‘Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel’ reviewed by Jamie Pitts

Reviewed by Jamie Pitts

About the reviewer

Jamie Pitts is studying for PhD on John Howard Yoder at the University of Edinburgh …


Recent interpretations of Christian political theology by theologians and Continental philosophers alike tend to focus on a few major figures: the apostle Paul, Augustine, Carl Schmitt, and others. With the publication of his doctoral thesis, Christian Anarchism, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos indicates that fruitful ground may be found in the minority tradition represented by a heterogenous grouping of Christian anarchists, the most noted of whom are Leo Tolstoy, Nicolas Berdyaev, Jacques Ellul, and Dorothy Day. Christoyannopoulos weaves together the theological insights of his selected interlocutors to present a topical synthesis he hopes will appeal both to theologians and anarchists. For theologians, Christian anarchism is presented as more critical and creative than liberation theology or Christian pacifism. For anarchists, the viability of a religiously-based anarchism is meant to challenge the automatic association of anarchism with atheism.

Christian Anarchism is divided into two parts, each with three chapters. The first part, on the Christian anarchist critique of the state, leads with a chapter on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as the ‘manifesto’ for the tradition. Although a number of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon have influenced Christian anarchist thought, it is his command to ‘resist not evil’ (5:39) that provides its raison d’être. Because Jesus forbids Christian complicity with violence, there can be no alliance between Christianity and the state. More positively, the vision of cooperative love set forth by Jesus recommends an anarchist political order. Christian anarchism is therefore both a critical principal and an active movement to resist and provide an alternative to violent authority. The second chapter places Jesus’ anarchism in the context of his wider teaching and activity. Jesus’ execution by the Jewish state, with Roman imperial backing, exposes the true character of statecraft and reveals nonviolent resistance as the most appropriate response. Jesus is revolutionary precisely because ‘He does not seek to lead yet another revolutionary government, but instead points to the true kingdom beyond the state’ (118) – a ‘kingdom’ which paradoxically takes the form of anarchy. Anarchist resources are also located in the critiques of monarchy and imperialism contained within the Hebrew scriptures and the book of Revelation.

Christian political practice throughout history has, of course, only very rarely taken the form of anarchism. In the third chapter, Christoyannopoulos discusses the Christian anarchist repudiation of the Christendom model and of Christian political conservatism more broadly. Many Christian anarchists reject institutional churches altogether. Tolstoy’s writings, for example, on the obfuscatory role of church ritual and theology rivals anything Marx wrote on the subject. At issue here for Christian anarchists is the old sin of idolatry: the violence and deception required by the state to justify its reign unveil its pretension to be all in all, making idolators of out all who align with it. The second part of the book outlines the proper Christian response to this situation.

The fourth chapter highlights a discrepancy within Christian anarchist thought between those who regard the apostle Paul as the fount of conservatism and those who see him as furthering Jesus’ anarchist leanings. Tolstoy was of the former opinion, but more recent writers, following John Howard Yoder, interpret Paul as teaching an indifference to the state that is subversive in its selective, nonviolent resistance. This indifference seems to accord with Jesus’ attitude towards taxation, e.g., the famous ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ saying (Mark 12:17). Indifference in this case is not fuelled by apathy, but by the refusal to make the state ultimate. Christian anarchists thus agree that holding political office, voting, and military service are out of bounds for Christians. Tax resistance is popular amongst Christian anarchists, though some prefer only to withhold military taxes. There is some disagreement over whether or not such active civil disobedience truly reflects the Christian ethos of nonresistance. But, Christoyannopoulos contends, all concur that God is to be obeyed in all things, and so be it if that leads to conflict with the state.

In contrast to traditional anarchism, violent revolution is not an option for Christian anarchists simply because it repeats the mistake of thinking good can emerge from domination. The Christian anarchist revolution is ‘bottom up’, emerging from the pacific witness of those committed to following Jesus (211). The fifth chapter explores the communal shape of this witness, the Christian anarchists’ ‘true church’. Growing through the voluntary conversion of new members, the anarchist church is distinguished by decentralised authority and an economy of care and sacrifice for the weaker. Practices of nonviolence are central for the church as it encounters discordant and violent others on its way. The community setting also encourages the development of faith in an anarchist future. That faith is furthermore inspired by the past exemplars of Christian anarchist witness reviewed in the sixth chapter. Pre-modern exemplars include the earliest Christians, St Francis, Peter Chelcicky, Anabaptists, Quakers, Diggers, and Levellers. Modern exemplars include the movements incited by William Lloyd Garrison (though only briefly), Adin Ballou, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and the several Christian anarchist newspapers and online communities that have sprung up since the 1980s. None of these examples is perfect, but each gives hope that Christian anarchism is a concrete possibility.

Christoyannopoulos concludes his book with the admission that Christian anarchism is in fact not anarchism at all, but theonomy or rule by God. He only chooses to retain the label for strategic purposes. Christianity is rooted in the conviction that God rules history, and that the will of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Christian obedience to God in Christ is similar to anarchism, first because it denies the authority of the state, and second because it seeks non-authoritarian modes of political decision-making. But for Christians unlike anarchists, such a politics is based in God’s law—and in the end, God’s law will triumph. This basis means faithfulness to God is valued over short-term effectiveness, and hence the commitment to nonviolence is not viewed as an avoidance of moral responsibility. Christoyannopoulos suggests that this faith in God’s future unites Christian anarchists, whatever their disagreements about how that future comes about. Faith engenders hope, and in a time when the realisation of the Christian anarchist vision seems far away, such hope can sustain the vision on the margins of society as a critical force.

Christoyannopoulos mentions two possible criticisms of Christian anarchism: first, that its approach to biblical interpretation is naïve, and second that it inadequately engages the traditions of Christian faith. He rightly points out that constructive work is possible on the latter, but in a troublesome pragmatic move accepts the former given the present popularity of biblicist hermeneutics. Over the last 40 years or so, ideological and traditional biblical critics have taken significant steps to disassociate the Bible from its role in supporting oppressive political, racial, and gender regimes. These could profitably be explored by Christian anarchists, especially in regions where fundamentalisms continue to wield the Bible as a weapon of domination.

To these critical observations may be added several others. The prose is pedantic, repetitive, and dull. The choice to create a topical synthesis of writers working in different eras and media will bother readers with historicist inclinations. Christoyannopoulos, furthermore, seems to underestimate the highly constructive nature of his synthesis, and offers scant methodological justification by which it could be evaluated. Sources seem to appear or disappear according to whether or not they fit his normative understanding of a particular topic, and disagreements are often hastily harmonised. If the synthesis has descriptive aims, then far too much weight is placed on a cast of influential but non-anarchist ‘supportive thinkers’. Finally, in his focus on ‘today’s context of the all-powerful state’ (288), the author appears blissfully unaware of the phenomenon of global capitalism. Christian Anarchism piques interest in its subject, but an adequate introduction remains to be written.

19 October 2010

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