“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the blog for the p0st-Christian world in which we now live. One of the strands which this blog follows is the convergence between socialism and Christianity. (The Posts on the similarities between these two paradigms get more ‘hits’ than any other topic.) One of the few Christian denominations that ever gets a favourable mention in Zingcreed is Anabaptism – see for example the Zingcreed manifesto, plus the favourable Posts on their notion of post-Christendom in Zingcreed’s alphabetical index.
This essay is the first attempt I know of to deliberately link one denomination (Anabaptism) with a specific socialist philosophy (Anarchism, or ‘Anarchy’ as the author prefers to call it.)
Zingcreed is proud and privileged to be permitted to publish this superb account, which was delivered at a public meeting in Islington (London) in early May 2016, which I was fortunate enough to attend.
It is a rallying call: the next step is organisation and the one after that is action. I hope the idea appeals to Zingcreed readers.
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”
Anarchy and Anabaptism
Lloyd K. Pietersen
Centre for Anabaptist Studies
“Doctors are on strike, kids & parents are going on strike, our homeless are dying, our poorest are dependent on foodbanks, we are shamed because our government won’t rescue vulnerable refugee children, our richest hide their money to avoid paying taxes … Are we moving towards a general strike?” This is a recent status update on Facebook from a friend of mine. She highlights a number of real current concerns and asks whether we are nearing a tipping point. The notion of a general strike is of course central to one particular form of anarchism—anarcho-syndicalism. So, without using the “A” word, my friend (perhaps unwittingly) aligns herself with anarchic sentiments. In this talk today, on the eve of local elections including mayoral elections, I want to provide a contribution to the current political debate by suggesting anarchism as a real political alternative—an anarchism informed by the approach to society of the sixteenth century Anabaptists, which I urge those of us who call ourselves Christians to give serious consideration to.
For Christian anarchists, Jesus’ teaching implies a critique of the state, and an honest and consistent application of Christianity would lead to a stateless society. From this perspective, it is actually the notion of a “Christian state” that, just like “hot ice,” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.1
Most anarchists look to the French political writer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), with his famous statements: “I am an anarchist” and “property is theft!” as the originator of the term. Christian anarchists would accept Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) as the founding father of their perspective. However, Gerrard Winstanley and the seventeenth century Diggers can clearly be seen as forerunners. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the Anabaptists should be regarded too as significant forerunners. This, in my view, has been obscured by H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Niebuhr’s five-fold typology is in reality a sustained critique of Niebuhr’s first category, Christ against culture, and an apologetic for his final category, Christ transforming culture. Within his “against culture” category, Niebuhr included Anabaptists, and Anabaptist separatism has been regarded ever since as a particular form of quietism lacking any political or cultural engagement. But separation should not be regarded as the same as “withdrawal.” Separation is a strategy for engagement in terms of providing models as testimony to the civil order—what anarchists would describe as a form of prefiguration.2
Anarchism as a political ideology should in no way be equated with disorder, chaos and violence as it often is in popular understanding. But as a political philosophy anarchism rejects the legitimacy of external government and of the state, and the imposition of any form of political authority, hierarchy or system of domination. Positively, anarchism promotes a vision of “a decentralized and self-regulating society consisting of a federation of voluntary associations of free and equal individuals.”3 Anarchism developed as a coherent ideology following the collapse of feudalism and emerged at the end of the 18th century in its modern form. In England William Godwin (1756-1836) gave the first clear statement of anarchist principles. In the 19th century the German philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856) rejected both government and state and the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was the first to call himself an anarchist, famously proclaiming “property is theft.” Proudhon was followed by Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) in Russia. The Italian Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) rejected Kropotkin’s mechanistic approach and emphasised the importance of the will in social struggle. In the States Benjamin R Tucker (1854-1939) developed Proudhon’s economic theories in an extreme individualist direction. Tolstoy (1828-1910) developed an anarchist critique of the state and in the 20th century Emma Goldman (1869-1940) added an important feminist dimension. Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) linked anarchism with social ecology. Probably the most well know contemporary anarchist thinker is the linguist, Noam Chomsky.
Anarchism is a broad movement consisting of two main streams: individualist and social. Individualists are the heirs of Benjamin Tucker and are suspicious of any form of collectivism–considering this will inevitably lead to the tyranny of the group. The largest contemporary group of individualist anarchists are the anarcho-capitalists. They would like to dismantle government and allow complete laissez-faire in the economy. They propose that all public services be turned over to private entrepreneurs. Social anarchists are considerably in the majority and, given Proudhon’s famous slogan mentioned earlier, do not consider anarcho-capitalists to be true anarchists. In contemporary anarchist politics the most significant anarchist grouping is the anarcho-syndicalist. Syndicalists developed out of the revolutionary trade union movement of the nineteenth century. Labour syndicates would establish institutions of self-management as a model of a future society. Anarcho-syndicalism reached its zenith during the Spanish civil war when syndicates took over the industries in Catalunya and demonstrated that they were capable of running them on efficient and productive lines. The key theorists for anarcho-syndicalism are Rudolf Rocker and Noam Chomsky who was profoundly influenced by Rocker.
