Friedrich Nietzsche and Christian Anarchism

While working on a paper over Nietzsche to be used as my writing sample for graduate school applications, I sort of happened into writing the following section on certain points of convergence between Nietzsche and Christian anarchism.  To be sure, Nietzsche was no Christian, and his relationship to anarchism is up for debate, but he had some interesting things to say about the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and the political ramifications therein.  I have not included the portion of this paper on Nietzsche’s ideas regarding the will to power, which surely cast a great deal of light on his critique of Christianity, but suffice it to say that it was precisely because he saw Jesus as the teacher of a “typical socialist doctrine” that he found said teachings so repugnant.  For Nietzsche, morality was commensurate with strength, and immorality with weakness.  Christianity, socialism, anarchism, and similar moral doctrines were, according to Nietzsche, born out of ressentment–a way for the weak to punish the strong and validate the morality of meekness, mildness, self-sacrifice, etc. as opposed to the morality of the strong, who valued self-determination, self-mastery, self-overcoming, etc.  There is much more that could be said on this, but hopefully this will serve as a sufficient prelude to the following.

[…]

One final point deserves consideration: it is worthwhile to the mind of the present author, to point out what was mentioned above that it is a mistake to see Nietzsche as positioning himself as “The Antichrist”.  As it happens, Richard Schacht has argued in a recent issue of The Journal of Nietzsche Studies that translating the work The Antichrist under that particular title is inaccurate and misleading.  In the original German the title is Der Antichrist, which seems to leave little room for debate concerning the English translation.  However, according to Schacht, Walter Kaufmann, who translated the work, as well as dubbed Nietzsche himself as “Antichrist”, “knew that, in German, the word “Christ” means “Christian” rather than (Jesus as) “the Christ” (which is “Christus” in German)”[1].  In actuality, it was not so much Jesus whom Nietzsche was opposing as it was “the Christianity of St. Paul and his kindred spirits”[2].  To be sure, Nietzsche was no follower of Jesus—though he thought well enough of Jesus to believe that the teachings found in the gospels are what they are simply because Jesus, though free from the domination of the religious establishment, was simply young and immature in this freedom, and would have outgrown and subsequently renounced his early teachings had he lived longer[3]—but he also believed Paul to have essentially betrayed Jesus in founding what was to become the Christian religion.  Indeed, “In Paul”, Nietzsche wrote, “was embodied the opposite”[4] of Jesus.  Conversely, according to Nietzsche, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”[5] suggesting here a use of the term “Christian” as the practitioner of Jesus’ teachings, of which the church was certainly not comprised.  Nietzsche makes this point with such pronouncements (not so unfamiliar to 21st century ears) as, “The Church is precisely that against which Jesus preached”[6], “’Christianity’ has become something fundamentally different from what its founder did and desired”[7], and this scathing remark:

Christians have never put into practice the acts Jesus prescribed for them, and the impudent chatter about “justification by faith” and its unique and supreme significance is only the consequence of the church’s lack of courage and will to confess the works which Jesus demanded.[8]

Interestingly enough, there is an increasing number of Christians who would fully agree with Nietzsche that the church has betrayed Jesus’ teachings.  Indeed, throughout church history, there has been an insistent minority of what we might call “back to basics” Christians, who advocate a return to an honest reading of Jesus’ teachings and a Christian life that is characterized by one’s attempts to follow His teachings, no matter how difficult or inconvenient–a characterization that has, it seems, been totally lost on the institutional church.  And Christian anarchists, in the tradition of thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Jacques Ellul, who understand the specifically political ramifications of Jesus’ teachings and the subsequent betrayal thereof by the church, could almost—mistakenly, of course—embrace Nietzsche as one of their own for passages such as the following:

Primitive Christianity is abolition of the state: forbids oaths, war service, courts of justice, self-defense and the defense of any kind of community, the distinction between fellow countrymen and foreigners, and also the differentiation of classes . . . The gospel . . . [is] . . . the news that a gateway to happiness stands open for the poor and lowly—that all one has to do is free oneself from the institutions, traditions, guardianship, of the upper classes: to this extent the rise of Christianity is nothing more than the typical socialist doctrine.[9]

Indeed, Tolstoy argues essentially the same in The Kingdom of God is Within You when he writes, “Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government. So it was understood at its very commencement; it was for that cause that Christ was crucified.”[10]

Furthermore, Nietzsche writes:

Whoever says today: “I will not be a soldier,” “I care nothing for the courts,” “I shall not claim the services of the police,” “I will do nothing that may disturb the peace within me: and if I must suffer on that account, nothing will serve better to maintain my peace than suffering”—he would be a Christian.[11]

The difference, of course, between Nietzsche and the Christians who would agree with these isolated statements is that Nietzsche sees such a “typical socialist doctrine”, which panders to the weak, as fundamentally flawed, for reasons elucidated above, whereas the Christian obviously thinks otherwise.  It is true that Nietzsche was opposed to the state, as he understands Christianity to be, and his writings have enjoyed considerable influence among anarchists[12], but when he refers to Jesus as “that holy anarchist”[13]—which is now the title of a Christian anarchist book[14]—he was not seeking to be complimentary.  Why and to what end the state is to be opposed is, for him, entirely different from the classical anarchist cause.  As Walter Kaufmann says in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist: “It is for this reason that the State becomes the devil of Nietzsche’s ethics: it intimidates man into conformity and thus tempts and coerces him to betray his proper destiny”[15].  Such a position is considerably more popular among individualist anarchists in the tradition of the German anarchist, Max Stirner.

[…]


[1] Richard Schacht.  “Translating Nietzsche: The Case of Kaufmann.”  Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43.1 (2012): 69-85.  P. 70.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Walter Kaufmann.  Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  4th ed.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.)  342.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Antichrist.  The Portable Nietzsche.  Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1982). 617.

[5] Ibid. 612.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Will to Power.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.)  101.

[7] Ibid. 114.

[8] Ibid. 113.

[9] Ibid. 123.

[10] Leo Tolstoy (2011-07-12). The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Constance Garnett.  (New York, 1894.)  Kindle Edition. 177.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to Power.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.)  125.

[12] John Moore and Spencer Sunshine (eds.).  I Am Not A Man! I Am Dynamite! Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition. (Brooklyn: Autnomedia, 2004.)

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Antichrist.  The Portable Nietzsche.  Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1982). 599.

[14] Mark Van Steenwyk.  That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity & Anarchism.  (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012). Kindle Edition.

[15] Walter Kaufmann.  Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  4th ed.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.) 158.

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I was raised in the stereotypical conservative evangelical Christian home. My parents had a loving and healthy marriage my entire childhood. I grew up on sunday school, Focus on the Family, and my mom’s Republican talk radio shows. At three my father taught me to say “I’m a right-wing conservative and proud of it!”. As disturbing as many of these facts may be to some of you (including myself, and probably my parents who have a somewhat different outlook on the world now), I was also raised to think for myself. I know many people think that it isn’t possible to be raised a conservative evangelical, and be raised to think for oneself, but it is, and my parents did it pretty well. In early grade school I remember asking my dad how we knew we were right about God and Hindus were wrong since both religions believed with equal…

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