Christianity, Anarchism, and Nonviolence

            Christian anarchists essentially believe two things regarding violence: 1) it is morally wrong; and 2) the Bible corroborates this belief.  Generally, Christian anarchists do not take such a position as “Violence is wrong because and only because the Bible says so”, but something more to the effect of, “Violence is wrong, and there are biblical and non-biblical reasons to believe this.”  The present paper will treat of some of each of these in order to offer a Christian anarchist defense of revolutionary nonviolence.  The author will not be so ambitious as to tackle the more general question of whether or not violence is ever justified, though it is worth noting that for most Christian anarchists, there is no morally significant difference between political or revolutionary violence and violence in personal encounters.  Nevertheless, the present discussion will narrow its focus to that of political and revolutionary violence.

Christian anarchists—and anarcho-pacifists more generally—offer two mutually informative philosophical criticisms of violence, from the moral and the practical standpoint, respectively.  And if these critiques are accepted, leading to the conclusion that violence is both immoral and impractical in the pursuit of anarchist ends, it must be accepted that violence and anarchism stand irreconcilably opposed to one another.  Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who is indisputably among the forefathers of Christian anarchist thought, offers just such a twofold critique in “On Nonviolent Resistance”. 

            Tolstoy defines violence as being “used only in order to compel some people, against their will, to do the will of others” which, he concludes, “is slavery” (157).  If this definition is accepted—that violence is a form of slavery—then it follows straightforwardly that anarchists must reject violence as immoral, insofar as anarchists are opposed to all forms of domination, oppression, and coercion.  That is the first part of the argument.  Tolstoy goes on to denounce the idea that violence can be effectively used to combat violence as absurd on its face, comparing such attempts to “extinguishing fire with fire, stopping water with water, or filling up one hole by digging another” (157).  Tolstoy is channeling the common anarchist ideal of consistency between means and ends, as when Jean Grave writes that, “The surest means of making Anarchy triumph is to act like an anarchist” (157).  Hence, if anarchism is opposed to slavery, and violence is slavery, the anarchist, in seeking to “act like an anarchist” must abstain from violence at all times.  Again, if peace and nonviolence are the ends, by definition violence cannot be the means, for violent means will necessarily lead to violent ends.  Only peaceful means can lead to peaceful ends. 

            In the revolutionary anarchist literature, there are few who espouse such radical nonviolence as Tolstoy.  A more moderate approach to the question would be that of Errico Malatesta, who, in Violence as a Social Factor essentially argues that violence is permissible insofar as it is necessary for the successful carrying out of the revolution, but he urges his readers to remember “that ours is a struggle inspired by love and not by hatred, and that it is our duty to do all in our power to see that the necessary violence does not degenerate into mere ferocity, and that it be used only as a weapon in the struggle of right against wrong” (163).  However, the anarcho-pacifist would immediately point out upon reading this passage that, if we accept the moral principle that violence is wrong, then Malatesta’s advice is essentially that we utilize the wrong to which we are opposed as a tool in our struggle against it.  But surely this is absurd.  The basic idea, as the above quotes from Tolstoy explain, is that responding in such a way—combating violence with violence—simply begets more violence. 

            All of this militates against the common objection that a nonviolent revolution is impossible because it would take too long and would not be able to effect any real change.  On the contrary, if the above arguments are accepted, it follows necessarily that a nonviolent revolution is the only revolution that could ever succeed, for a violent and forceful revolution could not possibly lead to a nonviolent anarchist society.  And it is true that a nonviolent revolution would be longer and more difficult—Tolstoy readily allows this—but if violence is both immoral and impractical, there can be no justification for anything but nonviolence.  As John Howard Yoder writes, “Violence is always, apparently, the shortest and surest way . . . [a]nd in the long run that appearance always deceives” (40)[1].  Going along with this, Jacques Ellul writes in Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective that “once we consent to use violence ourselves, we have to consent to our adversary’s using it, too” (99).  In other words, in using violence to combat violence, we are legitimating our enemy’s use of violence as an effective way to achieve certain ends.  As Alexandre Christoyannopoulos says in Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel, “Adopting violence as a method to attain one’s goals implies the recognition of violence as an acceptable method in the first place” (39).  And again, the violence will be perpetuated indefinitely, never allowing for a peaceful society to emerge.

