My friend and colleague David has gotten me interested in the work of Jacques Ellul. And as I’ve read Ellul I’ve gotten more interested in Christian anarchism, particularly after reading Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity.
I’m new to this literature, so please don’t count me as an expert. I mainly want to point out two things in this post.
First, in an important sense, all Christians are anarchists. The word “anarchism” comes from the Greek ἄναρχος (anarchos) which means “no rulers” or “without rulers.” For the Christian such a description, obviously, refers to the ultimacy of human rulers.
An anarchist strain runs throughout the Old and Testaments. We see it in the Old Testament in God’s unwillingness to give a king to Israel. When God finally relents God takes this as an explicit rejection and predicts things aren’t going to go well for Israel:
1 Samuel 8.6-22
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
So Samuel passed on the Lord’s warning to the people who were asking him for a king. “This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment.The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials.He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. “Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.”
So Samuel repeated to the Lord what the people had said, and the Lord replied, “Do as they say, and give them a king.” Then Samuel agreed and sent the people home.
So the bible has a very dim view of kings. But the people want one. And their reason for wanting a king is interesting: “to judge us and lead us into battle.” Another sign that the bible has a dim view of kings is that every Old Testament king had a prophet. And in Jesus’s day Herod had John the Baptist.
But beyond the kings of Israel we also see the Israelites coming into conflict with the rulers of foreign nations. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s refusal to bow down, under threat of death, to the golden idol erected by Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel 3. 13-18
Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not,we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
What is interesting here in Daniel, and this is the second and larger point I want to make in this post, is the conflation of anarchism and atheism. You’ll recall that the word “atheist” was coined by the Romans to describe the early Christians. This was because Christians rejected the gods of the Romans, denied their legitimacy, ultimacy and existence.
In short, there is a conflation between the rulers/rule of a nation and the pantheon of gods supporting it and conferring legitimacy. To be an anarchist, then, one also has to be anatheist. The two go hand in hand. And we see this clearly in Daniel. To say no to the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar is to refuse to worship his idol.
This duality sits at the heart of the Old Testament in the experience of the Exodus. Moses emancipates slaves by revolting against both the rule and divinity of Pharaoh. To the Egyptians Moses was both an atheist–in his denial of their divinities, Pharaoh among them–and an anarchist. The political and the spiritual go hand in hand.