Christian Anarchism for Absolute Beginners

Political Scientist Alexandre Christoyannopoulos was asked to give via interview an introduction into what is called “Christian Anarchism” in political thought – and so here’s “Christian Anarchism 101.”

Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, PhD, teaches Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University in England. He is the author of, inter alia, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Imprint Academic, 2010), and Tolstoy’s Political Thought: Christian Anarcho-Pacifist Iconoclasm Then and Now (Routledge, 2020). His research and teaching interests include political violence, pacifism and nonviolence studies, anarchist studies, political thought, politics and religion, and critical terrorism / security studies.


Lars Schall: Alex, when and how did you become aware that there is such a thing as Christian Anarchism in political thought? And how did you become eventually specialized in this school of thought as a political scientist?

Alexandre Christoyannopoulos:  I started my PhD thinking I would look at the relationship between religious and political structures, but I quickly realised I would have to recalibrate it. I had been interested in pacifism and anarchism for a while by then. I hadn’t encountered Tolstoy yet, but just around then, I did. And I got hooked. A few months later I came across several others: Ellul, Eller, Andrews, Catholic Workers Day, Maurin and Hennacy, Elliott, Yoder, etc. But I also quickly realised that what they collectively put forward, in particular a “Christian anarchist” exegesis of Jesus’ teaching and example, had nowhere yet been brought together using their different voices to articulate as compelling as possible a case for Christian anarchism. So that became the PhD project: to bring together the different threads of Christian anarchist writings (especially exegesis) into one more systematic and overarching theory of Christian anarchism. And that then became the book. That inevitably means I became specialised in this school of thought, though my broader interests lie in anarchism and pacifism more generally.

LS: Do you consider yourself a Christian anarchist, and if so, what does this mean?

AC: I don’t deserve the honour! I’m obviously rather sympathetic to it, but Christian anarchism is as much a way of life as a set of beliefs. Christian anarchists have often made huge personal sacrifices by devoting their lives to exemplifying Jesus’ Christian anarchism, risking arrests and persecution, living in poverty and doing their best to desist from contributing to the global political and economic machine which perpetuates institutional violence, economic exploitation and gluttonous consumerism. I can’t claim to be doing anything as inspiring as that. I suppose my contribution has been more focused on helping create a legitimate space for religious anarchism in relevant academic landscapes (political ideology, political theology, political theory, etc) and facilitating further research on it (as with my co-editing of several volumes on religion and anarchism featuring numerous other authors).

As for what ‘Christian anarchism’ really means, I see it as a stance according to which ‘Christianity’ (however you understand it) implies or should imply ‘anarchism’ (whatever you make the core focus of that anarchism). This therefore includes everything from the very rationalistic ‘Christianity’ of Tolstoy to Dorothy Day’s Catholicism via the Protestant Christianity of many others. And it can be an ‘anarchism’ focused on theoretical critiques of the state or other hierarchies of domination, or it can be focused on enacting communities that embody alternatives to states, or on organising against state-managed injustices. But one way or another, it is an ‘anarchism’ rooted in ‘Christianity’.

LS: If we want to talk about Christian Anarchism, we have to talk about Jesus and his relation to power and politics. In studying Christian Anarchism literature, it became apparent to me that real crucial in this regard is the third temptation in the wilderness according to the Gospel of Matthew, which takes place shortly before Jesus begins his ministry. Could you explain this, please?

AC: It is certainly an important passage. Ellul’s interpretation of it is possibly the sharpest and most compelling in Christian anarchist writings. He starts by paying attention to the text: the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, shows him “all the kingdoms of the world” and says: “all this I will give you if you bow down and worship me”, to which Jesus replies: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’”. Ellul’s first observation then is that this suggests that all political power and authority belongs to the devil. It is also noteworthy that Jesus does not deny that political power belongs to Satan. However, he refuses the offer of political power because it comes with a demand to worship the devil. Political power requires worship of Satan. Jesus therefore seems to be declining the tempting possibility of trying to change the world through political channels. He rejects the state because he can only serve one Lord, and it is not possible to serve both God and the state. In a sense, this captures one of the two main overarching gripes Christian anarchists have about the state, which is about idolatry.

