catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14


Anarchism and hope

The prophetic imagination

Anarchism and Christianity

Jacques Ellul, in Anarchy and Christianity, argues that anarchism is the political position that most resembles the Biblical outlook on power and society. The Bible consistently criticizes concentrations of power that oppress people and present the means for liberation in following God, who requires that we love justice just as he loves justice. Ellul defines anarchy as a total rejection of violence. While he recognizes that anarchists have used violent means, he argues that the use of violence is essentially meeting the state on its own terms, and the state tends to be much more effective at the mobilization of violence than revolutionaries. In addition, Ellul says following Jesus is inherently pacifistic, and the need to be faithful to Christ's example supersedes considerations of effectiveness.

The Jesus Radicals site says,

Anarchism is a rich and powerful critique of modern society that Christians have at our fingertips. We do not wish to confuse Christianity with anarchism but we do believe that when Christianity is lived rightly it looks a lot like anarchism. The two are not the same thing but that does not mean they are mutually exclusive.

The Biblical critique of power is actually quite pervasive throughout the scriptures, which should surprise those of us who are used to the alignment of faith and power and reading scripture as if it made our modern assumptions regarding the relationship of church and society. I will briefly examine one I find particularly hard-hitting: the creation in Genesis 1. Other relevant passages include 1 Samuel 8, various passages from the Prophets, a number of passages from the Gospels (including the seemingly unlikely “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's” statement), 1 Corinthians 7 and its prescribed disobedience to Roman compulsory marriage laws, the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20 which presents Christ in language explicitly related to imperial propaganda of Caesar, numerous parts of Revelation, and even Romans 13—perhaps the passage most likely to be invoked against Christian critiques of the structures of authority. I'm not going to expound fully on the passage, but let me suggest reading it as an extension of the command to love one's enemy given just prior in Romans 12, while recognizing that in the passage Paul actually takes jabs at Nero by subverting statements from Roman propaganda (particularly the statement that the ruler “does not bear the sword for nothing,” against the official statement that in Nero's hand “the sword is idle”).


Genesis 1 and Ancient Near Eastern Empires

To understand the Genesis 1 creation as a critique of power, it is essential to understand the world in which it was written. To do so, it is effective to read Genesis against the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. From a cross-reading of the two, it is clear that the text is not only setting forth the theological basis for Israel's creation religion, it is attacking the oppressive social structures embodied in Babylonian mythology. Enuma Elish is a text characterized by wanton violence. The earth itself is created by violence, as creator god Marduk rips apart the carcass of his defeated enemy, the sea-chaos-goddess-monster Tiamat, and then he creates the human race using the blood of her slain consort to render service to the gods, who were apparently too lazy to work to feed themselves.

Genesis has no such violence, not even a hint that anything works contrary to God's will in bringing forth the earth. Even the great sea monsters are presented as a creature in accordance with God's will, not as mortal enemies to be conquered. Furthermore, instead of using violence against the creation God actually enlists the creation to participate in its own making. In verses 11, 20, and 24 you find phrases like “Let the water” and “let the land” as life springs forth from the creation. The Hebrew construction in these verses implies that God enables creation to take a role in determining its own shape—a much different picture than in the Babylonian story.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 as a critique of the oppressive Babylonian social structure is in the famous “Image of God” verse. In the ANE, “image of God” specifically referred to two things: 1) the authorization to exercise rule on God's behalf; and 2) the images one found in an ancient temple as objects for worship, pointing the worshiper to the god represented in the image. Image is representational, and the entire human race is created in God's image. This was not the case with Babylon. Instead, each year in Babylon they would re-enact the story of Enuma Elish, complete with human sacrifices, with the king taking the place of the god on his throne. The implication is clear: the performance of the myth existed to reinforce the social order by which the people exist to serve and provide for the king. The king's conquests in war were presented as the continuation of Marduk's defeat of chaos, and so the myth legitimated the very existence and extension of the imperial order. This is in strong contrast to Genesis where all human beings are commissioned to represent God and participate in his rule over creation, a rule whose parameters are set by God's allowing the cosmos to participate in determining its own shape.

This understanding is to be the foundation of the order of the people of God, to be instituted by the advancing of the New Creation with the church as the people of God's kingdom. Indeed the church itself came into being under the shadow of empire, that of Rome, who claimed for its founder:

The most divine Caesar… we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things… for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar… the common good Fortune of all… the beginning of life and vitality… All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year… Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence… has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us Augustus, whom Providence filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order, and since he has become god-manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times… in surpassing all the good people who preceded him… and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel about him. Therefore let a new age begin from his birth. (Orentis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae, 2.458, translation from Richard Horsley's Jesus and Empire)

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