            To sum up, then, the basic philosophical argument against revolutionary violence is that, quite simply, violence begets more violence, and nothing more.  To be sure, the assumption is that there is no morally relevant difference between the individual who commits acts of violence out of anger, hatred, etc. and the individual who commits acts of violence as a means to overthrowing a tyrannical government.  However, the burden of proof seems to lie with the one who would argue that there is a morally relevant difference.  Violence just is violence, regardless of the motivation, and if, as anarchists, we affirm the inherent value and equality of every human person—value and equality which is not contingent upon the individual’s purported “goodness” or “badness”—it is hard to see how any violence could be justified. 

Judging one’s value according to “goodness” or “badness” has three relevant problems: First, these terms are relative, and who one person deems especially good may appear to another person to be morally unimpressive or even bad; furthermore, one person might be considered fairly good, but not as good as, say, Mother Theresa, in which case the former is actually taken to have less value as a human being than Mother Theresa.  Finally, no one is perfect, and if the absolute value of human life can only exist where absolute goodness does, it is impossible that any person could possess absolute value.  But this results in a slippery slope, whereby different individuals will judge others as more or less valuable according to his or her own standards of goodness and badness and could end up justifying the murder, torture, imprisonment, etc. of just about anyone[2].  Hence, if any one human life is taken to be inviolable, all human lives must be taken to be so, and, consequently, even the worst of tyrants is still inherently valuable as a human being.  Such a position may be difficult for many anarchists to accept, but, to the mind of the present writer, it is the only position which is truly consistent with the philosophy of anarchism.

            Not only is nonviolence consistent with the philosophy of anarchism, but it is also consistent—crucially, for the Christian anarchist—with the philosophy of Christianity.   Quite simply, Christian anarchists believe that nonviolence is what Jesus unequivocally taught and there are several passages in the Gospels and in the New Testament more generally which corroborate this belief.  With hopes that the discussion to follow will not stray too far into theology and away from philosophy, it seems necessary that the biblical case for nonviolence be expounded upon.  To the mind of the present writer, what follows is a consideration of Christian philosophy rather than theology, but of course, to study the philosophy of Jesus, we must turn to the New Testament.  Among such passages which lend themselves to this task are the following:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (English Standard Bible, Matt. 5:9)

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.   But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.[3] (Matt. 5:38-39)

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place.  For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 25:52)

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27)

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:14-21)

The above passages are largely self-explanatory and seem to corroborate the argument already made in the present paper: namely, that those who would seek to be “peacemakers” cannot “repay evil for evil”, which results in twice the evil and renders peace increasingly difficult to achieve.  Instead, Christian anarchists see the nonviolent way of Jesus as the only feasible way of overcoming evil.  Furthermore, the love of enemies would entail, for the Christian anarchist, loving one’s political oppressors.  Again, this idea may be difficult for many anarchists to accept, but it is necessary for Christian anarchists and it has implications for the defense of nonviolence.  Quite simply, if we are to love our oppressors, it follows trivially that we ought not to act violently towards them.  Rather, as Paul advises, we should seek to “overcome evil with good.”  Going back to Tolstoy’s definition of violence as slavery, because anarchists believe in the immorality of slavery, this evil must be overcome with good (i.e., nonviolence and love). 

            Furthermore, Jesus rejects the law of lex talionis—“an eye for an eye”—which is still prevalent in society today.  Lex talionis was established as part of Old Testament law and was originally intended to prevent the meting out of unjust punishments (Christoyannopoulos, 36).  In other words, the idea was that punishment of criminals must be reduced to only an eye for an eye.  Because the Old Testament law was the first legal system which assumed the inherent and equal value of all human beings, regardless of class (as opposed to the law of Hammurabi, which specified criminal punishment according to the class of the criminal and that of his or her victim), it is not difficult to see how lex talionis, at the time, was an important step for human rights.  No longer was punishment to vary in intensity according to who the criminal was, nor was the punishment to ever exceed the crime.  As Kurt Willems notes in part two of his online Nonviolence 101 Series, “such a law was a preventative measure to ensure that punishment was proportional to the crime, and no more” (Willems).  And when Jesus came, he taught that it was time to take the next step.  As Christoyannopoulos explains in Christian Anarchism:

