Anarchy and Christianity (1991)

Christoph Blumhardt “declared: ‘I am proud to stand before you as a man; and if politics cannot tolerate a human being as I am, then let politics be damned!’ This is the true essence of anarchism: To become a human being, yes, but a politician, never” (8).

I’ve been meaning to read Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity for many years (Amazon tells me I purchased it in 2010), but, finally, job done.

Ellul’s stated goal was to point out that anarchy and Christianity share “a common orientation which is common to . . . both and perfectly clear” (105). One must quickly, then, define what is meant by “anarchy.” For Ellul, anarchy “from a Christian standpoint” involves two things: one, “an absolute rejection of violence;” and two, “conscientious objection—to everything that constitutes our capitalist . . . and imperialistic society” (11, 15). Far from being an originator, Ellul asserts that “[t]here has always been a Christian anarchism. In every century . . . ” (7).

So having established his goal (to show how anarchy and Christianity share certain characteristics), his definition of anarchy (nonviolent and conscientious objector), and his apology (Christian anarchy has been part of the tradition of the church from its beginning), Ellul begins his examination of “the Bible as the source of anarchy.” He begins

My next task is to show by a “naive” reading of the Bible that far from offering us a sure basis for the state and the authorities, a better understanding will, I believe, point us toward anarchy; not, of course, in the common sense of disorder, but in the sense of an-arche: no authority, no domination (45).

I believe that there is a general current which points toward anarchy, the passages that favor authority being the exceptions (46).

His reading of the Bible reflects an appreciation for narrative theology. In a reading somewhat (somewhat!) similar to David Lipscomb’s, Ellul begins with the Old Testament as the genesis of the Bible’s animosity with powers. Ellul argues that from creation through the exodus and into the Promised Land, God was the leader of Israel. Period. He notes that God, then, reveals Godself to be liberation—liberation from destruction; liberation from slavery; liberation from wandering; liberation from homelessness. But then, in light of this liberation, the liberation Israelites choose bondage, namely, the bondage of a monarch. “The real history of royal power (i.e., central and unified power) would begin [not with Abraham, not with Moses, nor with any of the judges, but] only with the familiar story of 1 Samuel (ch. 8).” Ellul quickly recounts the story: Israel “wanted a king so as to be like other nations.” Samuel, feeling upset approaches God, who responds, “Do not be upset. The people have not rejected you, Samuel, but me, God. They have constantly rejected me since I liberated them. Accept their demand but warn them of what will happen.” And Ellul’s paraphrase of what will happen? The new king “would take their sons and make soldiers of them . . . take their daughters for his harem . . . impose taxes and confiscate the best lands.” And then Ellul notes bluntly, “The people replied, however, that they did not care” (48). They chose the reversal of liberation and became like the other nations.

For Ellul, this story presents an intrinsic rejection of the goodness of authority. And indeed the history that follows suggests that the authority the people demanded not only brought new oppression but also division since the kingdom quickly divides.

Ellul thinks that the subsequent history of the Isreaelite monarchy—both flawed and rebellious—is “astounding.” Not only did they escape official censorship, but they “were regarded as divinely inspired. They were treated as a revelation of the God of Israel, who is thus presented as himself an enemy of royal power and the state. . . . This is to me an astonishing fact which gives evidence of the dominant thinking of the Jewish people from the 8th to the 4th century B.C.” (50–51).

Here, Ellul notes that “for every king there was a prophet.” The prophets were people called to be a “counterforce” to the monarchy, representing not “the people” but representing God (51). The Hebrew Bible views the prophets as protagonists and allows their words to be remembered, unsuppressed by the monarchy, and, for Ellul, “these facts manifest in an astounding way the constancy of an antiroyalist if not an antistatist sentiment” (52).

Ellul also reads Ecclesiastes as a treatise on the vanity of political power, since the book is traditionally ascribed to Solomon.

The many revolts in the Second Temple Period also show the futility of oppressive both political power and violent rebellion.

Jesus is then born into the world that emerged from those cycles of rebellion and retaliation—Roman peace.

