Ask Ivor

Clay asks, "Do you think Jesus was an anarchist?"

Anarchists are opposed to government. They feel that the needs of society can be voluntarily met by individuals spontaneously cooperating; that there is no justification for coercion through laws, taxes, armies, police, courts, and prisons.

Most Christians are not anarchists. Socially and politically, they too often accept the status quo. Biblically, they tend not to look any further than the apostle Peter's instruction to "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men," and the apostle Paul's instruction that "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

Most Christians fail to notice that Peter, when he was ordered by the government to stop teaching about Jesus, did not submit, but kept on teaching and preaching. They fail to absorb the implications of Peter's words at that time: "We must obey God rather than men!" Most Christians fail to notice Paul's behavior, when he was dragged into court and the leader of the tribunal ordered him struck on the mouth—Paul, too, did not submit, but responded, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!"

Likewise, most Christians are ignorant of their own history. In the first three centuries, Christians were not timid, unthinking citizens, submitting to the decrees of their government. Rather, Christians stood out from their culture by being unconditionally opposed to government violence and militarism. Here's a sampling of quotes from those years:

Justin Martyr (c. 130): "We do not make war upon our enemies." Clement of Alexandria (c. 180): "Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings." Origen (c. 215): "Jesus nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked." Tertullian (c. 200): "The military oath and the baptismal vow are inconsistent with each other the one being the sign of Christ, the other of the devil." Hippolytus (c. 217): "The catechumen or believer who wish to become soldiers shall be dismissed, because they have despised God." Maximilian (c. 295): "I cannot be a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian." Lactantius (c. 300): "It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war."

These Church Fathers all taught the incompatibility of Christian faith and violence.

But then, in the early 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and made it the official state religion. Christianity became popular, and watered-down. All the best government jobs were given to those who identified themselves as Christians. And, irony of ironies, a century later Emperor Theodosius II decreed that only Christians were allowed to serve in the army.

The Church itself became a political power. For more than 1000 years, church and state were joined. Every member of society became a member of the Church—if not by persuasion, then by coercion. Unbelievers were tortured, or killed.

It wasn't until the beginning of the 16th century that the anti-government current of Christianity resurfaced. This was among the Anabaptists, who championed religious liberty: God's truth did not require human coercion to be victorious, they preached. The Anabaptists called for a separation of church and state. They refused to bear arms or take government jobs. Their Schleitheim Confession (1527) states, "It does not befit a Christian to be a magistrate: the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit.... The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, salvation, and with the Word of God." Anabaptists wanted government to stay out of their affairs. They believed that the church had sufficient resources for its life and work, and did not need the power of government. They claimed they were unearthing the original apostolic teachings. Both the Catholics and the Protestants viewed the Anabaptists as dangerous anarchists attempting to set up a counter-society, and they persecuted them heavily.

The Anabaptist anarchist attitude survived, at first in the Mennonite, Brethren, and Quaker traditions, and today Christian anarchism is (slowly) gaining a hearing in almost all the various Christian traditions.

Just as there are different types of anarchism, there are also different forms of Christian anarchism. Following is a variety of quotes from some notable Christian anarchists of the last two centuries.

Soren Kierkegaard:

The clergy think it very prudent to accept the protection of the state. They understand, all right, that it is considerably more pleasant to be a hired servant of the state than to serve Christianity according to the New Testament. But this prudence is not only short-sighted, it is blasphemy.... What Christianity needs is not the suffocating protection of the state; no, it needs fresh air, it needs persecution, and it needs God's protection. The state only works disaster, it wards off persecution and thus is not the medium through which God's protection can be conducted. Above all, save Christianity from the state. By its protection it smothers it to death.

