Ellul: On Kings and Prophets

We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity. We spun through whether or not the ideas hold up (some of them are a bit weird), and we talked about the way the book is structured – how Christianity and anarchy are held up as two topics that Ellul is trying to bring together. We’re probably going to finish with the text this week – there’s just one last passage that I want to touch on. As a text, Anarchy and Christianity is split into two parts. The first part covers some of the groundwork – it’s titled ‘Anarchy from a Christian standpoint’, but it really covers both sides – it talks about anarchy from within that Christian framework, and also addresses some of the common anarchist complaints about Christianity. It’s very much smoothing the road in both directions. The second part is essentially a close reading of the Bible – or more of a quick skim, really, as it’s only forty pages. This part pulls out what Ellul sees as the different Biblical attitudes towards political power. His contention is that the Bible is broadly against political power, that it in essence supports anarchy as the most sensible way to run a society. He adduces Biblical texts that seem to support his point, and argues that the texts that contradict his argument by seeming to support state authority (such as Romans 13 and Titus 3) actually have contextual factors that can sort of explain them away. It’s bog-standard exegesis.

And you know, his exegesis comes (like all exegesis) with all those attendant risks – there’s the constant threat of distorting the text to fit your political arguments, and sometimes there’s the appearance of pulling arguments out of the air to explain away inconvenient sections. There’s one bit, actually, not in this part but at the start of the first chapter – in arguing against violence as a political method, Ellul makes reference to his faith. In the Bible, he says, “love is the way, not violence.” He immediately qualifies this position with reference to the obvious and arguably quite fatal counterpoint – the near-constant waging of divinely sanctioned war in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, he says, his position is that love is the way, “in spite of the wars recounted in the Hebrew Bible, which I frankly confess to be most embarrassing.” It’s just nice to see someone be honest about how the Bible is inconvenient to their faith. It’s difficult to wrestle the sprawling thicket of the Bible into a consistent set of beliefs, and it feels really healthy and transparent to see Ellul acknowledge that.

Anyway, so Ellul is talking about the Old Testament, and arguing that it’s broadly against state authority – that it is, in a very BC kind of way, anarchistic. He points out that God didn’t want the Israelites to have a king – they were meant to be organised under God, and it’s only when they start begging for a monarch that God sets them up with one. And God warns them – this is 1 Samuel 8 – God tells the Israelites that if they appoint a king, that king will exploit them and mistreat them and take advantage of them – and still the people are like lol but crowns though – and so God gives them what they want. 1 Samuel 9 covers the anointing of Saul. Ellul’s argument, then, is that state power, the power of the monarch, is granted unwillingly by God – given to a self-destructive people not because it’s in their best interest but in the name of respecting their autonomy, their right to make bad decisions. The monarch is explicitly made part of the trajectory of sin and death, one of the consequences of the fall of humanity. God tells the Israelites that it will be bad for them, and they make a decision to do it anyway. In fact, Ellul says, the anti-monarchist streak is “so systematic that some modern historians suggest that the accounts were written by anti-monarchists and partisans.”

So the Hebrew Bible hates kings. That’s a fairly uncontroversial statement, as I understand it. I’ve seen it in a few different settings. If you want to use that as the basis for your anarchist version of Christianity – not a bad place to start. Ellul also talks about the relationship between kings and prophets – basically, the Hebrew Bible has kings and prophets, and kings are bad and prophets are good. Kings are symbols of self-destructive, willful humanity, and prophets exist outside of that system, as symbols of truth to power and obedience to God. “Their writings, usually in opposition to power, were preserved, were regarded as a revelation of God, and were listened to by the people.” This again forms part of Ellul’s anarchist argument – the prophets aren’t part of the state hierarchy or part of any institutional structure. They are raised up by God from among the people, organically. They are anti-establishment, criticising the monarchs for their various debaucheries. God warned the people about the danger of kings, and sent prophets to do the same – because, Ellul argues, God is “Himself an enemy of royal power and the state.”

And – you know, I’ve said this before, but politics is obviously not my strong suit. I said this all the way back in 2016 when we were looking at Hannah Arendt – it’s not something where I feel like I know enough to have particularly strong opinions. Is anarchy, in the long view, a good idea? I dunno. Is the Bible pro-anarchy? Maybe. Or maybe the text was understood as referring more to an internal process rather than anything external and social. The whole setup seems easily read as a spiritual commentary, as a sort of metaphor about the status of our internal being. We in ourselves are self-destructive, and our impulse towards self-governance is part of the problem. Ellul writes that he’s surprised that the Hebrew monarchs allowed the Bible to circulate when it was so obviously anti-royalist, and – it just gets me curious as to how the text was actually understood by the people of the day. Did they think of it as political commentary? Or was the external seen as a marker of internal processes? When I was doing my Masters back in 2017, there was a weird little article I read about the mass shooting in Las Vegas that year. The writer took this event and turned it inwards, treating it as an opportunity to reflect on our own shared human foibles rather than the concrete social and political conditions leading to the tragedy. Maybe the texts about kings and prophets were seen in the same way – not as advocating for change but as a politically neutered lament over our shared, undifferentiated sins. I dunno. Ellul looks to the Bible and sees a program of political change and a society remade in line with the divine plan. I’m just not sure how far we can follow him.

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