Do Not Put Your Trust In Princes – Christian Anarchism
2016 07 24 Workshop offered at Toronto Anarchist Bookfair
Based off an outline from 2014 06 27 London Anarchist Bookfair
Introduction (5 minutes)
To – identify the anarchist impulse historically in Judeo-Christianity
To – suggest ways to reimagine contemporary Christianity
To – talk about the spirituality of Empire and of resistance
Not – discuss the existence of God
Not – convert people
Not – to defend religion
Not – engage in autocritique – i.e. not attempting to resolve all possible problems.
Don’t – assume knowledge of anarchism or Christianity
Don’t – belittle individuals who may or may not be present – it’s okay to say ‘i find evangelicalism problematic’, but not ‘evangelicals are stupit’, which they are not.
Don’t – rely on generalisation. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Do – ask questions, guide the discussion, many many approaches and areas of interest
Do – give the benefit of the doubt
Do – give space for thought, response, uncertainty
Invite people to share why they have come to the workshop (10 mins)
Workshop outline – 30 min into – how I personally came to Anarchism and Christian Anarchism, and some of what that has led me to, and a general sense of the anarchist impulse in Christianity.
Then, remainder of time looking at a ‘menu of options’ to go a little deeper.
My Christian Anarchism – intro
Raised conservative evangelical in the UK in intentional community, part of a church which shared life together – pretty cutting edge eh
Not much sense of political importance
I picked up a lot of things without realising. Roles of patriarchy, ideas about globalisation, etc.
Wasn’t until I got to university that I heard about anarchism
Did some reading – realisation – it IS possible to be a Christian Anarchist, and I am one!
Following Jesus means saying no to worldly things – which includes worldy government.
Recognising that state violence is still violence, nothing gets a pass just because it’s done by a human authority.
Christian Pacifism – centered on Jesus, assuming that he was being serious when he said ‘love your enemies’
He practiced it himself, what would happen if we did?
And ultimately – how can you participate in justice system based on violence, in a government based on violence, in a system of property ownership and protection based on violence, in a
Characterise this as ‘Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not’
Response to a theology of empire that deified the emperor – literally
It is a personally effective model. Tends towards a sort of individualism, which works with an evangelical mindset – individual salvation, freedom of conscience, a sort of splendid martyrdom complex – as for me, I can do no other, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
but there is more.
The imperial critique of Paul and the apostles
Recognise that the Bible has a deep core of anarchism
Not just ignoring worldly powers but actually opposing them/replacing them
Use of imperial phraseology – mocking phrases like peace and security – 1 Thessalonians 5
Son of God – Caesar’s title
Christians were atheists
Principalities and Powers – this has been spiritualised, to talk about sin, temptation, ambition
But St Paul uses the same language for governments that he does for demons.
This spirituality of empire indicates that there is evil embedded in the structure of the empire.
Not just about bad people, or people making bad decisions, it is the very structure of society itself that corrupts and protects evil.
Conception of spirituality as ‘the interiority’ of institutions.
The culture, history, traditions. The spirit of an institution – racism, exclusion, inflexibility, shame…
The Christian Faith as a way to engage and disarm those things.
The UnKingdom of God – the idea that Jesus does, in fact, have authority, Jesus is perhaps the only one who can claim to be a king (for various reasons) and his way of exercising that is to leave home, family, job, to wander the world teaching, serving, healing, and confronting the powers and authorities of his day, nonviolently, in such a way that they choose to murder him.
So that is the model of kingship that exists in the Kingdom of God – God’s alternative reign.
That’s part of the ideological, theoretical basis for finding anarchism in Christianity
More practically, anarchist principles of organisation, discipline and responsibility, mutual aid – all these are things necessary to survive without relying on violence-based dehumanising structures.
Christian Anarchist Principles
Menu of Options
Songs, Poems and Prayers –
Even in cultures that have lost their orality, songs, poems and prayers are important ways to learn, shape values, and share community. The Bible and the Christian Tradition encodes a lot of truth and history in songs, and sometimes there are surprising depths.
Do not put your trust in princes – songs of faith and doubt Psalm 146
The Psalm emphasises the worthlessness of human authority structures. Real security comes from God. This is a repeated theme as people are tempted to give their allegiance to rulers or make military alliances with empires to protect against other empires. The song says that God is active in providing food for the hungry and justice for the oppressed. Saying this today would be spiking the campaigns we see being run today. Do not put your trust in Donald – one day soon he’s going to die, and when that happens, it will all be up in the air. And don’t look to Hillary for justice for the oppressed – those things come from God.