However, for most Christian anarchists, even more important that the third temptation is the Sermon on the Mount, which introduces the other central route to Christian anarchism. There are several sections of the Sermon which Christian anarchists are quite fond of, but as I explain in a chapter of my book, the most important one for many of them is Matthew 5:38-42, where Jesus famously calls his followers not to take an eye for an eye, but to turn the other cheek instead (a passage which after all many people see as capturing the essence of Jesus’ moral teaching). For Christian anarchists, Jesus is calling his disciples to rise above lex talionis and its associated cycle of violence, and instead adopt a counter-intuitive and unexpected method to overcome it. Responding with love and forgiveness when least expected helps interrupt the cycle of violence. Because the modern state relies on violence and supposedly holds the legitimate monopoly of the use of force, and because it administers precisely the logic of retaliation which Jesus called his followers to overcome, Christian anarchists reckon that the moral teaching illustrated by this passage logically implies a rejection of the state. By this logic, therefore, it is because of their vehemently pacifist reading of the Sermon than numerous anarchists reject the state.

These two exegeses – the third temptation and ‘resist not evil’ – probably illustrate the two main strands of arguments for why Christian anarchists claim that Christianity should translate to a form of anarchism: one concerns idolatry, the other a full rejection of violence.

LS: Could you give us more examples of teachings by Jesus that show why Christian anarchists believe that Christianity is not compatible with the state and political power?

AC: In terms of scripture, for one, much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount is repeated in the many passages in which Jesus, James, Peter and Paul talk of forgiveness, of being servants or of not judging one another. The state does not do that (or rather we don’t do that through it), and if we did it then the state would anyway become redundant. There is also the Temple Cleansing, where Jesus’ direct action clearly implies a denunciation of the concentration and abuses of religious, political and economic power (and most Christian anarchists insist the action was nonviolent, by the way). Then there are all the bitter criticisms of the Pharisees as hypocrites in their application of divine law, criticisms that don’t seem that inapplicable to some church authorities today. Jesus’ arrest and trial also exemplify his attitude with respect to political authorities, and his crucifixion embodies both his condemnation of state violence and his forgiving alternative to overcome it. Then there is the Book of Acts, the many Epistles, and, of course, Revelation – all of which one can find convincing Christian anarchist exegeses on. In other words, there are many scriptures, and here I can only hint at their Christian anarchist interpretation.

LS: At this point, some people would throw Romans 13 into the mix. I quote:  “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” How does Christian Anarchism deal with that declaration by Paul?

AC: This is indeed one of the two passages that are most frequently brought up as presumed knock-out blows against Christian anarchist interpretations – the other being “render unto Caesar”. They are also the main passages wheeled out by religious and political authorities to legitimise the state. The way Christian anarchists deal with both of them is interesting and rather compelling, and I cover that at length in my book (there is also a freely available version of that chapter here).

What they say regarding the former is that Paul is really just offering his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, of Jesus’ call to forgive and love even the worst of enemies – which Jesus did even by submitting to the Cross. It’s worth noting that the passage comes just after Romans 12, but the chapter breakdown is not Paul’s. It was imposed by church theologians later. Read together, however, Romans 12 and 13 show Paul widening the pool of whom he is advising Christians to love, from family, to strangers, to enemies, and then to governing authorities – as if the latter are about the hardest constituency to love and forgive. Remember also this is addressed to the Christian community in Rome, who are being persecuted at the very centre of the empire. What Paul seems to be telling them is to resist the urge towards insurrection. He is preaching the turning of the other cheek instead. That’s not exactly some glorious crowning of the state.

But then what about these authorities being established by God? Here, Christian anarchists point back to 1 Samuel 8. Until then, the Israelites are happy enough appointing ‘judges’ now and then to deal with pressing political matters, but at that point they decide they want to be “like other nations”, so they ask for a king. Upset, then-judge Samuel consults God, who firstly reassures Samuel that this is not a rejection of Samuel, but of Him. Being like other nations is precisely what God wanted the Israelites not to be. He tells Samuel to warn them of the consequences (conscription, taxes, slavery) but that he will accept their final decision. They don’t heed the warning, and so God does establish for them the same political authority as for other nations. But this is a result of their idolatry, their failure to keep their faith in him. When faced with a choice: God, or a king, they chose the latter. God grants them their wish but warns of the consequences.