Attempts to reduce anarchism to one over-arching principle such as anti-state or a rejection of coercion are simplistic. It is best understood as a “constellation of concepts expressed through particular institutional arrangements.”4 These concepts are:
- The rejection of the state and state-like bodies.
- The rejection of capitalism.
- A fluid concept of the self in which one’s identity is inherently linked to socio-historical contexts and relationships with others.
- Prefiguration—the means used to change the world must be consistent with the desired ends. An anarchist society can only be constructed from below and not imposed from above. So people must act and organise in ways they hope an anarchist society would be organised.
These concepts are essentially inter-related and this is important. The anarchist rejection of the state, for example, involves developing social relationships that are anti-hierarchical. In the current political world choices have to be made that inevitably involve compromise unless one is committed to violent revolution. So it is not inconsistent with anarchist values to support in the interim a social-democratic state over a conservative military dictatorship as happened in the Spanish civil war. In our current context it is not inconsistent to support the welfare state over against free market capitalism. Noam Chomsky, for example, says this:
So despite the anarchist “vision,” I think aspects of the state system, like the one that makes sure children eat, have to be defended—in fact, defended very vigorously. And given the accelerating effort that’s being made these days to roll back the victories for justice and human rights which have been won through long and often extremely bitter struggles in the West, in my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society.5
The father of Christian anarchism is generally recognised as Leo Tolstoy who noted that the concept of a “Christian state” is a contradiction in terms. Tolstoy saw Jesus as the most rational being ever to walk the planet and, as such, distrusted all accounts of the miraculous. For him the Sermon on the Mount was central. In the general academic literature on anarchism much is made of Tolstoy as the leading thinker on Christian anarchism but mention must be made of several others. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) is best know for his sociological work on the technological society. He writes as a French Calvinist and, although he does not think an anarchist society is possible, nevertheless he insists that the anarchist position is the only acceptable stance in the modern world.
Biblically, love is the way, not violence . . . Not using violence against those in power does not mean doing nothing. I will have to show that Christianity means a rejection of power and a fight against it. This was completely forgotten during the centuries of the alliance of throne and altar, the more so as the pope became a head of state, and often acted more as such than as head of the church.
If I rule out violent anarchism, there remains pacifist, antinationalist, anticapitalist, moral, and antidemocratic anarchism (i.e. that which is hostile to the falsified democracy of bourgeois states). There remains the anarchism which acts by means of persuasion, by the creation of small groups and networks, denouncing falsehood and oppression, aiming at a true overturning of authorities of all kinds as people at the bottom speak and organize themselves. All this is very close to Bakunin.
But there is still the delicate point of participation in elections. Should anarchists vote? If so, should they form a party? For my part, like many anarchists, I think not. To vote is to take part in the organization of that false democracy that has been set up forcefully by the middle class. No matter whether one votes for the left or the right, the situation is the same. Again, to organize a party is necessarily to adopt a hierarchical structure and to wish to have a share in the exercise of power. We must never forget to what degree the holding of political power corrupts.6
Vernard Eller (1927-2007) wrote Christian Anarchy in 1987 and dedicates this book to Ellul. For his part, Ellul recommends Eller’s work in his 1991 volume. The Catholic Worker Movement, founded in 1933, consistently describes itself as anarchist. Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is the most well known figure and was described by the director of the FBI as a threat to national security. Finally, mention should be made of the most thorough work on Christian anarchism to date–Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (2010) which is based on his doctoral dissertation.
Anabaptists and Anarchism
Niebuhr’s analysis assumes that the Anabaptist “against culture” position is necessarily quietist and thus uninvolved with politics. But this ignores the background of the German Peasants’ War out of which Anabaptism emerged. As James Stayer states: “Although Anabaptism is not important for understanding the Peasants’ War, the Peasants’ War is very important for understanding Anabaptism.”7
The German Peasants’ War
The Peasants’ War lasted some 24 weeks from late January to mid-July 1525. The phase until late March was predominantly non-violent. Villagers articulated grievances against landlords and rulers and the protest was more a general strike than a “war.” The protest turned violent on 4 April with the battle of Leipheim when the German princes sought to disperse the peasant protest by force. This was no minor protest. At its height some 300,000 persons were involved and it cost 100,000 lives. Although the reasons for the Peasants’ War are undoubtedly multifactorial, current historiography suggests that village communes had become powerful and self-reliant during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries partly due to overlapping and competing jurisdictions among the lords which created a vacuum that the villagers had to fill.8
The balance of evidence from the various regions suggests that the rural population had real social and economic grievances about serfdom, rights to hunting, fishing, timber and the commons, and the burden of payments and services owed to both rulers and landlords.9
The first two Articles of the Twelve Articles of Memmingen, the most famous manifesto of the Peasants’ War, concern the appointment and support of pastors. It is significant that this coincides with the fifth Article of Schleitheim as we shall see. Furthermore, the village of Schleitheim was one of the rebellious villages in the war and refused to pay its tithes from 1525 onwards.
