Christianity, Anarchism, and Anti-Authoritarianism

I am going to take a stab at responding to perhaps the two most common objections to the idea of Christian anarchism: the well-known “render unto Caesar” passage and Romans 13:1-7.  In so doing, I hope to subsequently begin building a case for Christian anti-authoritarianism, which is necessary for any discussion of Christian anarchism.  By no means is the following discussion exhaustive of my thoughts or the Christian anarchist literature on the topic of anti-authoritarianism, but as I say, it is a beginning.

Jesus’ admonition in Mark 12:13-17* to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is often employed as a weapon against Christian anarchism.  Clearly, it is argued, Jesus is here instructing his followers to be good and obedient citizens.  However, a brief turn down historical context alley would suggest otherwise.  Indeed, I would argue that this passage turns out to be quite subversive.

Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy point out in The Jesus Legend that “within Palestine coins were often printed without the customary representation of the emperor on them, done in deference to their [that is, Jewish folks’] sensitivity to anything that could violate the second commandment.”  [I]  One could speculate then (and it is mere speculation), that when Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question regarding taxes by asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” the Pharisees would have immediately realized that they had been outwitted.  For, as soon as they admitted that it was the emperor’s image, they were essentially saying that they carried a graven image, in direct violation of the second commandment.

Furthermore, I remember coming across a quote by Dorothy Day (though I regret to admit that I no longer remember the source) that was something to the effect of, once we have given to God what is God’s, as Jesus tells us to do, what more is there to give to the emperor other than these coins with his head stamped on them?  As Jacques Ellul points out, it is here that “the basis and limit of his [the emperor’s] power” is revealed, for, “whatever does not bear Caesar’s mark does not belong to him.”  Most importantly, “Caesar has no right of life and death”, [II] for humans are made in God’s image, not Caesar’s.  Therefore, he can have no legitimate dominion over human life!  (Which has profound and radical implications for discussions of war and capital punishment.)

Seen in this light, then, the statement appears very dismissive of the political system which, compared with (un)Kingdom of God (to use Mark Van Steenwyk’s phrase) [III], places importance on trivial and even sinful things.  The emperor has no real authority.  Give him his coins back and be on your way, focusing instead on the things that matter (i.e., realizing God’s (un)Kingdom on earth).

Paying taxes, therefore, is by no means a moral admonition.

This leads rather naturally into a discussion of Romans 13, which is typically considered the absolute trump card that proves once and for all that a Christian cannot be an anarchist.  (I have already discussed a couple of important aspects of this passage in my entry on nonviolence below, which will not be repeated here).  However, to my mind there are several important considerations which count against this typical reading, which divorces this particular passage from the surrounding verses and, indeed, from the whole of the Bible (most importantly, the teachings of Jesus).  As John Howard Yoder rightfully points out, this passage does not represent the only, or even the central, biblical teaching regarding governments. [IV]

First of all, the passage can by no means be rightly understand apart from the preceding verses in chapter 12 (remember: Paul did not divide his letters into chapters–it was a single literary unit).  Chapter 12 begins with Paul admonishing his readers to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”.  As Jacques Ellul points out, “This is obviously a strange beginning if he is later to demand obedience to political authorities!” [V] And not only this, but Paul goes on to exhort his readers to “love one another”, “bless those who persecute you”, “live in harmony with one another”, “do not repay anyone evil for evil”, “live peaceably with all”, “never avenge yourselves”, and finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Then, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  How strange that a Christian should read chapter 12, which is a direct echo of Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon On the Mount (Matt. 5-7), but then to read chapter 13 and determine that we must as Christians morally support the state in all of its violence as instituted by God!  To my mind, either Paul is directly contradicting the teachings of Jesus, in which case, as Christ followers, we must privilege the teachings of Jesus over those of Paul; or, this is not quite what Paul is saying.