He notes that Jesus’ story begins with the temptation in the wilderness, pointing out that the temptations are toward worldly political power. (And worldly as in of this world—nonliberated, oppressive, pax Romana-type stuff.) From this story, Ellul claims that Jesus locates the ownership of power with the devil, who “is etymologically the ‘divider’ (not a person)” (58). And he sees this story as proof that “the first Christian generation was globally hostile to political power and regarded it as bad no matter what its orientation or constitutional structures” (59).

Ellul then shifts to five sayings of Jesus: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; the rulers of the nations lord it over them . . . it shall not be so among you, but whoever would be great among you must be the servant; go to the lake, cast your line, and take the first fish that comes up . . . and you will find a shekel; all who take the sword will perish by the sword; and it is you who has said so (59–70).

1) Render what is Caesar’s: here Ellul notes that Caesar owns money and that we should give to Caesar what is Caesars. Unequivocally for Ellul, this means that Christians must pay taxes. But beyond money, what is left that belongs to Caesar? Nothing. The rest belongs to God—our bodies, our actions, our thoughts. All of us belongs to God. So that means we must not participate in Caesar’s other endeavors—military action, oppressive party politics, etc.

2) The rulers of the nations lord it over them . . . It shall not be so among you: Ellul takes the story of the sons of Zebedee requesting to sit one at the right and one at the left as an instance of the disciples not getting that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. But Jesus takes the opportunity to teach that the way he and the Father demand we live runs counter to the way the world demands we live. That is, while the world demands we “hurry up and matter,” Jesus demands that we become servants, that we become last.*

3) Go to the lake, cast your line, and take the first fish that comes up . . . and you will find a shekel: in this story, Jesus is being asked to pay a petty tax. Ellul sees the command to catch a fish and find a coin in its mouth and to use to pay the tax not as one of Jesus’ great miracles but as proof that Jesus “displays . . . complete indifference” to the authorities. The command to find money in a fish “makes it plain that it is not worth submitting and obeying except in a ridiculous way” (64).

4) All who take the sword will perish by the sword: here Ellul sees the call to Jesus’ way as a call to complete nonviolence. And, hearing detractors, he immediately turns to the events at the table and in the garden, where swords are present. First, at the last supper, Jesus says that the two swords present are “enough.” Ellul sees this again as Jesus setting the stage for “ridiculous” submission, pointing out that there is no way Jesus thought two swords could protect himself and his cadre from the temple guard. It’s a non-call to arms, in effect. Likewise, when the ear is cut off in the garden, Jesus councils that the sword be put away. Jesus then heals the ear. But the bigger point for Ellul is that Jesus’ way means facing sword-bearing folk without swords and in a way that exposes the absurdity of bearing arms.

5) It is you who has said so: Ellul closes his study of Jesus’ hostility toward power by examining his trial. Three things here: first, he is silent, refusing to recognize the persons’ who claim to be the movers-and-shakers of history. Second, he accuses his accusers, saying that he spoke openly but they did not arrest him, coming instead in secret and striking him unjustly. Third, Ellul says that Jesus provokes; he is asked if he, Jesus, is the king of the Jews, and he replies, “It is you who has said so”—neither denying the accusation nor affirming the guilt-inducing question.

Next, Ellul gives his reading of Revelation, which is, briefly said, that the principalities and powers will be overturned in the end and that the way of the lamb triumphs over the way of the sword.

Next Ellul discusses Peter and Paul. As for Peter, Ellul’s “glance” suggests that “be subject to the king as supreme” in chapter 2 cannot refer to the emperor of Rome. I think his argument is convincing, but his resulting hypothesis (i.e., that it’s referring to rival party to the emperor) is much less so. It struck me that reading this that it could simply mean Jesus as king. Seems at least as reasonable to the hypothesis Ellul here puts forward.

Ellul’s reading of Romans is much more convincing. Placing Romans 13 in the context of Romans 12–14, Ellul suggests that the whole section should be read in the context of the exhortation to not be conformed to present age, but to be transformed. And then three things from Romans 13: one, pay taxes; two, pray for authorities; and three, “earthly authorities reflect the powers into whose hands they have fallen” and can be either good or bad (83). What is old is not for the Christian; what is new is. So Ellul councils conformity to the new world inaugurated by Jesus, a world that does not have space for the “archies” but that has room for all humans!


* The phrase “hurry up and matter” is taken from David Dark.

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