Anarchy and Christianity
A deep dive into one of Ellul's shorter works. Its a book with a promising title that quickly disappoints. Let's dive in a find out why.
As soon as I saw the title of this work among the list of Jacque Ellul’s books, I knew it would be a “must read.” I had mentioned before in a podcast that it seemed like Ellul’s “solution” to the current political situation pointed towards something like anarchism, but what shape would it take? This book has its moments of insight, but it’s also undermined by an inability, I think, to escape the politics of his time and a philosophical commitment to Existentialism. In the end, Ellul still seems to believe in liberalism broadly conceived. He is also an immanentist and a psychologizer of spiritual realities, making him sound at times eerily like Jordan Peterson, and not in a good way.
When I think of anarchy, this is what comes to mind:
I am old enough that I could still shock my parents by acquiring, bringing home and playing the Sex Pistol’s “Never Mind the Bollocks” album. This is not really what Ellul has in mind as he lays out the case for Christian anarchy.
“Christians, however, if they act properly and are not wicked, do not need to obey the political authorities but should organize themselves in autonomous communities on the margins of society and government.”
As someone committed to the idea of building parallel polities in response to the current managerial state regime, I do resonate in part with what Ellul is getting at here.
Elsewhere, in his books “Violence” and “The Political Illusion” he argues that all states are founded and maintained by violence. It is a necessary function of politics. Whether you mask that violence and pretend it isn’t happening, as we often do in the west, believing that our society is founded around discourse —the marketplace of ideas— and negotiation —the social contract— we tend to look away from the many ways in which violence is central to the western regime. Ellul draws a sharp contrast between the world of “necessity,” which includes the political, and the world of grace in Christ. The world of necessity is the world of sin and evil. The world of Christ is that of redemption and love. The Christian commitment is a radical choice for love over violence.
“By anarchy I first mean an absolute rejection of violence.”
This sharp divide, while easy to draw in theory, is challenging to work out in practice. Ellul, across a number of his works, develops the idea of “necessity.” A sinful world forces upon us actions which we know are not good, just, righteous, or loving. The world of God’s grace in Christ, the world of radical love and non-violence is the world which Christians are striving to live in and realize. But because we still live in a world where sin and evil abound, sometimes choices are forced upon us, not between good and evil, but between the lesser and the greater evil. Ellul goes this route so as to avoid trying justify political actions, especially those which are violent, as good. Ellul wants us to acknowledge to ourselves that we do evil. The evils were “necessary,” but still evils. The world that we experience today is not the world God intended, nor is it the world of grace and love that is to come. In this in between time, hard things must be done, “necessary” things.
Ellul then outlines three broad situations in which violence is necessary and explicable:
Taking action to systematically kill those who are in power such that it makes people so afraid of public office with the goal that the state will collapse. Ellul is skeptical that such a condition can be reached, as the state has remarkable organizing power to counter and neuter these kinds of threats. Ellul considers the technocratic managerial state as THE enemy. So an argument can be made that the killing of public officials so as to make governance impossible, is the lesser evil when compared to allowing the administrative state to continue.
When the system creates such increasing conformity, that the administration is so powerful or the economic system seems so invincible (who can arrest multi-national corporations) that violence against the system becomes a cry of despair and the outpouring of a hatred of oppression.
Violence may be necessary as a symbol and a sign to people of the fragility of society, a way to expose and neuter the secret, behind the scenes forces which are at work to undermine it. Violence becomes a form of revelation, a prophetic accusation calling out into the light those who undermine society for their own gain so as to hold them to account for their actions.
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