The Schleitheim Confession
On 24 February 1527, following a crucial meeting of leaders of the emerging Anabaptist movement at Schleitheim in Switzerland, fundamental differences were worked out and consensus was reached on seven articles of faith. The seven articles were as follows:
1. Baptism as a voluntary act of admission to the believing community.
2. The ban as the means of discipline within the community.
3. Breaking bread as an act carried out by committed, baptised believers.
4. Separation from the world.
5. Shepherds supported by and accountable to their own communities.
7. Refusal to swear oaths.
Time does not permit me to discuss these articles in any detail but let me say a few words about each. Refusal to permit infant baptism was a fundamental denial of the Constantinian synthesis between church and state. Anabaptists refused to accept the notion of a Christian state. As such this was rightly seen by both Protestant and Catholic versions of the sacral state as treasonous and Anabaptists were ruthlessly persecuted by both. The ban, or excommunication, was an attempt to exercise discipline within the community without resorting to violence. It provided the means for communal discernment and a mechanism for resolving disputes within the community. The way breaking of bread was formulated took the ritual away from the disputes over Christ’s real presence in the eucharist to a practical demonstration of economic sharing enacted regularly within the community. Separation from the world was a clear rejection of the whole state apparatus and a refusal to engage with all the trappings of state. Support of shepherds directly links with the first two articles of the German peasants. Here was a rejection of top-down imposition of clerics and a demand for local governance and accountability. This was a highly political declaration which insisted that congregations should not be centrally controlled but should be locally governed. Ecclesiastical tithes were rejected and instead local giving would support local clergy and the local poor. The commitment to non-violence was not just at an individual level but was again a repudiation of the state. There is a recognition that force is necessary for the state to punish the guilty but that violence is to be absolutely rejected by the believing community. Furthermore, we have in this Article a clear articulation of subsequent anarchist thought. There is no way a believer can be involved in government—Christians cannot be magistrates. This was in clear opposition to the magisterial reformers. Finally, what needs to be understood by rejecting oaths is that this is not merely a refusal to swear an oath on the Bible in court as allowed today. Oaths were the glue which bound sixteenth century society together. They formed the basis of trade and contracts, they were used to give assurance that the truth was being told and this became the basis of the use of the oath in the courts and, of course, ultimately they were used to swear allegiance to the state. In refusing to take the oath, the Anabaptists were not just being literalists—they refused to give their allegiance to the state and they insisted that truth-telling was to be the norm. Oaths were not needed to guarantee the veracity of a statement.
Also, although not contained in the seven Articles, another text was written in the same hand and apparently circulated with the Articles. It gave directions for Christian congregations. The fifth point documents the fact that property-in-common was expected of the earliest Anabaptist communities. It states:
Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.
Here was a profound commitment to care for the poor from the local funds of the community.
The Schleitheim commitment to providing for local needs out of local funds and to have local accountability, combined with the rejection of private property, the commitment to non-violence and separation from the world, the refusal to participate in government and the rejection of oaths all point to a subversive politics eminently conducive to contemporary anarchism. Schleitheim amounts to a rejection of neo-liberal ideology and, in championing truth-telling, decisively rejects the politics of spin. It is no wonder that Kropotkin himself states: “Likewise in the Anabaptist movement … there was a considerable element of anarchism.”10 Although sixteenth century Anabaptists were not full blown anarchists—they accepted government as instituted by God as necessary to reward good and punish evil—in reality their own experience of government was one of regular persecution. So I close with some quotes from leading Anabaptists (emphasis mine throughout).