So what does God mean in this? The Bible makes the claim that God exists, and that God is active and working – and that WE need to be active and working too. However you understand the nature of God, we’re all activists of one sort or another. We might be tempted to rely on political parties to fight our battles for us, but this Psalm robs them of agency and power and leaves us with the question ‘so what are we doing?’
Question – what makes people so likely to put their trust in princes?
Amos and other prophets – accusation, lamentation, and unexpected endings…
“Why are human beings so obsequious, ready to kill and ready to die at the call of kings and chieftains? Perhaps it is because they worship might, venerate those who command might, and are convinced that it is by force that man prevails…the hunger of the powerful knows no satiety; the appetite grows on what it feeds. Power exalts itself and is incapable of yielding to any transcendent judgment; it ‘listens to no voice’ (Zeph. 3:2). It is the bitter irony of history that the common people, who are so devoid of power and are the prospective victims of its abuse, are the first to become the ally of him who accumulates power…”
–Abraham Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction
The prophets were not primarily people who predicted the future, they are people who interpret the present and present challenge. They are really poets – people who string together words to hint at the underlying reality, to name the unnamed. Sometimes use cryptic language, sometimes they are very clear.
They give guidance to rulers, and they also oppose rulers. They speak on behalf of God, and tend to come from the common people. In the Biblical histories, whenever there is a bad king, there is a prophet, chasing them around, accusing them, condemning them.
Amos was a shepherd who travelled to the centre of the kingdom to confront injustice and evil. His book in the Bible is short enough to read, but understanding it takes some context.
Prophetic books tend to follow an arch – first they condemn. They call out the evil they see, they clearly say that it is wrong, and they name the consequences. Power structures always try to hide the consequences. The fossil fuel industry screws up plenty of lives, but not the lives of the rich people who profit from it. And cultures that rely on these oppressive industries come up with all kinds of reasons why ‘we’ will not have to deal with the consequences. And prophets say ‘yes you will, you are not special, you are not immune’. So I would relate this part of the prophetic to the anarchist principle of ‘breaking the spell’ – disrupting the routine that allows people to ignore how their life is interwoven into an oppressive reality.
The second part of the prophetic is lamentation. This is a skill set we don’t often have. We love calling people out, making angry signs and memes, shaking the finger and fist. But after that happens, there is a need to lament. Because the prophets usually don’t get listened to. They get ignored or killed, and things keep happening, and then there is a crisis. Flooding, pipeline spill, lone gunman, Trump election… at that point people need to mourn and lament. This is something that draws in other people. Not everyone is safe going up against militarized police forces, but everyone needs to lament.
The final part of the prophetic is the unexpected hope. Prophets rant and rave, then weep with you, and then tell you ‘another world is possible’. Prophets afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And that’s why the rich and powerful hate them.
Question – when I describe a prophet, who do you think of in our generation?
The Punk Prayer of Mary – Magnificat – Luke 1:46-53
I first heard of Pussy Riot when they staged their famous performance in the Moscow cathedral, praying to Virgin Mary to get rid of President Putin, an act that had them sentenced to two years.
Mary is the mother of Jesus in the Bible. In my tradition growing up, she is not emphasised, but in other traditions she is very important, even equal to Jesus. There is a medieval tradition that the only words she ever spoke in her life are the ones recorded in the Bible. The bulk of that recorded speech is a long prayer song which we call the Magnificat.
Mary is a peasant living in Israel under the Roman occupation. She was visited by an angel who tells her God’s plan – she will have a child, and that child will recover the throne of David, the ancient king of Israel. Mary consents to take part in this plan. There’s obviously a great deal of risk to her – she is engaged but not married, if she gets pregnant she becomes a target of patriarchal violence. So she goes and stays with her cousin Elizabeth and the two of them take care of each other – and Mary sings the Magnificat
My soul magnifies the Lord – she empowers God. God is made manifest in the world through her action.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary understands that God’s plan involves toppling kings and giving strength to the vulnerable. Her song is part of a tradition of women singing about the downfall of the powerful, including Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel and Miriam, the sister of Moses. And apparently that now includes Pussy Riot.
Question – where can you hear this song echoing today?
