Ellul: Christianity and Anarchy

We discussed recently Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, a 1988 book where Ellul identifies a range of problems with our modern democracy – up to and including how it’s subverted or arguably completely undermined by the wealthy. The diagnosis seems sound, although his solutions maybe haven’t aged very well – he suggests that we should refuse government authority by, for example, refusing to get our vaccines. I don’t think he’s a crank – he’s more against the concept of vaccinations being mandated rather than vaccines in themselves, and who’s to say whether he would have changed his tune if he’d lived through the past few years. I think by this point in the pandemic, we’ve come to appreciate the positive role that the government can have in certain situations – maybe he’d find that too.

What I’m getting at is that it’s a shame to be so mean about this book – because there’s a lot I do like about it. Even the title is fascinating – Anarchy and Christianity. It sets these two things alongside each other, as two separate topics joined by the connective ‘and’ – rhetorically admitting that they’re not the same thing. They are two camps that Ellul is trying to bring together, to what he sees as their mutual benefit. To use language we’ve used before, it’s an attempt to stitch two borders together, to make them adjacent geographies of thought in the hope that they will eventually merge or bleed through into each other (The Argument a Frontier). It’s a very different phrasing to, say, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’s 2010 Christian Anarchism, where the two ideas are much more closely merged. Christian anarchy, in that phrasing, exists as a type or subset of anarchy, alongside anarcho-primitivism or red anarchism or whatever else. The two feel much more integrated compared to Anarchy and Christianity, which almost holds the subjects in two separate hands.

Ellul touches on this separation in his introduction, where he describes the two groups (anarchists and Christians) as generally hostile to each other. “It is taken for granted that anarchists are hostile to all religions … it is also taken for granted that devout Christians abhor anarchy as a source of disorder and a negation of established authority.” He tells us that despite these attitudes, he’s trying with this book to bring the areas together, because he sees them as part of the same struggle. In explaining his thinking, he recounts a bit of his life story – and some of it just made me cackle. “Many things, including contacts at that time with the Spanish anarchists, attracted me to anarchism. But there was one insurmountable obstacle – I was a Christian.” It’s just – it’s such a relatable feeling. When I think of Christianity, I do see it mostly as an obstacle to joining the anarchist movement. I also – you know, more seriously, Ellul talks about the difficulty of trying to articulate this uncommon set of beliefs. “Reconciling the two things was not an easy matter … from both angles the incompatibility seemed to be absolute.” In a sense, his struggle was not only an issue of trying to understand what seemed like two conflicting halves of himself – it was also about trying to find community. Ellul recounts conversations with Guy Debord, who founded Situationist International in France – apparently, Ellul asked to join, and the Situationists turned him down, specifically because he was a Christian. Feeling split between two communities is difficult in any circumstance, but the specific intersection between Christianity and any leftist community – both are so strongly built around the idea of the communal, whether it’s worker solidarity or Christian fellowship, that there’s a really acute pressure that comes from being excluded or marginalized by both because of your associations with the other.

So I have a lot of empathy for this position. Even if I’m not totally convinced by all of the details, it’s a type of thinking that I have a lot of time for. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this much explicitly, but for me, I definitely feel like I grew up not understanding the scope of Christian thought. I grew up within a relatively narrow band of faith, and as I grew in my understanding of the world at large, that band just didn’t have the conceptual room for the things I was learning. I still remember the experience of reading James H. Cone – it was like being hit by lightning. He’d say – I suppose relatively mundane things, in a sense – but he’d say things to the effect of ‘racism is bad, and if your church is racist, it’s not really Christian.’ He connected the oppressive forces of white supremacy with sin, joining those two things together in a way that felt simple and true, like the most obvious and natural thing in the world. It was a revelation of a church that was able to speak with the voice of the movements that had been reshaping the world – movements like feminism and anti-racism, the movements tearing down the evil presence of colonialism and wealth. It was a Christianity that tapped into the movement of the Spirit in the world. Often when more conservative Christians talk about Christianity and feminism or things like that, they see it as modish, as a fad that will pass with time. But I do think that it is more accurately understood as the movement of the Spirit in the modern day. We have this renewed powerful investment in justice, in a world that is structured in a way that is righteous and fair. There’s something of the prophetic about it – it’s based in a vision of the kingdom of God, and in the drive to build it, to contribute to making the world a better place.

With Ellul, then, my patience with his writing stems from his commitment to that basic vision. He sees this genuine set of problems – how democracy is undermined by wealth, how political power corrupts – and he’s struggling to articulate a vision of a better world. He’s struggling to bring forth a vision of society uplifted, made divine. He’s doing his best to recognise and respond to the call of God. I – look, you know, I know this is maybe a little more preachy than usual. It’s not as sociological, if you like – I’m really clearly showing my commitments, getting off the high horse of faux-neutrality and getting into the weeds of my specific beliefs. But what we see with Ellul is someone who shares that basic vision of justice, and someone who’s really struggling to articulate it within the frameworks of the faith. The Spirit pulls him towards a greater vision of justice, something beyond what the church has traditionally imagined, and he has to invent a whole new language for it. He has to imagine new ways of being. And there’s a lot of fear in that – for Ellul, fear that there isn’t a place in the church for what he sees. He writes: “I thus embarked on a long spiritual and intellectual quest, not to reconcile the two positions, but to see if I was finally schizophrenic.” That feeling, that very familiar feeling – it’s the gap between the church and the call. It’s the space between hearing and responding to the Word. And it’s not a short-term space. It’s something that we inhabit over decades, maybe even centuries. The struggle continues.


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