Anarchism: The Jesus Way

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace?” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”    – John 2:13-19 (NRSV)


Gathering a following of working class fishermen and people with disabilities the Middle Eastern God-peasant the Gospel of John portrays just a few stories into the narrative heads to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and starts a riot. With his homemade whip, Jesus aggressively threatens the money changers, flips over their tables of sellable goods, throws their coins all over the Temple, and releases the commodified animals from their cages.

Fast forward 2000 years and we have a similar story with a very different reaction from the supposed followers of Jesus today. In the early hours of the morning before their Sunday service on the fourth of September 2016 Christian Anarchists smashed the windows of a Starbucks inside 12 Stone Church in Atlanta Georgia (for the second time that year), leaving hundreds of signed letters of resistance to their absurd mixture of Capitalism and Christianity. “We acted this way in accordance with Jesus’ example of driving the businessmen out of the temple…We implore you to reject buying and selling in our places of worship, and to ‘take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a pace of business!’ as Jesus commanded.” (Anonymous 2016)

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber describes the work of the frequently criticized Black Bloc strategy in a similar light: “Black Blocs…have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory…They’re attempting to invent what many call a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival and what can only be called non-violent warfare — non-violent in the sense adopted by, say, Black Bloc anarchists, in that it eschews any direct physical harm to human beings” (Graeber, 2002: 66).

Historically the Christian tradition and the radical politics of Anarchism and Marxism have existed in tension, with few examples of radical political thinking merged with radical religious thinking (Ellul, Tolstoy, and more recently Christoyannopoulos). Notions of power, hierarchy, and domination have permeated the elite visons of Christianity and the practices of Christian piety, giving both anarchists and radical theologians grounds for dismissing the absurdity of the power-hungry religious industrial complex.

It is helpful here to make a distinction in the same way the Zapatista’s do in relation to State powers and their organizing through power from above and the people power from below. The Christian tradition has been dominated, as most traditions of political and spiritual imagination have, with theologies and practices from above while being in direct confrontation with Christianity from below. From below we see a dynamic, fluid polydoxy, and materialized faithfulness; from above we find an efficient systematic theology that sends most of the world’s population to hell and justifies their murder on Earth as in Heaven.

For this project, I want to focus on a major gap in biblical and theological studies: the variety of marginalized Christianities and their praxis from below.  In doing so we find a Christianity that reflects the horizontal, organic, process oriented, nature of anarchist thought and action. Two traditions that have historical been in opposition to one another find deep resonance, creating the potentiality for liberatory political emancipation through the many marginalized Christian communities in existence around the world. To do this we will first, explore theological tendencies throughout the Christian tradition that subvert statist religious concoctions for emancipatory visions of religion and spirituality. Second, look to current forms of Christian Anarchism and their failures to live up to anarchist visions of liberation and freedom. Finally, I will attempt to connect the new waves of anarchist history (Scott 2009), Latin American political studies (Zibechi 2010), and anthropology (Graeber 2001) to contemporary radical Christian praxis.

Revolutionary Christianity

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” 

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Communist Manifesto)

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)

The history of Christianity is the history of class struggles. Pharisees and lay peasants, Caesars and prophetic messiahs, State officials and bloody crosses, oppressor and oppressed, have stood in direct opposition to one another, and thus create a history written by the “winners” ignoring the underclass – especially their revolutionary movements. James Scott argues in Seeing Like the State that during early state development the control mechanism was through sedentary society via agriculture, taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion (Scott 1998). Scott goes on to argue that these early state societies based on domination and hierarchy used language to codify their control in written form. He even suggests that communities who have escaped to the periphery or hidden in the hills remain illiterate in active protest of the Sate’s use of language and writing to centralize power through hegemonic uniformity. With this historical understanding of state formation, we begin to see the ways history is shaped and manipulated by those who have risen to power within centralized statist societies and hierarchical social relations. The poor, disabled, mentally diverse, queer, and women of the world have been written out of his-tory with statist intentionality.

