Christianity and anarchism have a long, albeit tense, history. Even prior to the theorization of anarchism as such, countless Christians have seen the Law of God as superseding existing state restrictions. The earliest Christians were viewed as a threat to the State and persecuted as such. Much later, after a history of Christian socialist experiments, there came various Christians who openly embraced the terminology of anarchism, or at least some currents thereof, taking the label of anarchist as their own.
However, due to the peculiarities of history, much mainstream Christian anarchist theology lacks a foundation in structural analysis of the world. In much of the theological ethics used by figures who explicitly use the label “Christian anarchist,” the focus is upon individuals and personal relationships, rather than on problems like patriarchy and systemic racism. As these are among the primary organizing principles of American Empire, it is necessary to consider them in any decision a Christian is to make about how to interact with and counteract oppression, to let the oppressed go free (Isa 58:6).
To borrow from Jacques Ellul’s definitions, Christian anarchy is, fundamentally, the rejection of all violence. This becomes more difficult when the violence under consideration is systemic and structural. What does it mean for me, a white cis man, to reject violence when my very being in America is predicated on historical and continuing violence? Clearly, a nuanced approach to the question of violence is necessary.
Whether one actively pursues this structural violence, it does not cease. Police forces act as colonizers so that gentrifiers can provide homes for white people with all the conveniences at a lower cost than predominantly white neighborhoods. The violence against and continued enslavement via mass incarceration of black and brown people in America forms the cornerstone of its economy, providing both high profits and cheap goods for the white population. Whether one wants the world to be this way, it is this way.
There are those who are willing to engage in interpersonal violence if that is what is necessary to tear this system down – and increasingly, it appears that it is necessary. Many Christian anarchists claim a sort of moral superiority to this, or at least wash their hands of these methods. Often, this is justified by saying that effectiveness is not the concern of the Christian, merely an abstract faithfulness. This is the height of privilege, as refusing to participate in violent responses to a violent system is no absolution. It is merely a twisted sort of works-righteousness, seeking a monastic withdrawal from the world burning down around oneself. Our very beings are suffused with the violence of our society. We are all in sin, and all human action, on its own, remains sin. There is no moral superiority in refusing to stop oppression. While ending oppression is impossible, that does not excuse not doing it.
Throughout the history of Christianity, there are many figures, both lay and clergy, who have opted to use violence to end violence against the marginalized and oppressed. From rebels to theologians, from peasants to priests, many of their names have been lost to history. However, due to their unfortunate continued political relevance, I would focus on the participants in the July 20th plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them. Bonhoeffer was the unofficial chaplain of the would-be assassins of Adolf Hitler, and there were Christians among them. One of the participants in the plot even went to Bonhoeffer to ask whether it was morally permissible to shoot Hitler, given the chance. What would God have to say about that? What does it mean to say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword?
Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections are therefore pertinent. While he did not plan or participate in the actual attempt on July 20th, he provided moral support to those who did. He even offered to take up arms if that would help the cause. This willingness to support and to participate in violence is shocking given Bonhoeffer’s opposition to war and belief in pacifism. However, it speaks to the deep trouble of systemic violence – Hitler’s death machine was an open and exaggerated manifestation of the broader costs of capitalism and racism. Faced with the choice of personally-enacted violence, or allowing a broad system of violence to continue, Bonhoeffer knew that there was no way for his hands to remain clean.
Bonhoeffer was forced into what he would describe as “responsible action.” He came to see that absolute good and absolute evil are both in the world, but so intermixed and hidden that human beings are incapable of acting purely in accordance with one or the other. Ethics that is based in some absolute principle sacrifices responsibility, allowing one to shrug off the burden of problematic decisions onto some external principle. This signals a refusal to engage with the world as it is, instead opting to set up the principle as higher, either sacrificing good motives to utilitarian effects or ignoring the effects of one’s actions in favor of some sense of pure motivation.
However, all responsible action is based in the knowledge that one takes on guilt. Responsible action is, for Bonhoeffer, the taking on of the guilt of others, following in the path of Christ, who took on the guilt of the world in order to free it. All actions lead to guilt, because all actions are sinful. The only way to live responsibly in the world is to know this and to embrace the grace of Christ. We seek the good in a world that is such that we can never achieve the purely good. We live in a world condemned by Christ – but in that condemnation, there is also redemption. The world is not to be rejected, but known as belonging within the ordering of God.
What does this have to do with the title of this post? What does this have to do with militancy? I know that in my own life, I struggle with the idea of interpersonal violence, and that struggle will not (and I believe, should not) end. Yet the engines of death, the chariots of Babylon, continue to turn, crushing countless oppressed beneath their wheels. If interpersonal violence is what is necessary, then what are the acceptable limits for the one engaging in it? Our actions must be responsible, and Christians must always treat themselves as answerable to God, accepting yet never being satisfied with their inevitable guilt before the throne. How this looks in a culture that is increasingly seeing militancy as the only available resort is something that must be sorted out in a theology of militancy. Christians must consider for themselves what this means for them, and how they are to act in the face of Empire.
Soli Deo Gloria.