What all that would suggest is that Romans 13 does not legitimise authorities in the way those political authorities like to think. Rather, it calls for Christians to submit to these authorities as a way of turning the other cheek, to overcome their evil not through violent resistance but with an exemplary attitude that seeks to patiently understand and forgive.

It’s particularly interesting to turn to “render unto Caesar” in that context. The Pharisees are out to trick Jesus and ask him whether taxes should be paid. His first reply is to ask for a coin (he doesn’t seem to carry one). They bring one up. He asks whose face is on it. They say Caesar’s. At the time, one’s face on an object denoted ownership. Then comes “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, followed immediately by “and to God what is God’s”. The question is therefore what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. For Christian anarchists, coins, public monuments and the like are indeed Caesar’s. But not much else. Certainly life and hence the giving and taking of life are God’s prerogative. Coins, then, are indeed Caesar’s to claim back, but beyond that little else “belongs to Caesar”. The rest, to Jesus’ audience, quite clearly belongs to God. In other words, Jesus here calls his listeners to clearly distinguish what really matters a lot (and belongs to God) from the fickle things (like coins) that are technically Caesar’s. It’s about prioritising God over Caesar on all the important decisions, and giving Caesar what he asks when it concerns the less important things he likes to keep busy with.

Therefore, both Romans 13 and “render unto Caesar” do not necessarily mean what we have come to assume they must mean, and Christian anarchists actually have pretty sophisticated and worthy arguments to put forward on these passages.

LS: How should people deal with evil according to Jesus? And what follows from that for Christian anarchists?

AC:  I guess it partly depends what you mean by evil. For Christian anarchists like Tolstoy the way to deal with evil is to take your cue from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That is, when treated unjustly, do not use force or retaliate, but respond with love, forgiveness and generosity. For Christian anarchists, the radical political innovation of Jesus’ message was to put forward a completely different way of responding to whatever may be seen as evil. That is, even in the face of unjust demands, behave like a generous and loving servant, do not rebel, do not get aggressive, and certainly do not even contemplate using power to enforce your view of justice. In the eyes of Christian anarchists, the political implications are self-evident: the response to disorder and insecurity in human relations is not to delegate power to a state, but to act as Jesus taught and acted. The hope is that love and forgiveness eventually win over the evildoer through the heart. Impressed by such radical love and forgiveness, one day the evildoer may well repent. Admittedly though, in the meantime, cheeks keep being smitten and coats keep being taken away.

To be clear, this does not mean that Christian anarchists take the problem of evil lightly. They are precisely very concerned by it. But their worry is that the way we have a habit of responding to evil is feeding a vicious cycle of evil. And they see in Jesus’ response precisely an unusual but potentially promising method to respond to it: break the vicious cycle and superimpose upon it a potentially equally contagious cycle of love and forgiveness. It might not work all the time and it might seem quite utopian, but that’s what they understand the person whom Christians call the son of God to pretty clearly require from those who want to follow him.

LS: Is it of importance that Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this earth?

AC: Yes, though it depends how you understand it. Look closely at those passages. What he seems to be saying is more that his kingdom is not like those of this earth. His kingdom is indeed different. He rejected the temptation of political power. He rejected the political expectations some held about him. The community his teaching points to is one of love, mutual service and care. His teaching prescribes an ethical comportment with which his followers are expected to interact with each other and with others, here on earth. But he also points to God as his only ultimate authority, his ‘King’, if you will. This renders earthly kings insignificant. And they hate that. They want us to bow to them, not to be indifferent as we look past them. And that’s why they ultimately arrested, tried and executed Jesus. His kingdom is not like those of this earth, but that’s precisely why his kingdom subverts theirs.

LS: How do you view Christian politicians? They seem to be more than fine with what Jesus refused.

AC: Indeed. For most Christian anarchists, ever since Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity, religious and political authorities have basically worked to reinforce one another (even if they also sometimes struggled with each other for ultimate supremacy). Constantine’s conversion did not mark the embrace by the Roman Empire of Jesus’ teaching, but the conversion of Christianity to the interests of the Empire. Ever since then, mainstream preachers and theologians have modified Jesus’ demands, downplayed the more anarchistic ones (without necessarily downplaying, say, what he said about adultery in the same way as they relativise the turning of the other cheek), and suffocated his ethics under thick layers of mysterious theology and robotic rituals. The official Christianity we get since Constantine is closer to the Pharisees than Jesus.

