Jan 15, 2023
"Over the course of history, however, humans have just as often sought to trade their existential liberty for the promise, always ultimately empty, of security and/or prosperity."
Christian Anarchism, an oxymoron if ever there was one. After all, Christianity is all about order. The order of the world that God created (Genesis). The Logos (ordering principle) through whom God creates the things of the world and redeems them. The hierarchy of the Church. The Decalogue and the rest of the 613 mandates of Torah. A second-grade classroom in a 1950s parochial school with fifty pupils, one teacher, and ‘pin drop’ silence. That’s order; that’s Christianity! Right?
So then, what’s with this anarchism? Obviously, anarchy has no place in such a universe… if you understand ‘anarchy’ as synonymous with chaos, disorder or even entropy itself. On the other hand, if you understand ‘anarchy’ as the lack of an externally imposed order (society’s exoskeleton), the situation gets a bit murkier.
The lack of an externally imposed order does not preclude the spontaneous emergence of order (an endoskeleton); in fact, it implies it! After all, God once and for all put an end to disorder at the moment of creation (Genesis 1: 1-2). “The light shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1: 5)
Mikhail Bakunin, the ‘St. Paul of Anarchism’, underscored this point: “Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me, such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the boot maker… Each directs and is directed in his (sic) turn; therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and above all, voluntary authority, and subordination. ” (God and State)
What of Torah, God’s law? Clearly, it is imposed on humanity, indeed on the universe, by a transcendent entity…right? Absolutely…and yet not so much! Torah is God’s law, but it emerges both from the will of God and from the human heart: ‘as above so below’, the Star of David, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Jewish tradition speaks of two Torahs – the Written Torah (aka the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah, embedded in the laws of nature and in our hearts. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the way of the wicked…the law of the Lord is his joy, and he meditates on it day and night.” (Psalm #1)
God is Justice; man (sic) is just, at least potentially. No ‘just acts’ without divine Justice; but also, divine Justice is mediated into the world by our just acts.
Perhaps then we should not be surprised after all to find the rudiments of Anarchism embedded in the Social Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. How so? After “render unto Caesar”, there wouldn’t seem to have been much wiggle room. Plus, Thomas Aquinas himself affirmed that all are required to follow the validly enacted laws of their respective societies, regardless of the political process du jour; but Thomas added a crucial qualifier: Laws are valid only if they do not conflict with the will of God, which is Justice.
Sidebar #1: This is not theocracy per se. God is not a legislator, a politician, or a spin-doctor. Satan offered to place his entire global political network at Jesus’s disposal…but Jesus declined. In fact, he did a full Sherman: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
God is Justice! Any validly enacted law is binding…but only so long as and to the extent that it is just! God does not dictate the color of traffic lights (red, yellow, green, et al.). Yet, it makes sense to think that, in general, laws that promote traffic safety are consistent with God’s will for his people.
When Leo XIII became Pope (1878), he faced a crisis of social disintegration. Society seemed hopelessly divided by class, by nation, and by ideology. Karl Marx had thrown down the gauntlet 30 years earlier when he wrote: “A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism.” It was high time the Church responded…and, as we shall soon see, it did just that!
Christian tradition supports the legitimacy of the State, but as defined by Samuel and David, not by Hitler and Stalin. The State as it occurs in history is not necessarily the state envisioned in Christian sociology. In our epoch, the very concept of State entails the subjugation of the individual to the collective. But this ‘collective’ does not develop organically out of freely formed interpersonal relations, a la Rousseau. Rather, it is an anti-logos imposed on all social interaction by one segment of the body politic.
In contemporary political theory, the nation state is the ultimate sovereign (Hegel). It confers limited, subsidiary sovereignty on smaller political and social units, it recognizes (at its sole discretion) certain human and civil rights, it preserves certain ‘useful’ institutions (e.g., family, church), but it reserves the right to regulate the behavior of all individuals and groups according to its conception of the ‘general welfare’.
For example, it is the nature of the modern State to manage the natural environment as a resource to be exploited for the short-term benefit of society, or a segment thereof. The Future is marginalized by, and in favor of, the Present. The State inverts the funnel of history: instead of a narrow Present opening out into a broad Future, the State shrinks an all-encompassing Present down to a future trickle.