First, as N.T. Wright notes, “Romans 13 is dovetailed into an argument against the taking of private vengeance (12:14-21)”, [VI] which is entirely consistent with Jesus’ own teachings regarding retaliation (see my post on nonviolence below).  As I have elsewhere pointed out, it seems unlikely that Paul would have couched his brief discussion of submission to political authorities within a broader discussion of non-retaliation had Christians not been fully aware of how diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings of love and justice the workings of the state were, which would undoubtedly drive some to want to violently retaliate.  And what follows seems to be a bit of practical advice–i.e., “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” and will punish those who rebel.

A second important point is that Paul’s statement that “there is no authority except from God” sounds quite subversive when we consider that Paul writes in Colossians 2:15 that “He [Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  Furthermore, in light of the fact that one of Satan’s temptations of Jesus was to give Him control over the “all the kingdoms of the world” very explicitly tells us that it is Satan who has dominion over the human kingdoms, not God.  After all, Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)  In other words, these passages seem to count against the typical doublethink interpretation of Romans 13 as saying that God directly institutes governments for our good.

Rather, as Yoder goes on to point out,

God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them . . . Nor is it by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does.  The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create or approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves.  Likewise, God does not take responsibility for the existence of of the rebellious “powers that be” . . .[VII]

In other words, Paul is not here saying how the government (or lack thereof!) should be, but merely how it is.  At no point does he suggest that society must always be structured in this particular way.  Rather, he is speaking to specific people at a specific point in history who were dealing with specific issues in relation to their government (and there is much more that could be said about these contingencies and perhaps one day I will get around to it).  Clearly, neither Paul nor Jesus nor any of the disciples gave any allegiance to the state.  Rather, as was discussed above, the state is seen as a mild inconvenience at best in pursuing the will of God (see Acts 5:29, for example, or simply pick a Gospel and start reading).  For this reason, when Paul writes that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”, I am inclined to understand this as essentially saying that those who are following Christ (i.e., “doing good”) have no need to fear human rulers, for in reality, human rulers are no rulers at all (see Matt. 23:8-12).  On the other hand, those who are “doing bad”, as it were, (presumably, those who have seen and understood Christ’s work, but choose instead to oppose Him), will be left to the “mercies” of the state–a frightening place to be!


[I] Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 109.

[II] Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 60-61.

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

[IV] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdman, 1994), 194.

[V] Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, 80.

[VI] N.T. Wright, Romans, vol. 10 of New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 723.

[VII] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 198.

*All scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible


What’s Wrong With Capitalism?

In the previous post I argued from the standpoint of the inter-subjective theory of consciousness that relationships predicated on domination are — if I may be so bold as to use the term — immoral (there are different methods which one may employ to arrive at immorality, but the basic idea is that, where domination is present, I can neither recognize myself as self nor the other as self, and, insofar as recognition of self-as-self and other-as-self is inherent to our nature, this is a problem.)  Assuming this evaluation is correct, the next reasonable question is, what about capitalism?  In the realm of political theories which would seek to eradicate the domination of the state, there are those who would argue that capitalism must also be eradicated (left-libertarians, libertarian socialists, social anarchists,etc.) and those who maintain that capitalism should be preserved (right-libertarians, minarchists, so-called anarcho-capitalists, etc).

Classical anarchism is rooted in socialism, which, by the end of the 19th century had split between anarchists of various stripes and Marxists (i.e., socialists who do not advocate the immediate elimination of the state).  What the two still held in common, however, was the conviction that capitalism must be abolished.  Marx understood capitalism as boiling down to two essential things: the accumulation of profit and private property.  Based upon this definition, an ethical critique of capitalism follows quite naturally.  While I do not consider myself a Marxist, the following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote over Marx’s critique of capitalism which I feel succinctly encapsulates my argument against capitalism.  The underlying assumption, as will become clear, is that individual human persons are inherently valuable, which immediately problematizes the ethical egoist foundation of capitalism, which reduces the value of individual persons to monetary gain and therefore, in principle, renders such concepts as human rights and social justice tertiary at best, and immoral at worst, should they conflict with the only absolute value which is profit maximization.