Indeed, this is one of the senses in which Jesus “fulfills” rather than “destroys” the law, by rearticulating it based on its original purpose . . . Jesus is instructing his disciples to move beyond the lex talionis of the Old Testament, to push its original intentions even further.  For Christian anarchists, the reason for which Jesus does this has to do with the way with which the law of retaliation can—and usually tends to—spiral out of control and degenerate into an unrelenting cycle of violence and revenge. (36-37)

According to this view, then, our systems of justice are to this day largely in opposition to the teachings of Jesus.  As Christoyannopoulos says, “The state is founded on the very thing Jesus prohibits” (44).  Capital punishment, for example, which clearly advocates an eye for an eye—indeed, this is generally the precise logic which is used in defending the death penalty—can hardly be justified according to this interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.  And furthermore, regarding the issue of revolutionary nonviolence, it is unjustifiable for the same reasons to advocate such violence as assassinations or warfare to bring about specific political ends.  If the system is based upon the logic of lex talionis, it makes little sense to fight the system with the same logic.  A new logic of resistance to evil—i.e., that of Jesus—must be adopted. 

            This, however, brings up another issue: that of resistance.  Is Jesus saying that we should not resist at all (in which case any revolutionary action might be immoral), or is he saying that we simply must not violently resist?  Obviously, Christian anarchists, insofar as they are anarchists, agree with the latter interpretation and this for a few different reasons.  First, in regard to the passage itself, Walter Wink argues that the verb Jesus uses, “resist”, is most accurately understood to refer to “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention” (13).  And “[s]upport for this translation,” writes Kurt Willems, “is not unwarranted as antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as “warfare” and is also used in Ephesians 6:13 in the context of active military imagery” (Willems).  Furthermore, this reading is consistent with the rest of the life of Jesus.  Quite simply, Jesus was executed as a political revolutionary; he was, in the words of John Howard Yoder, “a social critic and an agitator” (1) and a threat to the religious and political establishments of his day.  And not only this, but the same is true of his early followers, who were dissident, anarchistic, and politically suspect.  Mark Van Steenwyk writes in That Holy Anarchist that “It is clear that in its earliest centuries, the Church rejected the religion, economics, and violence of empire” and that “Christians saw themselves as a distinct socio-political reality” (4).  It was with this status of the new Christians in mind that “Luke compiled his story for Theophilus”, writes Yoder, “presumably with some apologetic concern to avoid giving the impression that Christians were insurrectionists” (23). 

Furthermore, Paul in Romans 13[4] must implore his readers to not violently revolt against their government, but to remember Jesus’ teaching of love and nonviolence, the knowledge of which Paul appeals to in Romans 12.  It seems unlikely that Paul would think it necessary to offer this advice if the Christians did not understand there to be political implications in Jesus’ teachings—and revolutionary implications at that!  But Paul seems to share in the Roman Christians’ contempt for the government (1 Cor. 2:6-8) and paid no heed when the government instructed him to act contrary to the teachings of Jesus (Acts 4:19-20).  This is a centrally important point for Christian anarchists, who obviously believe that the government daily does and commands things which run counter to the teachings of Jesus, which gives the Christian anarchist a moral obligation to (nonviolently) oppose the government. 

As for counter-arguments against the biblical case for nonviolence, there are few to be made from the New Testament.  One of the most commonly cited passages which purportedly demonstrates Jesus advocating violence is found in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is about to be arrested.