The radical nature of the Christian gospels is that they perform a literary act of historical fiction from the bottom of Roman society. Language and the written word are utilized by the early Christian communities for emancipatory religiosity in a world dominated by Roman imperial conquest. So much so that Jesus himself is referred to as “The Word made flesh” or wisdom (Sophia) embodied, a strong move of protest to the ways of the Empire. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, attest to an early community formed by unity within diversity as each of these gospels (most of which are building off an early manuscript biblical scholars call the Q document and then later the first written gospel, Mark) are very different from one another and cannot be harmonized no matter how hard the fundamentalists try. In each of these gospel tales we find a brown Middle Eastern boy born to a teenage girl out of wedlock in a peasant community who organizes a movement around the inclusion of women in religious leadership, the inclusion of peoples with various disabilities who were deemed outcasts of society, and a movement of political subversion to their Roman Lord, Caesar.

Within the Christian New Testament, we find most the letters within the cannon come from Paul and a pseudo-Pauline author writing on his behalf most likely as a student of his teachings. It should be noted that Paul is writing later in history than the original gospel four narratives, so when comparing his letters with the gospels it becomes clear that Paul crafts a strong metaphysical and supernatural theology around the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth that did not exist in the earlier writings. It has been suggested that Paul opens the door to a theological of domination and one submissive to Statist authorities (Romans 13). Yet what (pseudo-)Paul does in the name of God is a radical move for the early magically minded peasants of the first century. Much of his work is based on God’s divestment of power (the theological idea of Kenosis), God’s investment in the material world through a human being in which affirms the sacredness of all life, God’s call to mutual aid through spiritual community on the margins of society, God’s love for Jews and Gentiles, and God’s preferential option for the impoverished. In no way is Pauline theology a pure form of radical imagination for today but rather is a historical expression of an evolution from exclusive religiosity to radical inclusivity through solidarity (what Paul refers to as incarnation, a hybrid between solidarity and sacredness).  The formally despised gentiles (often characterized in general terms as an exotic other) were welcome to join the Christian resistance and they did not have to be circumcised – thank Paul.

Within the gospels and epistles of the Christian New Testament there is a strong drive toward a utopian politically religious imagination. Jesus’ most quoted phrase in the texts are, “Kingdom of God” to which he proclaims, “is at hand” and yet to come. Within the early Jesus movement, then referred to as The Way (implying embodied action and faithfulness to a teacher rather than belief in a supernatural magician), their main demand came from Jesus’ first sermon in public when he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” to protest normal temple services and declare from the prophetic Isaiah scroll: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the impoverished. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the Jewish concept of Jubilee in which God declared every 50 years to be the forgiveness of all debts and the return to one’s original land. In the life of Jesus and his teachings we discover a radical political imagination not separate from his religious proclamations, it is as if Jesus is claiming his political ideas are sacred.

If we define “the political” more broadly as social relations we can understand Jesus’ ministry as a declaration of social relations formed through reciprocity and mutual aid as divine, sacred, and holy. If the supernatural nature of Jesus’ teachings are removed nothing really changes: his message is still for the emancipation of the oppressed from their oppressors. This is what I mean by being interested in what these early Christian communities were doing in the name of God. I am not arguing in defense of the supernatural but pointing to the material relations each supernatural proclamation is connected to and the ways in which Jesus claims sacredness within marginal social spaces. What is being done in the name of God is a vision of utopian social relations, a world in which all people and non-human animals have creative freedom and self-determination. Within modern political thought we might call this a form of “prefigurative politics,” that is an attempt to organize social relations that reflect the future society collectively imagined. In theological terms this might be understood as “eschatology” or the study of “end times.” Jesus seems to imagine time differently than a linear movement of progression and rather speaks to the already-but-not-yet nature of the types of social relations he is trying to infuse into society. The Kingdom of God is “here” but at the same time he speaks to it being somewhere in the future. He makes both of these arguments by reaching into his Jewish prophetic tradition and reviving movements of the past into the present. Jesus’ vision of revolution is rooted in history and the material struggles of the Israelites. Revolution is not to be understood as a momentary event but a long historical struggle between the powers of oppression and those structurally forced to the bottom of society.

This Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks to stands in direct contrast to the Kingdom of Caesar, especially when coming from his context: a peasant wood worker from the ghettoized town of Nazareth. We see this most vividly portrayed in Jesus’ act of gorilla theater via his triumphal entry into the city on the same day Caesar would have been entering the city from the opposite outer gates. Jesus rides in on a donkey, Caesar on a war horse; Jesus’ comrades lay down before him the only coats they own along with palm branches, Caesar’s celebrants wave huge banners and expensive colorful fabrics; and for Jesus’ entry people yell out “Save us! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” Caesar’s parade begins with loud instruments and chants that “Caesar is Lord, the saving one!”

The gospel writers move on to describe Jesus being attacked in the garden of Gethsemane by Roman police after being betrayed by Judas for a small payment from the bourgeois religious leaders. He is then beaten up, whipped, crowned with thorns, draped with a purple cape, and eventually tortured on a cross (the states former favorite form of “justice”). The movement was to be wiped out, the movement’s leader was executed by the State. All the while the movement itself has only spoken out to demand justice for the impoverished, the non-religious people (Gentiles), the women of society, and the people with diverse abilities. They then proclaim a spirit of resurrection carries on their message of hope and that no state execution can destroy their movement. Through this crisis moment a rebirthing happens (Zibechi 2010) for the movement launching it into what is now known as Christianity. From death, crisis, and oppression, comes the possibilities of rebirth, renewal, and the formation of exilic spaces.

The stories within the gospels subvert the initial movement’s obsession with an ideal and perfect leader (to whom they eventually prescribe full divinity) as Jesus is said to have blown the Holy Spirit on them, filling all the disciples with the power to “do even greater things.” (John 14:12). Within the Pauline epistles this is referred to as the communion of the saints, all people within the movement are understood to be valuable and needed for the resilience of the community amidst its physical, mental, and class diversity.  No matter who you are, you are sanctified when you join the Jesus movement to “love mercy, seek justice, and walk humbly” (Micah 3:8). In theological language, the saints are then called to bring about the Kingdom of God here and now in collaboration with the Holy, on this Earth rather than waiting for a heavenly after life. If engaged with current political imaginations we can understand this work of Kingdom building to be a metaphor in contrast to the Kingdom of Caesar, and see Jesus’ vision of “kingdom” as a Beloved Community (and idea coming from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) in which equity, freedom, and mutual aid reign supreme. In relation to the work of Andrej Grubacic and Denis O’ Hearn I would suggest this idea within early Christian communities is much like that of the Exilic Spaces: they exist outside dominant markets and embody forms of social relation that are based on reciprocity, redistribution, cooperation for pleasure, mutual aid, and direct democracy (Grubacic, O’Hearn 2016). As quoted above in Luke-Acts 2 it is recorded by early marginal communities that their existence depended on communistic social relations in which everyone’s needs were met without question. These early communities were a diverse network of marginalized and oppressed people, meeting in hidden spaces to resist the State’s oppression of their sacred political vison and carving out new social relations that reflect heaven on Earth. There is also a tradition within early Catholic communities of martyrdom in which it was an honorable move to be killed on behalf of your embodied religious vision of a renewed world. This same idea can be found in activist culture today (whether for good or ill), it is less about being murdered and more about being sent to prison for direct action.