The goal of the accumulation of profit may be very briefly shown to naturally result in exploitation and alienation.  Quite simply, when the goal of opening a certain factory and hiring workers to work in that factory is to accumulate profit for the owner/employer, it is obvious that the worth of these workers will be valued insofar as they bring in profit.  Should a particular worker bring in (what is perceived as) too little profit, she will be swiftly let go and replaced by another who can ensure greater profit for the corporate elites, no matter what the negative consequences may be upon the worker who has been dismissed.  Had she brought in more profit, her employment would have been maintained and, essentially, she would have deserved the wages which will afford her food, housing, etc.  What this essentially boils down to is this: if the worker is not monetarily valuable to the employer, she does not deserve to eat, have a home, or any other of the basic necessities.  And not only this, but insofar as labor laws require corporations to spend more money to ensure the safety of its workers, in the absence of such laws these safety precautions will likely not be taken and thus the workers will be subjected to unsafe working conditions.  But because their labor is forced (as a result of the nature of the system), they must continue working under these conditions regardless (assuming they want to eat, of course).  [Note: many will argue that labor is not forced because the worker voluntary gives her labor to the capitalist in exchange for pay, and she could just as soon “take her work elsewhere”, as the saying goes.  This line of argument has problems, however.  First of all, because corporations are in competition with one another, they must produce the greatest amount of product, for the least possible cost, to gain the maximum amount of profit.  As a result, we have no reason to assume, should the laborer look elsewhere for employment, that the next employer would be any better than the first.  Secondly, what often happens is that one giant corporation monopolizes the market and destroys the competition.  When this happens, the laborer essentially has two options: work for this corporation, regardless of the conditions or pay, or don’t work at all, which means, in effect, give up the possibility of food, shelter, and livelihood.  It is a lose-lose situation.  Hence, labor is forced because it is performed out of necessity rather than desire.]

Now, to be fair, all of this assumes a rather libertarian-esque, laissez-faire economy, and one may reasonably argue that we now have laws in place which are meant to protect workers from these very dangers which result from the capitalist system.  However, to the mind of the present author, this is an absurd justification.  To say that the system should be maintained because, though the system naturally results in overwhelming amounts of exploitation and dehumanization, laws have been implemented to, in varying degrees, defend against this exploitation and dehumanization is hardly justification.  When the foundation of a home is causing problems we do not simply patch the roof and repaint the siding and call it good.  So too, following Marxian argumentation, capitalism should be abolished and an entirely new system adopted.

But this is not the only aspect of capitalism which results in alienation.  Private property, according to Marx, “is on the one hand the product of alienated labour, and on the other hand the means by which labour is alienated, the realization of this alienation” (308).  Specifically, a possession becomes private property when it brings profit to the owner, who does not himself work, but rather hires workers to work and earn profit for him.  And once this happens, the worker finds herself in the situation described above.

Obviously, what has been offered is only a brief argument against capitalism, but I think it is sufficient in demonstrating why it is, at best, not readily apparent that capitalism is a desirable system and, at worst, that it most certainly is not a desirable system.  There is much more which could still be said for the violence, oppression, coercion, racism, sexism, classism, etc. which is arguably also inherent to the capitalist system.  However, based upon the above argument, it is not difficult to see how such implications would naturally follow from capitalism.

Coupled with the previous post on inter-subjectivity, then, what has been offered is an argument in favor of a social structure predicated on anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, and egalitarianism — that is to say, anarchism.

Anti-Authoritarianism and Inter-Subjectivity

“No mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power.  Why?  Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid a person.” — Kierkegaard (quoted in Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity)

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin writes of Dostoevsky’s novels that “the heroes suffer destruction because they cannot wholeheartedly affirm the other, “thou art.” (5) The tragedy, in other words, occurs when the “I” of the hero fails to recognize the “I” of the other.

The theory of inter-subjectivity has its roots in the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  However, it was fully developed by G.W.F. Hegel.  The basic idea of an inter-subjective theory of consciousness is that one must first recognize an “other” before it can recognize itself.  There is no I without a thou.  How this happens, according to Hegel, will be explained in the following excerpt from a paper I wrote over the subject.  (Quotations are taken from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by J.L.H. Thomas, reprinted in part in Philosophic Classics Volume IV: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann).

