Christianity and Anarchy

If anarchy is what Jaques Ellul says it is then Christianity is an anarchist religion.

Of course, there are many different shades of anarchy. So what is the type of anarchy that Ellul proposes?

First and foremost it is a non-violent anarchism. Ellul advocates for a non-violent anarchism on two grounds:

  1. Non-violent movements, tactically speaking, are much more effective when it comes to achieving their goals.
  2. The Bible teaches that love is the way, not violence.

Thus, if nonviolent anarchy is ruled out then what options do we have left over? Ellul explains:

…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.

In summary, Ellul’s anarchy is the rejection of authority and domination. It’s an anarchy that is radically egalitarian, refusing to institute any sort of hierarchy among the people.

Many anarchists would claim that God is one of the authorities that ought to be rejected. In fact, one of the slogans of anarchism is “No God, No Master.”

It’s true that for much of Christian history God has been depicted as the ultimate Master, the omnipotent ruler of the universe. It’s this all-powerful, authoritarian God that anarchy rejects. 

Is there an alternative way to view God, a way that allows for anarchy and Christianity to coexist? Ellul argues for an understanding of God that takes seriously the notion of human freedom:

We ourselves are free to act and are responsible for our acts. But God also acts in each situation. The two actions then combine or oppose one another. In any case, we are never passive. God does not do everything. He can give counsel or issue an order, but he does not prevent us from taking a different course. Eventually–an astonishing situation–he might approve of us even though we do not do as he wills. (We recall the extraordinary wish of Job that God would find himself in the wrong and Job in the right.) In other words, the biblical God is not a machine, a big computer, with which we cannot reason and which functions according to a program. Nor are we robots for God who have to execute the decisions of him who made us.

Worldly rulers and authorities coerce their subjects into an obedient posture. The God revealed in Jesus is a God of weakness, a God who lures and persuades his creation, the implication being that he doesn’t always get what he wants. The Christian God renounces power in the name of love and refuses to coerce in the way that worldly rulers coerce.

Thus, we could say that the god that anarchy rejects is a false God, at least from a Christian standpoint. Christians, along with anarchists, can declare “No God, No Master,” if it is the authoritarian God of coercion that is in mind.

Moreover, if God is our model when it comes to how we are to respond to power then the Church must rethink it’s understanding of authority and organization. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an institution with less hierarchy and top-down authority than the Church. The entire process by which the new Pope was elected today, for example, reeks of hierarchy.

What if the Church, rather than being a community with a clear chain of command, became a community in which members rejected the right to wield power in the same way that worldly rulers wield power?

What if the Church was so radically egalitarian that it was impossible to point to a “leader” in our midst?

What if the Church served as a refuge for those who have been burned by power and authority rather than just another community with a hierarchy and  a top-down authority structure?

What if the church stood out as a prophetic witness to the reality that there is way for human communities to organize themselves without domination and power-grabbing?

In short, what if the Church existed as holy anarchy?

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Is God All Powerful?

Divine omnipotence isn’t my favorite doctrine.

Here’s why:

Omnipotence literally means “all powerful.” Of course, if God has all the power then that means that there is no power left for us to have. Thus, everything that happens is the result of God’s action. When we read the newspaper each day we are reading about what God has decided to do with the world as of late. All of history is the result of God’s will–even the bad stuff.

Sin, too, must find its origin in God. This may sound absurd to some but, believe it or not, many believe this. What is more, those who hold this view still want to suggest that God blames sin on humanity (and will punish most of us in hell because of it) despite the fact that he predetermined it to happen in the first place. This is, of course, paradoxical (and disturbing).

It’s important that we ask ourselves at this point: Is omnipotence actually a biblical doctrine?

Well, it is impossible to deny that there are some passages in the Bible that would seem to indicate that God is indeed in absolute control of everything. A biblical case can be made for divine omnipotence. However, it is important for us to note that the Bible does not speak with one voice on this issue.

I would suggest that there are many more passages that suggest that God calls someone to do something and then allows them to respond however they wish. The story of Jonah could be employed as an example. God desires Jonah to preach to Nineveh and Jonah initially refuses to do so. Moreover, it seems that as the scriptural narrative progresses we see more and more that God acts persuasively rather than coercively. Paul’s understanding of the Spirit of Christ is that he lives in us. That is, God acts from within his creatures by means of persuasion rather than from without by means of coercion.