According to such a value system, colonialism and imperialism are not only justified but mandated. War, slavery, and all manner of human exploitation can be ‘overlooked’ so long as it serves the State’s notion of ‘the greater good’. One person’s slavery may, perhaps, be justified if it disproportionately advantages others. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. We are mid-way though Machiavelli’s 1000-year Reich.
Machiavelli himself represents a pivot point in the Intellectual History of Europe. Like a funnel with two mouths and one neck, Machiavellianism inputs the wisdom of Ancient Greece and Medieval Rome, shrinks it down to the size of a city-state (Firenze), and then broadcasts it back out into the world under various guises: Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Liberalism, Socialism, Utilitarianism, Capitalism, Communism, Consumerism, etc.
Riddle: Name two isms that are incompatible with Machiavellianism. Give up? Answer: Catholicism for one…and Anarchism. Hmm.
Sidebar: Utilitarianism (Mill et al.) sounds good and is accepted in some form by a majority of today’s political theorists. It is an algorithm with an infinite number of possible solutions. It includes solutions that distribute the total ‘good’ as equally as possible… as well as solutions where all ‘good’ is conferred on a single individual. On its very face, utilitarianism contradicts Catholic social teaching. It fetishizes process and ignores policy; it substitutes a mechanical algorithm for human charity and solidarity. It has Machiavelli’s ink-stained fingerprints all over it.
Anarchism, on the other hand, does not preclude the evolution of institutions of social order. On the contrary, it anticipates them; but the keyword here is ‘evolution’. Imposed order is not at all the same thing as organic order.
Anarchism celebrates the fact that true order evolves naturally from the bottom up; but hierarchy certainly has a role to play in this process. The hierarchy is the vanguard. The priests marched at the head of Joshua’s column as it moved to ‘liberate’ the Promised Land.
Hierarchy can jump start and guide process, but it cannot replace process. For example, there are no just acts without God’s Justice, but that Justice is only operative in the world through the agency of just acts.
What we call ‘liberalism’ (Locke, Mill, Rousseau, et al.) is merely an elaborate mask for the hierarchical State. Its ‘consent of the governed’ is an ‘origin myth’ that is contradicted by three facts: (1) the state of nature, presumed to pre-date that ‘consent’ never existed, not even in theory; (2) there is no definable process that could constitute ‘consent’ in the broad existential sense implied here (such consent would constitute a form of bondage that is a prime facie violation of human dignity); (3) once consent has been given it is apparently binding on all generations to come: the sins of the father…
The phenomenon of State, as it is today, is very different from the concept of state as it appears in Catholic doctrine. The ‘state’ of the encyclicals is merely the broadest, most general expression of community. Such a state recognizes voluntary human associations as embedded in the ecological order.
Anarchism does not oppose order; au contraire, it celebrates it. The ability of human beings to form just and ordered communities is one of our species’ highest achievements. ‘Statists’ do not view order as natural. They understand society as essentially ‘fallen’ and therefore in need of an externally imposed standard of right conduct…just as long as that standard does not come from God or Church. Secularism is a lot of work.
Anarchists deny this reasoning altogether. They view humans as God’s partners in the ordering process, not as luddites ‘hell-bent’ on sabotaging any such order.
To the statist, sovereignty rests at the most general level of association, the nation state, or now perhaps the so-called New World Order. The Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity views the problem through the other end of the telescope. Sovereignty rests at the level of the individual and her proximate social networks (e.g., family). According to such a model, ‘consent of the governed’ is not ‘one and done’ but a perpetual process, happening, or not, every minute of every day.
The consensus belief that Anarchism is inconsistent with Christianity looks a bit odd in the light of history. In fact, there have been two significant, long term, attempts to rebuild Western society according to Anarchist principles; both enjoyed considerable success, yet both have disappeared from the contemporary political landscape. Wonder why.
After the Exodus, when the Hebrews emerged from the wilderness and marched on Jericho, they began a 300-year long social experiment. From the death of Moses to the coronation of Saul, society, guided by the grace of God and the precepts of Torah, functioned without a permanent political class and without any formal central government. Authority was vested in God, his people, and a series of charismatic judges (Joshua through the sons of Samuel) whose authority derived solely from the favor of God and the consent of the governed (e.g., elders).
The Exodus granted the Israelites a quasi-unique opportunity in history…a blessed do-over. Unlike the Jacobins of 1789, the Hebrews had no Ancien Régime to contend with. They did not inherit a bunch of old political structures in need of reform. They were given a chance to build a society, ab initio, from the bottom up…and they did just that.