The Failure of Evangelical Anarchisms

For the first 300 years of the Christian social movement it was not permitted to proclaim the title “Christian” while also working for the state in any capacity (military service being stressed the most). Scholars refer to what happens after year 300 as the Constantin Shift in which the Emperor squashed the movement for Christian liberation by declaring it the State religion and forcing it on all who proclaimed allegiance to the Empire (otherwise, off with your head!). From here recorded documents of the Christian movement reflect a top-down imperial religion of the State, used for control and colonization; the organic communities of prefigurative political work are silenced from the history books. Historians of Christian anarchist thinking pick up the thread again around the 11th and 12th centuries in which “popular sectarian heresies began to appear with greater frequency” (Christoyannopoulos 2011:99). The Waldeness sect reintroduced pacifism as a new tactic of resistance, also refusing to take oaths to the State and condemning violence through war and the death penalty. The Albigenses, who also reject war and capital punishment, were much like the Waldeness being crushed by the dominant, rich, and very powerful Catholic Church. Mystical Christian theology begins to surface around this same time which liberates women from submissive roles within religious communities as they begin to publish their direct religious experiences with God (which become hard to challenge by church leaders who have not had a “direct experience with God”). The mystical theological tradition is anarchistic in many ways as it rejects authoritarian, conclusive, and dominant Christian ideas. Mystical Theologies, like anarchism, also offer a way forward through the process of renewed social relations (often romanticized by the Mystics, love and compassion acted as the social glue of the Beloved Community). A few hundred years later the reformation takes place with all sorts of forgotten bohemian reformers challenging the oppressive economic practices and hegemony of the church catholic, ultimately being murdered by the State and/or Catholic authorities. The Brethren, Anabaptists, Luddites, Diggers, Levellers, and Quakers are all examples of Christian sects that defended themselves against State violence and prefigured exilic communities of mutual aid and collective responsibility. They did so through a revision of their theological understanding of God and the world, one in which was deeply relational and valued the interbeing of all things – so much so that they did not only share possessions but spouses and family members were all considered apart of the same family unit and swapped partners and pleasures as willed (Nordhoff 1875). They did not invent these theological concepts but renewed them for their historical location. More modern thinkers like Leo Tolstoy and Jacques Ellul have been very influential in the Anarchistic Christianities that have evolved over time; both authors are the definitive sources for most recent Christian Anarchist writings. It should also be noted that hundreds of Christian Communist exilic spaces were created during the colonization of Turtle Island. Creating a “utopia” on colonized land for white Europeans is most definitely a strange idea, yet these communities nonetheless produced literature and social practices that reflect the core ideas of Communism.

These previous threads within the Christian movement are stitched together through a pre-modern theological vision. In my research of modern day anarchist Christian thinkers, a strain of evangelical conservatism runs thick through their veins. The anarchist literature coming from communities and authors alike tackle political subversion through a critique of domination and power but leave behind the same critique of power for their vision of God. An example of this type of thought comes from Greg Boyed a prominent evangelical and anarchist:

I’ll argue that Kingdom people are called to pledge their allegiance to God alone, not to any nation, government, political party or ideology. Because Kingdom people are under the rule of God alone, they are not under any other rule. Kingdom people are thus called to be “anarchists” (meaning without [“an”] human authority [“archy”]). Not only this, but the main task of Kingdom people is to keep the Kingdom “holy” — meaning “set apart,” “separate” and “consecrated.” We are to take great care to live lives that are set apart from the ideals, values and methods of the world’s politics. (Boyd 2010)

Within this paradigm, the God figure becomes the new oppressor, that which we each imagine differently in our own minds and refer to as “God” is used as the ultimate source of power, domination, and control. These evangelicals appropriating anarchist ideas do not seem to recognize their critique does not extend the central idea of anarchism (a critique of power and domination) to the theological realm. Much like the late feminist movements in the United States where we learned that the personal is political, it is also true that the religious is the political. If your religious imagination is anarchistic towards the state, wonderful; if your anarchist imagination ignores your religious imagination you have made a terrible mistake. The very oppressive ideologies and metaphysical theologies that shape the “God is King alone” theories perpetuate the very authoritarian violence detested by anarchists.