The Lord’s Prayer – manifesto for revolution – Matthew 6:9-13
The most common prayer that Christians know is the ‘Our Father’. I learned it at state school in the UK, and in some churches it is said by the whole congregation each Sunday.
It comes from a teaching where Jesus tells the people ‘this is how you pray’ as a response to the overly complex prayers practiced by the professional religious elite:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
It is really simple. It is the things that are important. It asks for God’s Kingdom to come on earth. Anarchists may bristle at talk of Lords and Kingdoms but we have to understand that this is always in opposition to the existing system. God’s kingdom displaces human rule.
The prayer focuses on today – daily bread – the simple promise of food sovereignty instead of the grandiose promises of bread and circuses of the Emperors. And the prayer requires the cancellation of economic control – mutual forgiveness of debts.
More importantly there is nothing in here about going to heaven when you die. In the prayer, heaven is coming down to earth, to rearrange the world system to meet the needs of the people and abolish the debt system. I like the idea of that being the fundamental prayer that people are asked to pray.
Question – When we talk about Christian fundamentalism, what are the values that includes?
By the Rivers of Babylon
People have been taken away into captivity. Home invaded, population displaced, and they are asked to perform their culture, their sacred songs, as a form of entertainment.
Uncomfortable psalm for modern readers because of the violence at the end. But for the privileged this is an important insight into the exile condition.
It’s a song about the difficulty of remaining true to your culture when removed from the land and subjected to violence.
This is a psalm that acknowledges the pain and powerlessness of exile. So it’s not surprising that it, and the other exilic writings, are important to others, like communities of enslaved Africans in the US, who formed cultures of resistance through identifying with the songs and stories of the enslaved Israelites.
Myths & Roads
We are in a culture of myths – likely, mythology is essential to humanity, innate. These stories we tell to explain ‘why the world is the way it is’ are selected, developed, taught and told because they construct the social world we inhabit, appropriate to the bioregion. Everyone tells stories and understands the world by means of their myths/schema/narrative, but usually this functions unconsciously. If we don’t exercise creative power and cautious excitement about selecting/creating/interpreting our own mythologies then these mythologies will exercise power over us. Think about rightwing journalism and scaremongering – these rely on existing racist myths and fears.
Creation Narrative – countering Babylon
In the beginning…
Christians like to hold onto the idea that their scriptures are original. Moses wrote the first 5 books.
Scholarship has shown recurring themes and similarities in ancient mythologies, for example the Babylonian creation stories. So scholarship tends to say ‘the Bible account was influenced by the stories the people heard when they were in exile’, and Christians either ignore this or say ‘no it wasn’t’. But actually it is a lot cooler to say ‘yes, it was’ and then start to look at the differences with the texts.
Babylon creation myth – a war in heaven. the younger gods team up against their mother, Tiamat. She represents chaos and creativity. The gods agree that Marduk is the strongest of them, and he says he will kill Tiamat if they will agree to serve him. So he does, and kills her, and tears up her body to create the earth and the sea. Then he creates humans out of the blood so that they will be servants of the Gods.
The whole thing has a particular structure that is mirrored by the Genesis account. But the meaning and method is very different. In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth and populates it using the divine word, without violence or discord or bloodshed. The humans are created to be a part of the world, not to be servants of the gods, and everything is very good. So this is a model of original blessing, that the world is good and created to be good, not violent and intended to be violent.
So the people of Israel, taken off into captivity, start to hear the stories of their captors about how the world was created – through misogynist violence and struggle and deals made to allow the strong to rule over the many. Their response is to tell their own story of how the world was created – intended to be good.
Question – when we think about the origins of our society, what story do we tell? Survival of the fittest, or cooperation, random chance… how does that feed our narrative?
The Tower of Babel – liberation of diversity Genesis 11:1-9
Understood as a myth that explains different languages
I read it as a story where many peoples are oppressed and forced to work on an imperial project. Their own languages are suppressed, and all their cultural gifts are enslaved to create this single unifying project, that creates a single identity.
God in this story is a liberator who releases the languages and cultures that were trapped together. Naturally, when people are free to speak their own language and live their own way, they stop trying to build this giant useless unifying structure.
When people use the construction of buildings to talk about civilization and superior cultures, this is a story that mocks and undermines that kind of racism. It says that these civilizations are a product of slavery and suppression, and that when people are free, they don’t need to build immortal structures to know who they are.