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack.  And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.  For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’  For what is written about me has its fulfillment.  And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”  And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22: 36-38)

Christian anarchists and pacifists see no problem with this passage.  Indeed, Jesus explains precisely why he is instructing his disciples to take swords—and it has nothing to do with making use of them or being violent in any way, which would run contrary to all of Jesus’ teachings regarding violence.  Rather, Jesus is merely acting to fulfill the prophecy that he and his followers would essentially look like hoodlums.  Furthermore, if he had in fact been advocating violence of any sort, it makes little sense that, upon being told that there were two swords among the eleven disciples, he would have told them that it was enough.  If he expected the disciples to use the swords why didn’t he tell them to get more?  As Ellul writes in Anarchy and Christianity, “The idea of fighting with just two swords is ridiculous.  The swords are enough, however, to justify the accusation that Jesus is the head of a band of brigands.” (64)

            Another common passage which is used as an argument both against Christian pacifism and Christian anarchism more generally is Romans 13:1-7.  What is important about this passage for the present discussion is Paul’s statement that state authority “does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4), which, it is supposed, means that state violence is justified and that Christians can take part in it.  There are two important things to note here: first, as John Howard Yoder explains, “The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority.  It was not the instrument of capital punishment,” nor was it “the instrument of war” (203), so the passage has nothing to do with war or Christians’ involvement therein.  Furthermore, Yoder writes, “verses 3-4 did not include any services that the Christian is asked to render” (203); rather, these verses describe the authority as carrying out a function “which the Christian was to leave to God” (198), meaning, in other words, that the role taken up by state authorities is one which can only rightly be claimed by God and therefore state authorities have no claim on the allegiance of Christians[5].  As has already been mentioned, the early Christians saw themselves as an independent political entity and took no part in the affairs of the state.  Therefore, it would make little sense to argue that this passage demonstrates biblically justified violence.  Instead, the passage seems to simply be pointing out the fact that the state possesses a monopoly of force and that said force would be used against dissidents, but that Christians should not respond in kind as this would be inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. And it is worth remembering, as was noted above, that these verses follow Romans 12:14-21, wherein Paul reminds his readers of Jesus’ teachings of enemy love and nonviolence. 

            In conclusion then, Christian anarchists see a moral obligation to be revolutionaries, as Jesus was, and at the same time to be nonviolent, as Jesus was.  And there are moral, practical, and biblical arguments which support this claim.  It should be once more emphasized that Christian anarchists see the biblical arguments in favor of nonviolence as one (albeit the most important for Christians) among three such arguments.  Therefore, both Christian and non-Christian anarchists alike can find sufficient moral and practical reasoning to reject violence and can work together in facilitating a peaceful revolution.

Works Cited

Christoyannopoulous, Alexandre.  Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel [Abridged Edition].  Charlottesville: Imprint Academic, 2011.  Print

Ellul, Jacques.  Anarchy and Christianity.  Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley.  Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011.  Print.

Ellul, Jacques.  Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective.  Trans. Cecilia Gaul Kings.  London: SCM, 1970.  Print.

Graham, Robert, ed.  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939).  Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 2005.  Print.

Grave, Jean.  “Means and Ends.”  Graham 156-157.

Malatesta, Errico.  “Violence as a Social Factor.”  Graham 160-163.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.  Print.

Tolstoy, Leo.  “On Non-violent Resistance.”  Graham 157-159.

Van Steenwyk, Mark.  That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity & Anarchism.  Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012.  Print.

Willems, Kurt.  “Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2).”  The Pangea Blog.  Patheos, 7 February 2011.  Web.  6 May 2013. 

Wink, Walter.  Jesus’ Third Way.  Philadelphia: New Society, 1987.  Print.

Yoder, John Howard.  The Politics of Jesus.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.  Print.


[1] From “The Theological Basis of the Christian Witness to the State” as quoted in Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’ Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel.  The original source is no longer available.

[2] This is the underlying ideology of structures such as racism and sexism, wherein certain members of society are considered less valuable than others, and so it is morally permissible to mistreat them.

[3] One is reminded of the well-known quote attributed to Gandhi (though the source is unknown): “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

[4] For an in-depth discussion of Romans 13, see Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, and John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus.

[5] In reference to the famous anarchist dictum, “No Gods, no masters”, which is a purported problem for Christian anarchists, Jacques Ellul, calling to mind 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”), writes in Anarchy and Christianity: “I do not believe that anarchists would be too happy with a formula that runs: No love, no master.” (35)


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