keep intentionally capitalizing the word. This is because I’m referring not just to a specific “empire,” but to the spirit of Empire that has been present for as long as humankind can remember.
And here’s the clincher: Empire has always been an enemy to God’s plan and God’s people. This much is clear from Scripture: from the Tower of Babel to Babylon, Assyria, Rome, and even the whore on a dragon in Revelation that is unquestionably symbolic of Rome, Empire has never been a friend to the Kingdom of God. Even when Israel asked for a king, which God begrudgingly granted them, he was quite clear that this request was a “rejection” of himself.
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. (1 Samuel 8:6-7)
One of the biggest problems with Empire is that it has a "religion" of its own. It has its own mythological history (usually white-washed of any blemishes), pantheon of demigods (like the Founding Fathers), holy texts (the Constitution and Declaration of Independence), holy days (Veterans Day and the Fourth of July), saints (soldiers who have died), sacraments and worship liturgies (the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, voting), sermons (the State of the Union Address), and of course its own priests, bishops, and Pope in the form of all manner of elected officials up to the President as the figurehead of the whole enterprise.
In part three or four (haven't decided the order yet), I’m going to elaborate more on this, but for now let me say this: the state has its own narrative and its own story of salvation, and it is not compatible with the narrative of the Kingdom of God, no matter how much we try to cobble them together.
Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Full stop.
If you look at my political affiliation on Facebook, you’ll see that from the first day I set it up over 14 years ago, it has said “I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. What else matters?” Even though I had never heard the term “Christian Anarchist” before and my political theology was very under-developed, I had read Shane Claiborne - and simply the Gospels (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) - and I knew that there was something fishy about pledging my allegiance to the Empire. In fact, “allegiance” is one of the best translations we can use for faith (pistes in the Greek), which is a word that’s a whole lot more about commitment and remaining faithful rather than it is about blind belief in a set of doctrines.
Paul is quite clear: our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). And this is coming from a man who was a Roman citizen, one of the most prestigious titles you could get - and one that was many times more difficult to obtain than even American citizenship is today!
Peter takes all the words once used to describe the kingdom/people of Israel and applies them to Jesus followers:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles** ... (1 Peter 2:9-12)
The Early Church Fathers made this extremely clear up until the unity of religion and Empire under Constantine a few hundred years later. There isn’t time to go into detail here, but this one quote from Tertullian about the Roman Empire sums up the attitude of the early Church pretty nicely.***
"We have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings; nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state. We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth—the world. We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition."
A different king of Kingdom - because a “Christian Nation” makes no sense
The Kingdom of God is an upside-down Kingdom. The poor are blessed, the rich are brought down. The last are first, the first are last. Violence is wholeheartedly rejected. Oppressors and enemies are not to be resisted with violence, but to be subordinated by a “conspiracy of love.” If you read my article On going the extra mile (and how it doesn’t mean what you think it means), you’ll see that this subordination is pacifist, but it is definitely not passive! The King commanded his followers to give up what they own, to lay down their swords, and to take up their crosses and follow him. And of course, that same “King” hangs bloody on his own cross for his own coronation ceremony!
When Jesus used this highly political term (the "Good News") to describe the Kingdom of God, he was more than just being cute. He was being incredibly provocative and setting himself up as an ideological enemy of Empire - one who would proclaim peace, live homeless, and eventually have a coronation ceremony that involved riding into the city on a donkey (not a war horse), getting a crown of thorns, and dying on a cross (a punishment reserved for rebellion leaders and other enemies of the Empire) with a sign that said “King of the Jews” above his head.
Therefore, the idea of a “Christian nation” just makes no sense. Any nation run like the Kingdom of God would fall apart within a week.**** (Check out Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation if you want to read more.) The problem is that when we work from this framework, when we try to mix the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world, the engine backfires. We end up compromising or confusing the nature of the only Kingdom we are called to live in by thinking that we can somehow legalize and enforce it. We try to make political policies from the words of Jesus! And most dangerously, we mix up our faith with a certain political stance in this whole messed-up enterprise, representing that one as the only true “Christian” one.
Empire will always exist in a broken world, and I don’t think for a second that it is the job of Christians to overthrow it. Instead, our job is to distance ourselves from identifying with it and to live out a subversive, radical, revolutionary, and what I have called counter-political Kingdom. Empire is built on violence and hierarchy, and because of that, it can never be Christian. The most “Christian” thing we can do is make it absolutely clear that there is only one Kingdom - and one King - that we serve.
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
*In these posts, I am writing specifically within the context of the American Empire. Not only will my examples and critique be US-specific, but I’m not sure exactly how much Christian Anarchist thought “translates” into other contexts, such as small, non-imperialistic nations. This is a worthwhile subject for research, but it was not the emphasis of my thesis or of most Christian Anarchist writing.
**It is likely that Peter was talking to Jews who were literally foreigners and exiles, but the point still stands: God’s people do not need land and an earthly kingdom to be a “holy nation.”
***I have done extensive work on Tertullian’s writings, studying the development of his political and pacifist theology throughout his career, which can be found in my paper Non-violence in the Early Church.
****I know that there will be plenty of people who say that we can extract Biblical principles, or so-called “Judeo-Christian ethics,” and use them for running a nation, but to me this is exactly the kind of thing Jesus rejected. I say, let broken Empire be what it is (since it’s going to be, whether we like it or not) and allow the vibrant life of Kingdom citizens to shine that much brighter. With that said, I’ve got no problem if you want to vote based on moral convictions, as long as we’re entirely clear that we’re not voting the “Christian” way.