In the Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, the thesis and antithesis which must be synthesized are “self-as-self” and “other-as-other”, respectively.  The synthesis, Hegel declares, is “other-as-self”.  How this comes about is not quite as complicated as Hegel’s jargon would suggest.  Essentially, the single existing self-consciousness initially inhabits a world comprised of self and other, i.e. the world of objects.  Inevitably, this self-consciousness will meet another self-consciousness, whereupon an interesting process of recognition ensues.  When the self-consciousness first comes into contact with another self-consciousness, the first immediately recognizes that the second is not simply an other (i.e. a rock, tree, etc.); not only is it not simply an other, but it is, in fact, a self, and in so being, is so similar to the first self-consciousness that the first, upon recognizing that the second can clearly not be categorized as “other”, can see only one other option: the second self is self, meaning that the first self’s self is projected onto the second, whereby the first self is no longer self, but other.  And while this is taking place in the consciousness of the first, the second is having exactly the same experience.  In the midst of this, each consciousness is essentially having an existential crisis: as Hegel says, “self-consciousness has lost itself, for it finds itself as another being” (36).

What is to be done?  The two must fight to the death: “it must set out to do away with the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being” (36).  From the standpoint of the first self, the second must be destroyed so that selfhood can be re-appropriated upon the first self.  Almost immediately, then, one self (we’ll say the first) achieves victory over the other (the second), and the second has already accepted that it must be defeated.  However, “[t]his proving through death does away… with the truth that was to result from it” (38), for, while the first has the second in a death-grip, it realizes that, per the inter-subjective theory of self-consciousness, if the second is destroyed, the first can no longer recognize itself as self, and will experience alienation without an other to recognize it as a self.  In lieu of destruction, then, the first simply dominates the second and forces the second to become a servant.  In this way, the first – now, the master – can exist for itself, but also has the second, which only exists for the other, to recognize the first as such.

However, this master-servant relationship does not last forever.  While the master does nothing for itself, but demands absolute servitude of the servant, it grows dependent upon the servant.  And the servant, in the meantime, works and masters the earth, and, “attains as a consequence a view of independent being as itself” (40).  Eventually, this results in an over-turning of the master-servant relationship.  In order for the master to regain mastery, it must also become a worker, living alongside the servant, who has also attained mastery.  And when this happens, the relationship is no longer one of master-servant, but rather, we might say, one of worker-worker.  Domination is no longer possible and the new relationship is predicated upon mutual exchange and equality.

In other words, any relationship predicated on the domination of one self over another will necessarily result in Dostoevskian tragedy for the dominating party.  According to the inter-subjective theory of consciousness, a proper I and Thou relationship is not possible so long as one I dominates the other.  Thou cannot be truly recognized as an I in such a relationship, and, by extension, I cannot be truly recognized in the absence of the recognition of Thou.  The two must be equal in order for this to happen.

Ergo, the inter-subjective theory of consciousness precludes the possibility of human beings existing in any real relationship to one another so long as hierarchical structures predicated on domination exist.   As Kierkegaard says, the relationship of the powerful to those over whom power is exercised is necessarily an impersonal one, and, therefore, in his own view, such relationships are actually sins against God, who created us as social creatures.  Hence, in destroying the possibility for proper social relations, we are sinning against God in that we are destroying the image of the one in whom we are made — namely, an image predicated on communality.

Consequently, Marx took many of Hegel’s ideas and ran with them, throwing out the metaphysical aspects and postulating a strictly atheist-materialist understanding of the historical dialectic.  Nevertheless, it seems that he, as a social holist, would agree with Kierkegaard insofar as he saw the domination and exploitation of capitalist society as unnatural and, quite simply, bad.

Human beings are naturally social creatures, who are meant (whether because of God or historical materialism, or both) to live in community with one another, rather than in dominating relationships which destroy the I and Thou.