Christian Anarchism: The Singular Weapon Opposing That Hideous Strength

That Christianity is over and against the arche (the organizing principle, the principalities and powers) of this world is a truism of the same order as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is one of those universal trues that is universally ignored.  Everyone is against the “ruler of this world, the devil” (as depicted in the temptation of Jesus and elsewhere), but to oppose position, power, authority, prestige, and wealth, as Jesus does, is another matter.  The word “anarchism,” maybe due to its association with the 19th century movement advocating stateless societies, gets at the radical nature of Christian opposition to illegitimate authority. Christian anarchism might be associated with the desert fathers, Leo Tolstoy, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Ellul, and most particularly with the work of C. S. Lewis (as I conclude below) but what all would claim (though not in the same modern word) is that in authentic Christianity God is sole authority and any authority which would usurp the place of God is illegitimate. The devil though, is in the details of the workings of illegitimate authority, as depicted in the New Testament (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and specifically by Paul in Corinthians. The summation of Paul’s point is that illegitimate authority is coercive, shaming, filled with ambition and giving rise to strife. All of this can be summed up as a kind of violence if we understand violence is itself simply this coercive power. Christianity is anarchic in that it opposes the organizing violence which shapes people’s lives and runs the world.

Where the church would collude with the arche, as the Corinthians and the church through the ages has been tempted, the demonic, according to Paul, displaces God: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (I Co 10:21). You cannot pledge allegiance to more than one ultimate power; it is either God or mammon. The Corinthians are claiming the idol is nothing, and while Paul agrees he notes that this is not the basis for collusion. Paul explains, he does not want them to unwittingly be participants with demons (v. 20). The arche or demonic masks itself behind the apparently benign and the history of the church is one of collusion with this power: Constantinian, German, American, liberal democratic, idolatrous – conjoined with Christian has produced demonic “Christianity.” Churches have conformed, respected, and often supported state authorities and in the process have tolerated and participated in the most grievous evil.

Paul is modeling a concept of authority which sees God as the only final authority, and in this he is enacting Christ’s servant leadership – a phrase so bandied about and abused that it can become repulsive (if not recovered from those who pervert it). The leader as the servant of all, in Paul’s prolonged argument, is not violent (literally or metaphorically the super-apostles are slapping people around), or an authoritarian, or coercive, or interested in position. What is pompous, a spectacle, a hierarchy of power, an end in itself, is not Christian. Those who use Christianity (e.g. the super-apostles in Corinth) for power and position are not following Christ. The problem is this more or less excludes most all churches. To state it in the most straightforward manner, if one can be promoted, given a raise in pay, given an important title, to become one of these then this cannot possibly be what Paul and Jesus are modeling.

But has not God appointed the masters and servants, giving his sign of blessing through socioeconomic success? Aren’t the clergy consigned with knowledge and power which can be utilized as chaplains of the state and all of its various powers (military, police, government)? Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous living anarchist, has spent his life uncovering the slaughter, genocide, and human sacrifice, in the name of a Christian liberal democracy (primarily that of the United States). The blood of human sacrifice, whether overtly idolatrous or covertly so, flows from illegitimate authority (it is always illegitimate/deadly in the same way).   The sacrifice of the weak to the “knowledge” of the strong, at Corinth or in Chomsky’s analysis, is the authority of the rich, the privileged, the elites, presuming to Lord it over the poor, the powerless, and dispossessed. Paul’s and Chomsky’s analysis converge in describing the sacrifice of persons for principle (gnosis or knowledge over concern for the weak) and in the obscuring of history (Israel perished, hundreds of thousands have been killed in South America, the Middle East, Africa, etc., in the promotion of American freedom). Where Chomsky’s atheistic anarchism falls short is in the realization of the real-world corporate resistance Paul is putting into place in his establishment of anarchic Christian communities.

While the super-apostles would extract obedience through violent shaming, Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority that comes off as wimpy, cowardly, and weak, in their estimate. Paul is concerned with nurturing the weak, and so is living in relative poverty so as to identify himself with – or to be – weak as opposed to strong. Where Paul’s weakness arises from a concern for persons, the strong are centered on an impersonal gnosis. As Kierkegaard explains, the impersonal is the marker of evil power: “no mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power. Why? Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid to a person.” The sign you may be dealing with demons is when someone says you must sacrifice people for humanity – a few for the greater good. The Corinthians, as with all power elites, would sacrifice the weak and the poor for the exercise of their freedom.  So, the first mark of the devotion to idols such as rulers or nations, is the willingness to sacrifice the few. Immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Jews, the disabled, are the “genetically inferior” which the arche of the age have required for their use. Smell for the sulfur of hell when it is argued “we must do evil to the few, perhaps to you, that good may abound” as the devil sits before you. 