Question – where do you see the demand for unity and monoculture today? How do we resist it?
Agitator-prophets respond to state-sponsored lateral violence land-grab 1 Kings 21: 1-16
The story of Naboth and Ahab.
Fiery Furnace Faith – fireproof vegans withstand assimilation (Daniel 3)
people in exile. Particularly the young intelligent good looking men are taken to make the court look nice. There is a chain of stories about their refusal to cooperate, to assimilate.
They refuse to eat the food and insist on only eating vegetables.
Meanwhile the king is getting delusions. He has a statue created and makes everyone worship it like a God. They refuse to worship.
So they get thrown into a furnace, so hot that it kills the soldiers who throw them in.
But when they look into the furnace they see four people, not the three that were thrown in, and they survive without being burnt.
Question – what stories do we have, do we tell, about people resisting the temptation to assimilate and enduring persection?
Wilderness Temptation – Jesus’ vision quest and the trickster – Matt 4:1-11
Jesus is about 30 years old and has this experience in the desert.
Christians like to talk about Satan as the bad guy.
He functions most of the time as a trickster, testing people, seeing their limits. So there is a good case to make that Satan is on the same side as God, and is playing something of an adversarial role.
Three temptations – unnatural food, personal security, authority without responsibility.
Jesus does not contend that the accuser has no power to offer these things! Simply that it is not right to cooperate.
Question – What does the average person rely upon when making decisions? How to eat, how to be safe, etc – what is the place of the state in this?
The Revelation of Saint John – Babylon is fallen! Rev 18:1-8
A lot of people don’t understand the book at the end of the Bible. It is part of a genre called Apocalypse which means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’. It’s revealing a hidden truth, something that is hard to say. The basic truth that the Revelation of St John of Patmos is that the violent and powerful are doomed to fall.
Christians like to think that it is about predicting the future. In fact it is a description of the early Christians struggling to survive in the Roman Empire. John is writing from exile on the Isle of Patmos and sees this series of visions and messages to pass on.
Question – what is the role of this kind of communication today? Do we consider it worthwhile? How do we communicate to those suffering violence?
The Church is our word for the Ekkleisia – a political gathering to make decisions. The primary expression of the Church has existed at the behest of empire – offering heavenly justification for hellish governments. The alliance of church and state is not unique to Christianity but we cannot deny the role of the Christian faith in slavery, colonialism, genocide, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia…
One of the tricks that the Church and the Empire play is to assert that they are the One Way. ‘One God, One Religion, One Empire’. They invisibilise independent communities and those in resistance as rebels, scroungers, heretics, diseased, or terrorists – where necessary they forcibly starve, assimilate or execute such divergent minorities.
Recognising the existence of divergent and dissident traditions is really important. We might laugh #NotAllChristian hashtags but demanding the right to be considered a Christian while not holding terrible politics is a disruptive move that is harder to dismiss than just saying ‘we disagree’. It’s claiming ground.
Spirit over Flesh – see the prophets
Christians claim that they are doing spiritual work while ignoring their material privilege. White Liberal Christians also make fun of ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – a coercive capitalist model of faith that promises people wealth in exchange for faithfulness. Good to oppose this, but people also ignore the basic goodness and wealth of the planet.
Deferring to eternity – see the Lord’s Prayer
Christians say that we’re here to get people into heaven.
Jesus says ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’
let’s make earth into heaven.
The Way – all things In Common – Acts 2:42
Quakers – something stirs in silence
Anabaptists – reclaiming baptism from the state
Charismatics – rejecting hierarchy, war, segregation…
Anglo-Catholicism – ‘unmanly and unEnglish’
Catholic Worker – making a society where it is easier to be good – removing poverty, getting back to the land, resisting war and preparation for war
Civil Rights – we tend to ignore the religious aspects of this – that strength of conviction and ability to get beyond justified and reasonable fear (Kumbaya)
Christian Peacemaker Teams
Student Christian Movement – need elders? Reminder that it has been bad before!
Redemption, Salvation – rewriting Christianese
“When we look at the early Christians, we see that they were pacifists, communists and charismatics. These three ingredients are resurrected over and over again in church history, among the monks and nuns, among the Waldensians and Anabaptists, among the Pentecostals and Jesus Hippies. They’re all part of the biblical movement that wants to combine non-violence, community of goods and signs and wonders.” Micael Grenholm