Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic

I. The Principle of Mutual Aid

In Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin traces the development of mutual aid through human and animal evolutionary history, ultimately concluding: “That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough.”[1]  “Sociability,” Kropotkin is convinced, “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”[2] And these claims he supports with an impressive amount of evidence from studies of both animal and human society.  The idea that pre-civilizational human society was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all is absurd on its face, Kropotkin argues, and

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[3]

And furthermore,

The very persistence of the clan organization shows how utterly false it is to represent primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.  Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.[4]

Human beings, according to this view, have not evolved in such a way (as is commonly assumed) that we are all, at bottom, selfish, and that we must be dominated and coerced to prevent us from destroying each other—why, if we are simply selfish by nature, we would ever decide that we shouldn’t dominate and coerce one another remains unclear—but instead are evolutionarily inclined towards mutual aid and egalitarianism.

But surely, it will be objected, this is merely the revisionist history of hippie socialists.  Kropotkin, however, contends that, “not only many aspirations of our modern radicals were already realized in the middle ages, but much of what is described now as Utopian was accepted then as a matter of fact.”[5] However, “The absorption of all social functions by the State necessarily favored the development of an unbridled, narrow-minded individualism”[6], rendering the once-assumed place of the individual as an integral member of the collective whole a vague memory.  Where members of a society would have previously considered caring for the poor, orphan, widow, etc. to be a duty inseparable from social life, these responsibilities were now undertaken (or, rather, ignored) by the state.  “The result is,” Kropotkin continues, “that the theory which maintains that men can, and must, seek their own happiness in a disregard of other people’s wants is now triumphant all round–in law, in science, in religion.  It is the religion of the day, and to doubt its efficacy is to be a dangerous Utopian.”[7]

II. The Kingdom of God

Historically, Kropotkin points out, religion has often served as a challenge to these assumptions of self-interested individualism when they have arisen:

Even the new religions which were born from time to time–always at epochs when the mutual-aid principle was falling into decay in the theocracies and despotic States of the East, or at the decline of the Roman Empire–even the new religions have only reaffirmed that same principle.  They found their first supporters among the humble, in the lowest, down-trodden layers of society, where the mutual-aid principle is the necessary foundation of every-day life; and the new forms of union which were introduced in the earliest Buddhist and Christian communities, in the Moravian brotherhoods and so on, took the character of a return to the best aspects of mutual aid in early tribal life.[8]

It is tempting (and perhaps rightly so) to find in this an understanding of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”[9] as referring precisely to this principle of mutual aid, for, as Kropotkin tediously chronicles in his book, and as he mentions in the above quotation, it is very often among the poor that we still find the mutual aid principle most fully and beautifully realized.

After all, as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is among[10] you”[11].  That is, the kingdom of the God who is love is, is continuing to be, and is still yet to be, realized among us.  And the clearest hint of where to find this kingdom is given to us when we consider where Jesus spent the majority of his time: among the poor and lowly.  And what is often found among the downtrodden of society is the aforementioned principle of mutual aid, preserved in spite of the rhetoric of self-interest perpetuated by the state.[12]

Furthermore, Jesus constantly emphasizes hospitality and the opening of one’s home to the stranger.  And, taken in tandem with the above considerations, this casts Matthew 25:34-40 in a new light as well:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Christ is found in the face of the stranger.  As Richard Kearney writes, “Love of the guest becomes love of God.”[13] And in this there is no distinction.  As Kierkegaard points out, the commandment to love one’s neighbor is the commandment to love without distinction:

Your neighbor is every man, for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men.  He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[14]

And, consequently, “by being a Christian he does not become free from distinctions, but by winning the victory over the temptation of distinctions he becomes a Christian.”[15] Indeed, this is how Slavoj Zizek suggests that we read Luke 14:26[16]–as teaching the rejection of social, economic, political, etc. distinctions within society[17].  Similarly, Greg Boyd argues for a reading of Luke 24:13-35 as an instance of Jesus appearing as the stranger, and only revealing himself to his disciples once they had opened their homes to the unfamiliar guest—which Matthew 25, as suggested above, equates with being hospitable toward Christ the stranger[18].  Therefore, once the disciples had opened their home to this unfamiliar guest, they had opened their home to Christ.  The two are one in the same, and Christ reveals as much at the end of the passage.

What is the kingdom of God, then?  It is a community predicated on mutual aid and equality; a community that cares for the poor, the widow, and the orphan; a community that shows hospitality toward the stranger; in a word: unconditional love.  And it goes without saying that unconditional love is incompatible with oppression, coercion, greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

The kingdom of God, therefore, truly is, as Mark Van Steenwyk puts it, an (un)kingdom[19].  It is the kingdom of love, we might say.  And a kingdom that is ruled by love—by a king who is love (see Infinite Rebinding II and A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte for further thoughts on what exactly this means)—is hardly a kingdom in the hierarchical, authoritarian sense in which we have come to understand the term.  It is—dare I say?—anarchy.

Notes


[1] Kropotkin, Peter.  Mutual Aid.  (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 246.

[2] Kropotkin, 5.

[3] Kropotkin, 62.

[4] Kropotkin, 71.

[5] Kropotkin, 160.

[6] Kropotkin, 187.

[7] Kropotkin, 188.

[8] Kropotkin, 247.

[9] Luke 6:20

[10] Or within.

[11] Luke 17:21

[12] This is not, of course, to callously suggest that those who are not poor are somehow incapable of practicing mutual aid—there is certainly ample evidence to the contrary—but merely that the ideas of selflessness, of needing one another, and giving to those in need, are all too often ruthlessly stifled by the capitalistic ideals of competition, individualism, self-gain, etc. (which truly amount to, it seems, a thinly veiled valorization of greed).

[13] Kearney, Richard.  Anatheism.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 29.

[14] Kierkegaard, Soren.  Works of Love.  Translated by Howard and Edna Hong.  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[15] Kierkegaard, 81.

[16] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (NRSV)

[17] Zizek, Slavoj.  “Love As A Political Category.”  Subversive Festival.  Zagreb, Croatia.  16 May 2013.  Keynote Address.

[18] Boyd, Greg.  “Virtuous Ambiguity.”  Woodland Hills Church.  St. Paul, MN.  11 May 2011.

[19] Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist, (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012), 14.

3 thoughts on “Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic

  1. Pingback: Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Before reading this I had never even heard of Peter Kropotkin, but I you have certainly introduced his idea well. Your collection of his data and conclusion are incredible.

    Funny, I was just looking for other believers and an intelligent discourse on the faith and fell upon your blog in the sidelines of WordPress. Now I will be looking for more of your posts. Thank you for sharing. You have helped me articulate the (un)Kingdom of God a bit better.

  3. Pingback: Ethics, Morality, and God, Part I: Empathy & Mutual Aid | anatheistchristian

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