Leo Tolstoy:

The governments, in order to dominate the people and to be considered Christian, had to pervert Christianity and to hide its true meaning from the people.... This perversion was accomplished long ago, in the time of that scoundrel the Emperor Constantine.... All subsequent governments... do their utmost to preserve this perverted understanding, and not to allow the people to see the real meaning of Christianity... the governments, with their taxes, soldiers, prisons, gallows, and false priests, are not only not the pillars of Christianity they profess to be, but are its greatest enemies.... The people are oppressed, robbed, poor, ignorant, dying of hunger. Why? Because the land is in the hands of the rich; the people are enslaved in mills and in factories.... How are they to escape? By taking the land from the rich? But if this is done, soldiers will come and will kill the rebels or put them in prison. Take the mills and factories? The same will happen. Organize and support a strike? But it is sure to fail. The rich will hold out longer than the workers, and the armies are always on the side of the capitalists.... Why do these people shoot at their brothers? Because it has been instilled into them that the oath they were obliged to take on entering the service is binding, and that, though it is generally wrong to murder people, it is right to do so at the command of their superiors.... How can sensible people believe, as all now serving in the army have believed and still believe, such an evident fraud? The answer is that it is not this one fraud by itself that takes people in, but they have from childhood been deprived of the proper use of their reason by a whole series of frauds, a whole system of frauds, called the Orthodox Faith, which is nothing but the grossest idolatry.... Only a man who is quite befooled by the false faith called Orthodoxy, palmed off upon him for the true Christian faith, can believe that there is no sin in a Christian entering the army.... The only means to free people from their many miseries lies in freeing them from the false faith instilled in them by government, and in their imbibing the true Christian teaching.... It is only necessary to act to others as we wish them to act to us.... Only such a man will be capable of fulfilling—not his own will or that of other men—but the will of God. And the will of God is not that we should fight and oppress the weak, but that we should acknowledge all men to be our brothers and should serve one another.

Christoph Blumhardt:

Our theology is moving down with the rapidity of a lowering storm. Our ecclesiastical perceptions are rapidly becoming political perceptions. Our worship services are being accommodated to the world. And thus it is necessary that all that has been should cease, should come to its end, making room again for something new, namely the kingdom of God.... People are afraid of the collapse of the world. I am looking forward to it. I wish it would begin right now to crash and break apart. For this world of the humanly great is and remains the cause of all misery. They cannot do anything about it, these well-intentioned people, these good kings and ministers, these excellent prelates and popes. However much they try, they cannot. I would like to tell all of them, "You cannot do it!"

Karl Barth:

Jesus was not in any sense a reformer championing new orders against the old ones.... He did not represent or defend or champion any program—whether political, economic, moral or religious, whether conservative or progressive. He was equally suspected and disliked by the representatives of all such programs, although He did not particularly attack any of them. Why His existence was so unsettling on every side was that He set all programs and principles in question. And He did this simply because He enjoyed and displayed, in relation to all the orders positively or negatively contested around Him, a remarkable freedom.... He simply revealed the limit and frontier of all these things—the freedom of the kingdom of God.... The new thing of Jesus is the invading kingdom of God revealed in its alienating antithesis to the world and all its orders.... This involves a shaking of every human foundation; that the right of God is in irreconcilable conflict with every human right; that the divine state is quite incompatible not merely with the wicked totalitarian state but with every conceivable human regime.... The world is concretely violated by God Himself in the fact that the man Jesus came into it and is now within it.... We do not know God at all if we do not know Him as the One who is absolutely opposed to our whole world which has fallen away from Him and is therefore self-estranged; as the Judge of our world; as the One whose will is that it should be totally changed and renewed.

Ammon Hennacy:

Christian anarchism is based upon the answer of Jesus to the Pharisees, when He said that he without sin should be the first to cast the stone, and upon the Sermon on the Mount, which advises the return of good for evil and the turning of the other cheek. Therefore, when we take part in government by voting for legislative, judicial, and executive officials, we make these men our arm by which we cast a stone and deny the Sermon on the Mount. The dictionary definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ; kind, kindly, Christ-like. Anarchism is voluntary cooperation for good, with the right of secession. A Christian anarchist is therefore one who turns the other cheek, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and does not need a cop to tell him how to behave. A Christian anarchist does not depend upon bullets or ballots to achieve his ideal; he achieves that ideal daily by the One-Man Revolution with which he faces a decadent, confused, and dying world.