This mainline Christianity is a Christianity which “Christian” politicians can work with. When George W Bush answered that his favourite political thinker was Jesus, he didn’t mean the Jesus whose radical moral guidelines we can all read in the Bible. He didn’t mean the Jesus who calls his followers to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to resist the temptation of political power. He meant the Jesus who only apparently said those things metaphorically, who meant things like loving our enemies as perhaps something to try to strive for inside us whilst we still strike them fiercely because they didn’t do what we wanted them to do. It’s a very different Jesus to the one Christian anarchists and indeed numerous dissenting Christian offshoots or anyone else who reads the Gospel free from the shackles of mainstream interpretation sees.

LS: Is our attitude towards the state idolatrous? And what about the relation of the Christian Church to the state?

AC: From a Christian anarchist perspective, yes on both counts. We expect the state to save us, we treat it like a god, and we turn to it instead of God. We worship the state instead of God.

And most Christian churches, as I just explained, have also become rather like the Pharisees which Jesus denounced. Most Christian anarchists are therefore very critical of most mainstream churches. They admire more radical Christian offshoots like the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Czech Brethren, indeed the early Christians and many others. But mainstream churches they are very critical of. Tolstoy in particular became increasingly acerbic in his critique of the mainline church, not least because of its conspiracy to work with the established political system to keep the status quo.

LS: Does the Book of Revelation talk in certain ways about politics which are of interest to Christian anarchists?

AC: Yes. Christian anarchists point to the opposition between the majesty of God and the dominions of Earth throughout the book. They see in the two beasts and the four horsemen different facets of contemporary politics. They see the book as another stark reminder of the choice between loyalty to God and loyalty to earthly power. They understand Revelation as warning true Christians of the difficult path of persecution and suffering which comes with following Jesus, and so on. Of course, much of the book is vividly metaphorical, but for Christian anarchists what those metaphors signify reinforces what they read as the core message of the rest of the New Testament.

LS: What are the goals of Christian anarchists? Do they want to overcome the state?

AC: Sort of, or rather they aim to render it redundant, to replace it, to build a new society within the shell of the old. Their aim is to inspire others to stop participating in and consenting to state violence in particular. But this question of how to relate to the state is only half the story. The other half is about building an alternative community in its stead – a loving, caring community of mutual aid and nonviolence – in other words, what Christian anarchists understand the “church” to have been supposed to be.

LS: We’ve talked here a lot about God and Jesus, which are neither everyday subjects in political science, nor in general science. However, would you say there’s something right about it when the late John Polkinghorne wrote that “the question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality”?

AC: Perhaps. The question of the existence of God is important if only because a vast majority the global population believes in it, and listens to people who claim to have privileged access to what that means for how they should live their lives. It therefore empowers particular hierarchies. And it means that for many people there are already readymade answers to questions about the reasons for social and economic injustices, whether and how to seek justice, etc. It’s therefore certainly an important question, and perhaps the “most important” about “the nature of reality”.

But very important too are questions of justice, peace, power, in other words of “who gets what, when, and how”. These are not necessarily about the nature of reality, but about the distribution of wealth and power. And whilst there is possibly no end to age-old and ongoing speculations about the nature of reality, the question of how we treat each other directly and indirectly, the question of the distribution of wealth and power – these are questions about which we can do something here and now.

Most religious and secular traditions ultimately recommend a version of the Golden Rule: do to others what you would like them to do to you. That’s a practical recommendation which we can implement here and now. And it has radical implications if we really mean it, and if we apply it also to all the institutions which we empower and consent to as we interact with one another. Therefore, whilst we ponder these tough questions about the nature of reality, we may as well strive to live by this Golden Rule.

LS: Danke schoen for this interview, Alex!

Lars Schall is a freelance financial journalist from the Ruhr Area in Germany. He studied, inter alia, journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund and at the University of Tennessee in the United States. His main areas of focus are energy, precious metals, monetary systems and geopolitics. He is also interested in the importance of the global drug traffic as a provider of cash flow for the banking system. Read other articles by Lars.