The second thing which both Paul and Chomsky describe is a certain obscuring or complete blurring of history. Every idol has obscure origins – “it just came out of the fire” (according to Aaron’s description of the origin of the golden calf); I turned to eat my lunch and this god appeared (according to the idolatrous craftsman in Isaiah); “We the people” constituted ourselves a people before we existed as a people according to the Constitution. Chomsky traces the anti-democratic intent of American origins in Madison’s and Jefferson’s concerted efforts to protect the wealthy from “majority tyranny.” The supposed democracy, from its origins, was a plutocracy (government by the wealthy) and Chomsky’s effort is to trace the human sacrifice this continues to involve. In contrast, even though the Corinthians are mainly made up of gentiles, Paul incorporates them into the history of Israel to show that their spiritual ancestor adulterated/idolatrized itself. The authoritarians would bypass history, and particularly history as Paul recounts it. They would claim a word from God, a spiritual gift, an ecstatic experience, that cannot be historically countered. Paul uses Israel as a warning that things can go wrong and did go wrong as the bodies of these Israelites are spread in the wilderness (I Co 10:5). They were given an open door to freedom from the tyranny of Egypt and its gods.  They chose, instead, to worship the arche of the age and bowed down to idols of Egypt, longing for the very fleshpots of meat that the Corinthians crave.  Of course, this is pointed at the Corinthians’ adherence to the organizing principle and authority of the age and by extension it is pointed at our lingering submission to this power.

The gospel has often been preached as a choice between damnation and conversion, as if salvation is snatching souls from out of the world and its history. Paul is picturing salvation through Moses, through Israel, and ultimately through Christ as part of a historical process in which one must be able to name the idols to be saved from enslavement.  The kingdom of God exists in the world but it cannot be reconciled to the organizing principle of the kingdoms of this world.

In our day for the church to be anarchic it must counter the organizing principles of materialism, scientism, technology, and economics. Jacques Ellul has described the supreme idolatry of the time as technology, technique, or information processing. As he notes, what “desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality.”[1] How to do it, how to perform, how to achieve, whether money, sex, a mega-church, happiness, or peace, the sacred principle of the time is technique. “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”[2] As I have outlined it previously (here), “becoming all things to all men” (the proof text for Church growth philosophy taken from this section of Corinthians) reduces authority and leadership to technique.

 As both Chomsky and Ellul illustrate, schools have become the focus of the sacralizing of technique. The young are indoctrinated to equate information gathering with understanding and education primarily conveys information. Intelligence is now conceived such that it could be duplicated artificially (AI) as it is pictured as mechanical. This accords with Lewis’s depiction in That Hideous Strength which portrays the demise of a little college that is somehow intimately familiar.  N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Sciences) is the acronym of the technocratic organization, geared to pure science and to elevating humanity beyond embodiment, which takes over the school. What Lewis captures is the emptying out of intellect to a bland scientism and technology.[3]

Lewis’s resolution to this hideous evil, in his space trilogy and nonfiction, is Christian anarchy. The small group at St. St. Anne’s, made up of just a few ragged individuals, poses the only opposition to the domination of N.I.C.E. Lewis, it has been noted, was obsessed with “power-over” relationships.[4] Lewis explained, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with the unchecked power over his fellows… I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” In his depiction of the unfallen world the races interact together quite freely and peacefully, trading amongst themselves, with no need for the machinations of a state structure or governing system.[5] Apart from the Fall “our race would never have featured any rulers dominating others.” Subordination of one human to another marks human failure which is erased in his depiction of the unfallen. In Out of the Silent Planet this is beautifully depicted in Professor Ransom’s research into how power and authority function on the planet. He concludes as Justin Fowler has described it, “equals are unfit to rule each other — humans are not fit to rule other humans. To try to rule another is to try to be something that one is not.”[6] What Lewis captures throughout his corpus is the anarchic nature of Christian authority, the only means of resisting pure evil.



[3] Even in biblical education, in my experience, students must harmonize, memorize, fill in the blanks, repeat the correct answer, summarize the doctrines, as if this constitutes learning the Word.  Administrators with their technique, their pursuit of accreditation, their total adherence to the arche of the age are displacing Truth. The truth of Christ as a person in whom we trust, is reduced to an impersonal gnosis which one can be made to espouse (think here of the history of forced conversion).


[5] Ibid