Alternative Theological Systems

Now we turn to a discussion between Process Theology (Cobb, Griffin 1976) and Anarchism; and Death of God Theology (Caputo 2006) and Anarchism to explore two contemporary theological movements much more evolved than the Christian anarchist theologies mentioned above. Here are a few key ideas within each field of thought:

Process Theology (PT) – as developed by Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin, and Cobb – is a critique of power within philosophical ideas about God. Hinged on the problem of Evil it is reasoned that if God has the power to do anything, and God does not use this power to end the problems of oppression and evil, then God is demonically monstrous. PT therefore develops a notion of God that is power-less, a ground of being that is in a constant state of process never separate from the world but in dynamic relation luring the world through powers of persuasion rather than coercion. In this relational dynamism, God is also not understood in supernatural terms but as Paul Tillich would say, the ground of being or being itself. For those who do chose to believe in a God or Gods PT helps craft a theology based on a critique of power and domination that permeates the entire open theological system. Supernaturalism is denounced and replaced by an enchanted world always already naturally super. Central to PT is a critique of Cartesian dualism, replaced by a notion of reality that is emergent, always in process, and relational to the core.

Death of God Theology takes PT a step further by attempting to rid theology of God all together and seeks to discover something deeper within what is being done in the name of God. Rather than understand God to be a supernatural other (or a superbly natural Other), God is a word, an idea, a framing of the unknown and the unknowable. In this sense, it is much like the Mystical Traditions of the medieval ages but has evolved in such a way as not speak in metaphysical language to describe the nature of things sacred. This is a strong critique of the powerful and dominating God of religious traditions used to control, colonize, and destroy land bases for the centralization of wealth and power. And yet Death of God theology values standing firm within a long tradition that has wrestled with things holy and attempted to articulate a sense of mystery through a Christian vision. Rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water these theologians transform their tradition for the transformation of the world through a critique of theological and/or material relations based on hierarchy.

Conclusions and Complications

What I hope to have illuminated are the many connections between anarchism and Christianity through a historical lens utilizing Scott whose work on non-state spaces and histories of state formation inform the historical friction I have tried to draw out between Christianity from above and expressions of faithfulness to the tradition from below, and how these marginalized people are ultimately being written out of history but are also redeemed in many ways through 1st century Christian writings. With the work of Zibechi in Territories in Resistance he reframes dominant theories of social change with the embodied movements of impoverished and marginalized communities in Latin America. He shows how oppressed communities who have been pushed to the outskirts of the urban environment will collectively organize in networks of horizontal councils. Not only are many illiterate, poor, and criminalized peoples forming together territories blockaded from forces of state violence organized against authoritarian leadership, they are also deeply reflective of early Christian communities forming their own exilic spaces within both the urban and peripheral spaces of Roman Empire.

Rather than understanding movements through systematic and categorizing formulas like many social scientists and state actors, Zibechi suggests we envision the movements from their most affected actors. In doing so we begin to see how societies are in movement and traditional organizing principles and institutionalization fail to express the nature of these movements. If these Latin American struggles are compared to historical Christianity we see a movement that lasted 300 years through dispersed networks of small communities, criminalized and persecuted for creating autonomous spaces of religious and political subversion yet ultimately being institutionalized by Constantine and destroying the subversive power of the movement all together. From below came a religiosity based on self-determination, autonomy, and new social relations based on collectivity, communal living, and creative imagining. Take away the spiritual element and we have something very similar to what Zibechi describes in Latin America. And finally, all of this is reflective of the radical anthropological work of Graeber as the study of cultures and peoples can be done from a place of political motivation for today’s social movements. May this paper reflect the historical, systemic, and critical analysis Graeber brings to the field while also providing Christians and Anarchists (and Christian Anarchists) a resource for exploring the relationship between these historically opposed social movements.

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