Jacques Ellul:

As a Christian one must participate in the world of politics and of action. But one must do so to reject it, to confront it with the conscientious and well-founded refusal that alone can put into question, or even prevent, the unchecked growth of power. Thus Christians cannot help but be only on the side of anarchists.... We live in a world which has always been subjugated by power in one way or another.... We can no longer believe today the absolute article of the anarchist creed of the past: the inevitability of progress. There is no necessary movement from an inferior to a superior form of society. Nowhere is anarchism, the society of the free, guaranteed. There is every chance that it will never be established.... When measured against the grace of God, all human action is strictly relative. Nevertheless, humans must act—not for absolute success (which can only occur in the Kingdom of God) but because love expresses itself in the relative. "If you have been faithful in the small things, I shall give you the large ones." ... For most anarchists, people are by nature good and are corrupted only by society or rather by power. If there be criminals, it is the State's fault. It would seem necessary to believe in this original goodness of humanity in order to have hopes of installing an anarchist society.... But one must take a further step. One must admit that not only can there be people occasionally who are not able to live in anarchy, but, on the contrary, that we are normally unable to do so. One must start from this reality, and here Christians should be the most realistic. It is not power that leads the subject to its wickedness. It is ourselves who want to be slaves and thus rid ourselves of the difficulty of living and turn to authority. In so doing we encounter the appetite for power in the other. The desire to abandon oneself and the will to power are exact corollaries.... This is precisely where the work of the Gospel is found for the anarchists: the Gospel's witness that there is a possibility for freedom—just where the most amorphous, servile of us, or the most tyrannical, victorious of us—seem to be immune to any change of any kind. For we too, slave and tyrant, are loved by God in Jesus Christ and are not outside the possibility of living in the truth God discloses before us.

Vernard Eller:

"Arky" identifies any principle of governance claiming to be of primal value for society.... "Anarchy" ("unarkyness"), it follows, is simply the state of being unimpressed with, disinterested in, skeptical of, nonchalant toward, and uninfluenced by the highfalutin claims of any and all arkys.... Precisely because Jesus is THE ARKY, the Prime of Creation, the Principal of All Good, the Prince of Peace and Everything Else, Christians dare never grant a human arky the primacy it claims for itself. Precisely because God is the Lord of History we dare never grant that it is in the outcome of the human arky contest that the determination of history lies.... For secular anarchists the solution is "autonomy"—the self being a law unto itself.... For Christian anarchists, then, the goal of anarchy is "theonomy"—the rule, the ordering, the arky of God.... Worldly arkys must die (and we must die to them) in order that the Arky of God (his kingdom) might be made alive in us (and us in it).... It is no part of Christian Anarchy to want to attack, subvert, unseat, or try to bring down any of the world's arkys.... To fight arkys... is to form counterarkys, is to enter the contest of power (precisely that which Christian Anarchy rejects in principle), is to introduce arky in the very attempt to eliminate it. To undertake a fight against evil on its own terms (to pit power against power) is the first step in becoming like the evil one opposes.

Randy Oftedahl:

Christian Anarchism... recognizes only one legitimate Kingdom: the Kingdom of God. All earthly kingdoms, rulers, powers, etc., are pretenders.... Human power of every kind is not Divine power of any kind.... Christian Anarchism is NOT... a part of power politics.... It "engages" the Powers by proclamation and witness. But it does not seek to subvert, overthrow, or attack. It permits the Powers to rule, rave, or dig their own grave as they will (and they will).... It does not wish to "demonize" those who act evil or "lionize" those who act good. It accepts that all of us have fallen and are in need of redemption.... God loves our enemies just as he loves us.... God uses persuasion to reach the human heart, not coercion. We should do the same.... LIGHTEN UP FOR CHRIST'S SAKE! It is no part of Christian Anarchy to take oneself too seriously. We don't belong to the Powers so we shouldn't let the Powers "get to us".... Laugh at them.... Refusing to take any... power too seriously is the way we deny that they have ultimate authority over us. The power to laugh is very anarchical—use it!

Okay, so there are Christians who are anarchists, but what about Jesus? Jesus is so many things: teacher, miracle worker, prophet, messiah, king, liberator, sacrificial lamb, redeemer, savior, judge, God.... is he also an anarchist?

