For the longest time, from the point I had an understanding of both Christianity and anarchy, I considered them incompatible. The latter was anti-government, anti-authority. The former was very involved in government, submissive to authority, and structured as a hierarchy.
Things have changed a little since then. My understanding of anarchy has expanded a bit, and take on Christianity is a distant memory.
But until, say, 6-8 years ago, I still considered the two incompatible. I was still under the impression that anarchists tended to be atheistic or agnostic. The anarchists that I had known over the years, or what I had seen via news bits, fed that impression. 6-8 years ago, however, I found quite a few disciples of Jesus, followers on the Way, who had been calling themselves anarchists for years. Through my interactions with them, reading what they wrote, reading what they’ve read, I was opened up to a new perspective on life, Christianity, the Kingdom of God, kingdoms of this world, loving people, interacting with the state, and many other avenues.
You ever read a book and wish you had read it years, even decades, before? Yeah, I have maybe 15 on my shelf like that. But Mark Van Steenwyk’s That Holy Anarchist is another one. The subtitle is telling: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism. The is a brief primer on the interaction between Christianity and Anarchism. And, I’m telling you, my adventures as a disciple of Jesus over the past 12 or so years would have been very different had this book been in my hands back then. (Actually, who knows what would have happened. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to read it. Perhaps I would have tossed it away with the junk books.) I was already heading down the road of Anabaptism at the time, embracing pacifism and a stance of separation from the kingdoms of the world. Reading this text now, I can look back and see how I at times had been engaging the world through the perspective of a Christian Anarchist.
The book is not long; essentially it’s the result of a series of online articles. It’s not exhaustive. Mark let us know up front: “I don’t assume [this book] is either definitive or adequate. I simply offer it to spark conversation and help people dig deeper into the anarchic implications of the way of Jesus.” (preface, pg.7) And that it does.
Walking through the book briefly, he gave some definitions. Helpful, but, in all reality, he revealed the problems that arise from trying to give any strict definitions to these topics. History and theology simply reveal this is not a black or white issue. A definition of Christianity, let alone anarchism or Christian anarchism, is nowhere near an X, Y, Z proposition.
Anyone who has called themselves a “Christian” or an “anarchist” for very long can tell you that neither “tradition” is easy to define. Neither is monolithic. And both are profoundly misunderstood. So talking about how they relate is a complicated task. (pg. 15)
But what is clear, and necessary for some of my brothers and sisters not all that familiar with this sort of discussion, is that you cannot understand Anarchy as strictly what you see in the news. Those teens and college punks that go spray painting the anarchy symbol all over the place (I remember in high school someone had burned a very large anarchy symbol into the lawn out front; the symbol was at least 20 feet in diameter) or have a patch on their backpack. It’s not about being an atheist. It’s not about fighting back against “the man” for the sake of fighting back and starting riots.
What is very helpful and practical is what followed in chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3 was a survey of anarchist type groups through history. The Early Church, the Beguines, Lollards, Quakers, Catholic Workers, among many others. Then chapter 4 presents an admittedly incredibly brief look into anarchic impules in Scripture. The discussion of the portions chosen help achieve Mark’s earlier stated goal of sparking discussion and further research. What I’m most thankful for is the review of Romans xiii.
Yes, The Romans xiii. (That’s Romans 13, in case you’re not up to speed on your roman numerals.)
Romans xiii is one of the most often used, and rapidly chosen, passages to counter any Anabaptist argument on pacifism, participation in government issues, participation in the military or war, payment of taxes. To many it’s like a Trump Card. “Oh. Christians shouldn’t be in the military, taking orders to kill Muslims in Iraq? Boo-yah! Romans 13. Yeah! That’s right. ‘Cause you got nothing say, I’ll be on my way.” And they totally disengage from the conversation, like they stumped you.
But Mark here makes the point very easy to see: “We read Scripture in ways that support authoritarianism because we learned how to read Scripture in authoritarian contexts. Once you start pulling the loose threads, you begin to find the whole authoritarian fabric unravelling” (pg. 42-43). In other words, if you’ve been trained in your churches or Bible studies, or by your parents or friends or mentors, to read the Scriptures as presenting a certain hierarchy, a certain social or political structure, you’re going to interpret the text within that model. And, here in the US, where many preachers and teachers over the decades have tended to hold the Scriptures up as supporting the American way, the very idea of the US itself, that pro-government, pro-hierarchy, pro-submission, anti-revolutionary attitude is at the heart of the “authoritarian context” the Scriptures are being read in. And I think for many people, simply considering the question, “Why do I interpret the text like I do?” would be a great start to challenging the status quo and dealing with those nagging issues with “church” and “church and state” that I think we all have.
Getting back to it though. The review of Romans xiii is very good. Very helpful.
Moving on, chapter 5 goes into some of the tensions, or practical struggles, when it comes to an anarchic take on Christianity. And chapter 6, while somewhat summing the discussion up, more so serves to move you forward and prepare us for Mark’s future book (I think it’s supposed to come out in 2013 if I’m not mistaken). But amid that I found the one sentence that is most important for Christians that may have an anarchic leaning: “A Christian anarchism must be rooted in Jesus’ vision” (pg. 62). We can not lose that foundation. We can not allow our resistance to be an end in and of itself. That can’t be our joy; what motivates us each day.
This text is a welcome little pamphlet in our home and I look forward to Mark’s larger work. As for any “negatives,” I found there seemed to be an assumption of a background of certain philosophical subjects or theological concepts. I could see some folks stumbling a bit with some phrases or concepts if they were not familiar with the subject matter (not just anarchism, but also things like pacifism) or the authors in the footnotes (Ched Myers, John Howard Yoder, Wes Howard-Brook, Jaques Ellul: while well read in some circles would be a fog to many of the church going folks I know). I do wish he had fleshed out a bit more of some of the historical groups; or maybe a larger recommended bibliography to where we can read more on them from credible sources. But, overall, as a primer, simply a survey text, it was very helpful.
Kudos to Mark Van Steenwyk. And, hopefully if there’s anyone that was in a similar place as I was, this can be a starting point to opening the opportunities for growth and freedom in Christ.
And, incase you were wondering, I was writing this review while listening Derek Webb’s Mockingbird and The Ringing Bell. Quite fitting I think.