Anarchism, Human Nature, and the Rebellion of Christ

In James Marshall’s book Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, the author utilizes a Taoist view of human nature to summarize anarchist thinking in regard to government:

“Horses live on dry land, eat grass and drink water. When pleased, they rub necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural dispositions carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a plate of metal on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn the head to bite, to resist, to get the bit out of the mouth or the bridle into it. And their natures become depraved.” – Chuang Tzu

Some religions, such as Buddhism and Islam, carry a similar view of a predisposition to goodness within humanity; though with different approaches to life (Islam certainly has no trouble with written law). Many religions place emphasis on human action to achieve the goal of the religion in question (Nirvana, repairing a broken world, devotion to Allah, etc).

It’s hard to view Christianity in this light, given Jesus’ position as God incarnate, as well as the writings of the apostle Paul which Reformers hold high as the proof texts for justification by faith alone (and which are hotly debated in and of themselves). Even amongst more “liberal” theologians, such as the Jesus Seminar, there’s a sense of respect for government and hierarchy in the existing church in spite of their views of Jesus as a peasant revolutionary.

In spite of this, one cannot deny the rebellious nature of the Gospels, the stories of the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles sent to different churches from Paul, Peter, and John. All of them are subversive in content and tone, not encouraging armed rebellion, but a new way of living that renders oppressive systems such as slavery null and void. They’re direct affronts to any imperial sanction without directly opposing the empire itself (at least not all the time). Every time a Christian said “Jesus is Lord,” in that time period, it was also a way of saying Caesar was not.

The way of living presented in the Bible, of partnering with the living God to usher in His kingdom on Earth, isn’t accomplished through the imposition of arbitrary rules (the glaring example of Christendom’s failure to achieve a true kingdom of God stands out clearly here) or an uprising of the masses (John 18:36), but through a pattern of voluntary living accomplished through natural means as a result of the movement of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:42-45). God works within the marginalized and oppressed to bring about not just pop individual spirituality, but true social change.

Some authors have recognized this in the past and in present day, among them Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Shane Claiborne, and Jacques Ellul. The anarchist community at large certainly recognizes this, though it’s often with a dismissive tone, as if to say, “Yes, their writings suit my cause, but because they are Christian, I can’t take them completely seriously.” The idea of a deity having to show human beings how to live is offensive to many anarchists, as they view religious hierarchy as reflective of coercive government, the only difference being the presence of a supernatural deity.

I don’t know if I identify as an anarchist. Not entirely, anyways. Being a Christian, I tend to think that people aren’t so great at getting along together without some sort of divine help or rule, but I think that, with that divine help, a government could become unnecessary, even in this lifetime. The living God breathes life into what was once dead, and makes possible that which is even unthinkable, including the absence of a ruling body.

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