A great deal of our understanding of God as omnipotent comes from one of the names of God that we find in the Old Testament, namely, “God Almighty” or “the Almighty.” This title shows up quite frequently in Job. However, it is important that we realize that this title is a translation of the Hebrew title “El Shaddai” which is actually a proper name. El Shaddai is understood by scholars to mean “the breasted one” and has no connotations of omnipotence or almighty-ness. This proper name began to take on connotations of omnipotence when translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translated it as “Cosmocrator” which means “ruler of the universe.” Our understanding of God as “the Almighty” is the result of this (mis)translation.

Update: Given a few of the comments that resulted from this post I thought it would be worth noting that what we find in the LXX is the beginning of the shift that led to us understanding “El Shaddai” as implying omnipotence. As Silas and Nicholas pointed out, the Latin Vulgate comes close to universalizing the improper translation of El Shaddai. Due to the fact that our translations rely quite heavily on the tradition of Jerome’s translation, we find this same mistake in many of our Bibles today.

Unfortunately, “the Almighty” has become our most common title for God in our liturgies despite the fact that it is a title and, I would suggest, an idea that is foreign from the biblical witness.

Okay but can’t the problem of omnipotence be solved by saying that God has chosen to limit himself?

Many would suggest that this is indeed the appropriate response. By affirming God’s self-limitation one can hold on to divine omnipotence without chucking human free will out the window. God technically has all the power, proponents of this view would say, but for the sake of loving relationship with his creation he has chosen to limit himself.

There are two problems with this.

First, this response doesn’t adequately deal with the problem of evil. If we say that God technically has the power to stop evil but refuses to do so then we must ask why he would do such a thing. We would certainly expect another human being to put a stop to violence and evil if it is within their power to do so. Should we not expect the same of God?

Secondly, this question assumes that God acts coercively. As we noted above, it seems like the overall thrust of the biblical evidence would suggest that God works on us internally in such a way that does not override our capacity to make decisions.

It seems better to me to suggest that no event is the result of a single cause. Instead, there are many causes to each event and God is one of those causes. What God works to do is to empower us, to liberate us, to teach us, to guide us, to persuade us to choose the good in each moment. How we choose to respond to these divine nudges is, ultimately, up to us.

So is God all powerful? Yes and no.

No: if our understanding of God’s power is that it is coercive then I do not believe God is all powerful.

Yes: God is infinitely persuasive and persuasion, I would suggest, is more powerful than coercion.

*The above is a summary of a portion of John Cobb’s lecture entitled Process Theology: An Introductory Introduction which can be found towards the bottom of this list of lectures.

John Piper, The Notebook And The Nature Of Power

In one of his latest blog posts, John Piper interpreted last week’s string of devastating tornadoes in the midwest as an act of God. This is the logical conclusion of a theology that has at its center an absolutely sovereign God. All events in history must be read and interpreted as acts of God for nothing happens without his consent. Even tornadoes that kill people.

Sarcastic aside: Piper propagates such a theology out of faithfulness to scripture. If you don’t believe me, check his blog post. He quotes three passages from the Bible to prove his point!

I think you can make the Bible say a lot of things. As Piper has demonstrated, you can even make the Bible say that God kills people for his glory.  This sort of thing is not a matter of remaining faithful to the Bible. Open Theists claim to be faithful to the scriptures. Process theologians take the Bible seriously. Hitler thought he was doing God a favor by attempting to exterminate the Jewish people.

So if this isn’t about the Bible then what is it about? I would argue that it’s about Piper’s philosophical presuppositions about the nature of God’s power. Power, in Piper’s framework, is understood coercively. God is powerful in the same way that Caesar is powerful. God does what he wants because he’s God even if it means that some people get shit on.

Is this the only way to understand power, though? What if we understood power as relational and persuasive rather than coercive. If God is relationally powerful then he accomplishes his will not by means of violence and force but by means of seduction and wooing. God is powerful in the same way that Rachel McAdams is powerful in The Notebook–wooing her onlookers by means of her grace and beauty.

And yes. I like The Notebook.

There are a lot of ways to read the Bible. There are also a lot of ways to understand God’s power. If your theological framework has you saying that God causes tornadoes to kill people then perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board.