This lengthy period in Jewish history is recounted in three books of the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, and the first 7 chapters of I Samuel. The final line of Judges summarizes the entire era: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his (sic) own eyes.” (21: 25) By all accounts, this early experiment in anarchism was quite successful.
In our era, we are used to folks seeking to liberate themselves from physical bondage, cultural oppression, and political tyranny. Over the course of history, however, humans have just as often sought to trade their existential liberty for the promise, always ultimately empty, of security and/or prosperity. Erich Fromm explored this phenomenon in his book, Escape from Freedom.
So did the author of I Samuel. The people cried out to Samuel, “Appoint a king over us, like the nations, to rule us… Give us a king to rule us.” Samuel, with God’s help, tried his best to talk the people out of their folly, but no cigar; and the rest, as they say, is History…brutal, brutal History. As James Joyce wrote, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Now fast-forward 1500 years: the Fall of Rome has once again created a political vacuum, this time in Europe. Armed with a trendy new ideology, Christianity, the people set about the creation of a new social order; call it Christendom. Once again, the operation was a huge success…but once again, the patient died.
Feudalism was a dazzling display of decentralized economic power and political authority: the Manor, the Abbey, the Village, the Cite, the Guild, and last and by all means least, the ‘island state’. This is not the place to recount the breathtaking achievements of the so-called Middle Ages. Suffice to point out just a few highlights:
The ossified philosophy and theology of the late classical period gave way to new and vibrant ways of thinking. Excepting John and Paul, Augustine and Boethius (4th century CE) were the most consequential Western philosophers since Plato and Aristotle.
Gaudi notwithstanding, Europe’s greatest architectural treasures date from the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages saw an evolution from slavery to serfdom to citizenship, only to be replaced later by wage slavery.
In 999, more people lived in the Medieval city of Córdoba, Spain than live today in Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, or St. Louis.
Some Dark Ages! Again, however, the ‘glory that was Rome’ proved too much of a lure. Europeans abandoned their own rich culture in a vain attempt to resurrect a civilization that had peaked 1500 years earlier.
Enter Leo XIII: “All public power must proceed from God, for God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him and serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely God, the sovereign ruler of all.” (ID #3, see below.)
Separation of Church and State? Maybe. Separation of God and Society? Never!
“Whatever be the nature of government, rulers must bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world and must set Him before themselves in the administration of the State.” (ID #4)
Is this not exactly how Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samuel, et al. governed Canaan for 300 years?
“If the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own authority and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is not justice, is null.” (D #15)
“Civil laws…so long as they are just, derive from the law of nature their binding force (RN #11)… Laws bind only when they are in accordance with right reason and, hence, with the eternal law of God.” (RN #52)
“Man (sic) precedes the state, and possesses, prior to the formation of any state, the right of providing for the sustenance of his body.” (RN #7) Jean Valjean (Les Misérables) was wrongly convicted!
100 years later, Pope John Paul II glossed Leo’s Rerum Novarum: “The right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.” (CA #7)
“A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order.” (CA #48) Is that not Star Trek’s Prime Directive adapted to feudal society?
“By state we here understand…any government conformable in its institutions to right reason and natural law, and to…dictates of the divine wisdom.” (RN #32) Leo builds his concept of right order on three legs of a tripod: God’s law, natural law, and reason.
Leo is not just jousting with heretical states. He is ‘disestablishing’ them! A heretical state is not a ‘bad state’ in the way that a stubborn male child might be called, “a bad boy”, but still be a boy. A heretical state is not a ‘state’ at all. There are no bad states. There are only states and pseudo-states.
Jesus began his ministry (Luke 4:21) by proclaiming a Jubilee year; in the same way, Leo proclaimed the withering away of Europe’s nation states. Unlike Marx, Leo did not promise the dissolution of the heretical State; he dissolved it!
Finally, Leo quotes Aquinas: “Human law is only law by virtue of its accordance with right reason; and it is thus manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence.” (RN #52)
D = Diuturnum, 1881
ID = Immortale Dei, 1885
RN = Rerum Novarum, 1891
CA = Centesimus Annus, 1991
Image: James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 6 11/16 x 10 3/8 in. (17 x 26.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.209 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.