All government which has been since the time of Adam and which exists today has been instituted by God. However it has not remained in God but has presumed on its power and still does today. The government or power was originally instituted by God in order to judge the words and works done against God and man. But the words and works done against God the government is not to judge. Therefore it is blind and a leader of the blind, for it seeks only its own interest and not the interests of God. Therefore its judgment is false. Now the government presumes to judge the words and works which it says are against God but which are for God. In this sense it is like Pilate who condemned Christ. (Ambrosius Spitelmaier, 1527).11
It is not that power in itself is wrong seen from the perspective of the evil world, for [the government] serves God in his wrath, but rather that love teaches her children a better way, namely to serve the graciousness of God. For it is the nature of love not to will or desire the hurt of anyone, but as much as is possible to serve for the betterment of everyone. A housefather should treat his wife and child, menservants and maids as he would that God should treat him. That is not incompatible with love. And insofar as it were possible for a government to act in this way it could well be Christian in its office. Since however the world will not tolerate it, a friend of God should not be in the government but out of it, that is if he desires to keep Christ as a Lord and master. Whoever loves the Lord loves him regardless of his station. But he should not forget what characterizes a true lover [of God], namely that for the Lord’s sake he renounce all power and to be subject to no one but the Lord. (Hans Denck, 1527).12
O kings and rulers of the land, where indeed is your faith and love with their pious nature? Where is the fear of your God, your burning lamp, your humble heart dead unto sin? Where is your blameless, godly life which is of God? Is it not Simon-pure world and carnality which you seek and protect? We find in your houses and courts nothing but sparkling pomp and showy dress, boldness and presumptuousness of heart, insatiable avarice, hatred and envy, backbiting, betraying, harloting, seduction, gambling, gaming, carousing, dancing, swearing, stabbing, and violence. This is your chivalrous custom and courtly conduct all the days of your lives. You never once reflect through what misery, tribulation, humility, love, and righteousness the Lord of lords and King of kings walked his way before you, what he taught the children of men, and what pattern or example he left them. The pitiful moaning and misery of the wretched men does not reach your ears. The sweat of the poor we find in your house, and the innocent blood on your hands. Their gifts and presents are received to pervert judgment and you take counsel against the Lord and his anointed. The prophets of Jezebel and the priests of Baal, men who talk to your taste and fawn all over you, these are in big demand and swarm all over you. These are in big demand with you, men who sit on easy cushions and have a fine time. (Menno Simons, 1539).13
Now because in Christ our King is the full blessing of God—yea, he is himself the blessing—all that was given in wrath must come to an end and cease in him, and has no part in him. But governmental authority was given in wrath, and so it can neither fit itself into nor belong to Christ. Thus no Christian is a ruler and no ruler is a Christian, for the child of blessing cannot be the servant of wrath. Thus, in Christ not the temporal, but the spiritual sword rules over men, and so rules that they deserve not the temporal sword, therefore also have no need of it. (Peter Riedeman, 1542).14
1____________________. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010), 1.
2____________________. See especially, Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht, with a foreword by John D. Roth, The C. Henry Smith Series 6 (Telford/Scottdale: Cascadia/Herald, 2006).
3____________________. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: Harper Perennial, 2008), 3.
4____________________. Benjamin Franks, “Anarchism and Analytic Philosophy,” in The Continuum Companion to Anarchism, ed. Ruth Kinna (London: Continuum, 2012), 61.
5____________________. Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism (London: Penguin, 2013), 40.
6____________________. Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1991), 13–14.
7____________________. James M Stayer, The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal & Kingston/London/Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 4.
8____________________. See Stayer, Peasants’ War, 28–29.
9____________________. Stayer, Peasants’ War, 28.
10____________________. Peter Kropotkin, “Modern Science and Anarchism,” in Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings; Peter Kropotkin (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2002), 149.
11____________________. Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, vol. 3, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Waterloo, ON; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 248.
12____________________. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, 249–50.
13____________________. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, 256–7.
14____________________. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, 261.
Questions for group discussion:
1/ Discuss whether it is possible for Anabaptist Christians to stand for parliament given its systemic duplicity and politics of spin.
2/ Jacques Ellul states:”To vote is to take part in the organization of that false democracy that has been set up forcefully by the middle class. No matter whether one votes for the left or the right, the situation is the same.” (J. Ellul “Anarchy and Christianity” Wipf and Stock 1991). Discuss whether you think the anarchist opposition to voting is irresponsible in a parliamentary democracy.
3/ The collective ownership of the means of production is common to both Marxism and anarchism but anarchists reject the idea that the state is required to achieve this. Anarchists maintain that people should be able to access goods and services according to their needs and not according to what they can afford. The Anabaptist understanding of community of goods likewise provided a mechanism for meeting the needs of the poor in community. Discuss possible ways in which this form of communitarianism could be a model for a local politics.
4/ Jacques Ellul states: “I refuse to make the classic distinction between violence and force. The lawyers have invented the idea that when the state applies constraint, even brutal constraint, it is exercising ‘force’; that only individuals or nongovernmental groups (syndicates, parties) use violence. This is a totally unjustified distinction. The state is established by violence.” (J. Ellul “Violence: reflections from a Christian perspective” SCM, 1970). Discuss.