Jesus honored the traditions of his people. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Yet he also violated some of those traditions.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for breaking the commandment of Moses to "Honor your father and your mother," yet when a potential follower said he needed to first go and bury his father (one of an eldest son's most basic responsibilities in Jesus' day), Jesus said, "Let the dead bury their own dead." And he himself, when his mother (and brothers) came asking for him, did not go to her, but publically shamed her. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Looking at those seated around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

When others were fasting, Jesus and his disciples did not, but went on eating and drinking. Nor did they observe the traditional practice of ceremonial handwashing before eating. Nor did Jesus seem to care about kosher foods. "What goes into a man's mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean."

Jesus and his disciples violated tradition when, walking through a grainfield on a Sabbath day, they picked and ate some grain kernels. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus retorted, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Another time he healed a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath. "The Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus."

The temple in Jerusalem was the religious and political center of Jewish life, and Jesus honored the temple as "a house of prayer for all nations." When he drove the money changers and the animal sellers out of the temple area, he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" Yet the authority of the temple was also blatantly challenged by Jesus. The temple is where the people went to offer sacrifices and have their sins forgiven, but Jesus claimed that he had the authority to forgive sins. And he wasn't just claiming equal authority with the temple, but superior authority. "One greater than the temple is here," he said. He also prophesied the destruction of the temple: "Not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down."

Jesus instructed his followers to obey the religious authorities. "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you." Yet he also said, "But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach."

What was Jesus' attitude toward the Roman political authorities? Many Christians quote his "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" comment, assuming that Jesus therefore accepted the authority of Rome. But not so fast. The Pharisees and Herodians who asked him about paying taxes to Rome were trying to trap him. If he spoke against the tax, he could be executed by the Romans for treason. If he spoke in favor of the tax, he would alienate most of his followers. Jesus refuses to take a side in this political game, but rises above it, throwing the question back at his opponents by asking them to produce a coin, and then giving an ambiguous answer. "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription? Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." He leaves it up to his listeners to figure out what belongs to whom.

Jesus had no trouble transcending conflicting ideas. Among his chosen twelve apostles there was both Simon the Zealot (the Zealots were violent revolutionaries dedicated to overthrowing the Roman occupiers), and also Matthew the tax collector (tax collectors were collaborators with the Romans).

When Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), he recognized Pilate's authority—"You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above"—but he also did not participate in the trial. He felt no need to answer any questions, but kept silent.

That Jesus, and the other Jews, regarded political authority as coming from God did not, of course, mean that they regarded all rulers as godly, and therefore deserving of obedience. Rather, they simply understood that rulers—good and bad—were permitted to rule by God.

A clearer sense of Jesus' attitude towards political power can be glimpsed in the account of his temptation in the wilderness.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered, "It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only."

Jesus does not for a second deny that the devil has been given authority over all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus rejects political power. He is an anarchist. Political power is idolatry.

Jesus taught a new style of leadership: "You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

The only kingdom Jesus accepts is the Kingdom of God. What exactly is that kingdom? That's another question, for another time. For now, think about this:

The nation of Israel began as a theocracy: God made all the decisions. Then, in the early centuries of Israel's occupation of Palestine, there was local tribal government, but no central government. In times of crisis, God would call up a "judge" to lead all the twelve tribes. "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." Many modern Christians regard this period of anarchy in Israel's history as a time of horror and chaos, but that's hardly accurate. (It was a brutal time, but the brutality had no connection to the lack of government.) Eventually, the Israelites asked the judge Samuel to appoint a king, because they wanted to be "like all the other nations." What did God think of that? God told Samuel, "It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king." God warned the Israelites what a king would do:

He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses.... He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

Still the Israelites insisted they wanted a king. God told Samuel, "Give them a king."

Israel had many kings. Most of them were corrupt, worshiped pagan gods, and oppressed the people. God repeatedly condemned Israel for going astray:

I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.... Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.... Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.

I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord?' Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me.... They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.... Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you.... The house of Israel is disgraced—they, their kings and their officials, their priests and their prophets.

Three centuries after God first let the Israelites have a king, he told them, "I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning." God is promising his people, who have been suffering the evils of corrupt government, a return to the days of anarchy.

2700 years later, that promise still awaits fulfillment.