Christianity, Violence, and the State

This is the first post in a series entitled “Why Anarchist Christianity?” meant to present why Christians should take anarchism seriously. This ground has been covered by many others before me, to whom I owe a great debt, and I do not claim that the logic of my arguments is original, as most have been discussed ad nauseum among my friends and online. However, I hope that by presenting these claims in my own words and voice and from my own perspective, I might provide a resource for those seeking to understand these ideas in more detail.

‘But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”’ – 1 Samuel 8:19-22a

The modern state is an odd concept. Rather than being bound by laws determined by blood and personal loyalty, laws are established by “sovereign” states that maintain absolute authority within their boundaries (as discussed by William T. Cavanaugh in Migrations of the Holy). This is a radical departure from much of human history. This departure makes it difficult to comb the Bible for an appropriate Christian response to the State. However, we might look back at concepts of other “sovereigns” for some analogical fuel. Such sovereigns were kings and emperors who maintained ultimate legal authority. So if we want to examine what Christianity might say about the State, it is useful to look at what it has to say about kings. (Note that, while some might argue that democracy is different from monarchy, 1 Samuel shows a people who demanded a king, rendering these differences suspect.)

When I think of kings and royalty in the Hebrew Bible, I think of the work of Walter Brueggemann, specifically The Prophetic Imagination. In it, Brueggemann differentiates between two imaginations, or ways of viewing the world. The first is the royal imagination, characterized by numbness to the world and to suffering, as well as hopelessness for the future. The second is the prophetic imagination, which recognizes both suffering and hope. He argues that the task of the prophet is two-fold: breaking through the numbness so that people can feel the hurt they have experienced, and then presenting hope for a better world, where wrongs are redressed and people are whole.

Therefore, according to Brueggemann, the prophets are always opposed to kings and to the status quo. We can see this when Amos rails against the rich landowners in the two kingdoms. We can see this in Isaiah’s critique of the king of Israel. We can see this in Ezekiel’s lurid rants against the behavior of his fellow Israelites. We see this even when Jesus declares that prophets are never welcome in their own homes (Lk. 4:24). Prophets cause trouble, undermining the authority of those in power by referring to the higher authority of the Law – which they treat as running counter to the laws as they are laid out in human ritual. The most clear example of this is the criticism of burnt offerings (Is. 1:11, Jer. 7:21-24). While these are laid out in the Law, they were used as loopholes to get around the intentions of the Law, and this corruption angers God.

So we see the prophets of God are opposed to the states of their times. What then are we to make of that to which they are opposed? What does the State do? Note in 1 Samuel what the people want: a king to “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). Earlier, Samuel warned them that a king would “take your sons and appoint them to his chariots,” (8:11) he would conscript people to “plow his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.” (8:12) The Israelites had been waging war for generations without a king, so why would they want one to do all this now? What we see is that they were handing into a concentrated source the ability and right to use violence for defense and aggression. They sought to pass off violence to a single figure.

This (initially partial, later total) monopoly over violence by the state allowed for what one author has called “the outsourcing of sin.” By placing violence into the hands of a supposed authority, the people could place the difficulties of existence in the hands of another. However, as Samuel warned, this brought with it all the troubles of the peoples they wanted to be like (and from whom they were supposed to be apart). The establishment of this proto-State would result in a series of disastrous consequences for Israel.

As with ancient Israel, so with today: the State maintains a monopoly upon violence, and violence is declared legitimate only by virtue of being state violence. This is used in order to protect existing differences. The State serves to maintain methods of wealth distribution. By maintaining wealth distribution, the State maintains an order of systemic violence that keeps people in poverty. If one chooses not to pay medical bills, the State maintains the right to use force to remove them from their home. The systems of debt that the State and economic forces must maintain in order to keep control are directly in opposition to Mosaic law, which declares the Jubilee year in which all debts are forgiven, in which strangers are welcomed, in which land is returned to families that had to sell in order to survive. The Mosaic law undercuts the long-term power and authority of states.

This economic violence has long been a concern of Christian thinkers, going back to the time of the Acts community. By failing to give the complete proceeds from their sale of property to the Apostles’ community, Ananias and his wife Sapphira brought the wrath of God down upon themselves (Acts 5). St. John Chrysostom declared “that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs” (On Wealth and Poverty 55, trans. Catharine P. Roth, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press). Economic violence has long been recognized as a form of violence in the Christian tradition and should still be considered such. Further, by concentrating the legitimate use of force into the hands of the State, we hand the State the means to enforce this economic violence, and prevent its overturning.

If we are to be honest in our opposition to violence as Christians, we must take state and economic violence seriously. The nature of the State is violence. From its inception, the State has been meant to preserve “order,” which has meant the use of violence and coercion to preserve systemic oppression. As Christians, we must see the State as the perpetrator of the majority of the world’s violence, and continued participation in it as mutual culpability. We are called upon to critique, resist, and overthrow it.