Christian Faith and the State: A Primer (Part 1–Christian Anarchism; or “Every State is a Babylon”)

The secular libertarian theory I’ve been unpacking raises an important question: what is the legitimate role of the state?  Minarchists offer up a very narrow definition of proper state function: states are responsible for curbing aggression and protecting individual liberty. Anarchists assert that states have no legitimate role to play; states are little more than agents of unjust aggression.  In my current series, I am shifting my focus toward Christian libertarianism. How does Christian libertarianism fit into this conversation? To answer this question over the next several blog posts I want to present a simple road map for understanding the range of ways that Christians have understood the state. I won’t claim to be comprehensive here. My larger purpose is to lay groundwork that will help readers understand how Christian libertarianism fits into this broader conversation in the Christian tradition.

lipscomb20davidWhat does the Christian tradition say about the proper role of the state? Historically speaking Christians have answered this question in a variety of ways. In this post I’m focusing on Christian anarchism. In modern Christian theology, Leo Tolstoy and Jacques Ellul both represent this perspective. Christian anarchists are a diverse lot, so my summary here will obscure some of the nuances of particular anarchists, but will (I hope!) accurately characterize some general features common to many Christian anarchists.

My first encounter with Christian anarchism came in 1991 during the First Gulf War. Being a senior in high school, I found myself struggling with conflicted feelings and nagging questions about the war our country was waging. As a Christian, how should I feel about the violence of the war I was watching every night on the family television screen? Doesn’t military service sometimes require that we kill our enemies? How do I reconcile this with Jesus’ command that Christians love their enemies?

My home church spent little time wrestling with social ethics. I had few resources to help me find resolution save for my grandfather, a lifelong minister in the Churches of Christ. It was a frequent practice of ours when I would visit him in Scranton, PA that we would go for long walks where he would take time to discuss these sorts of questions. One afternoon after a long walk in Nay Aug Park we discussed at length my litany of questions about Christian faith and war. My grandfather led me back to his home office and pulled from his files a mimeographed copy of David Lipscomb‘s Civil Government: It’s Origin, Mission, and Destiny. Lipscomb’s work had influenced grandpa’s own thinking on this question; he was a conscientious objector during World War II and a lifelong pacifist. Grandpa believed that I would find Lipscomb’s work helpful in finding an answer to my questions.

Lipscomb’s Civil Government, first published in 1866-1867, offers a fitting example of the Christian anarchist position. Says Lipscomb, Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God exists in a world filled with human kingdoms. The way of life in the kingdoms of the world is in conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. Civil government is a manifestation of human resistance to the kingdom of God, and Christian citizenship in God’s kingdom entails a rejection of citizenship in every other human kingdom. To claim citizenship in any human political community requires Christians to mix their loyalties. Such compromises lead Christians to do terrible things. When Christians pledge their loyalty to the state they end up going to war against other Christians, with Christian soldiers on both sides praying to the same God asking for God’s blessing as they kill their Christian brothers; the American Civil War looms large in Lipscomb’s text. Christians are called to live as faithful witnesses to the kingdom of God, caring for the world through the Christian practices of prayer, worship, and service.

There is a radical edge to the conclusions Lipscomb points Christians toward. If we are citizens in God’s kingdom alone, then there are practices that most Christians today take for granted that we must reject. Christians should not vote or hold elected office, for example. Both practices compromise Christian citizenship; they force the Christian to straddle the divide between the kingdom of God and the fallen kingdoms of the world. Christians should not serve in the military, a vocation that entails the use of violence against those whom Christ calls us to love. The way of peace will seem peculiar, as it should when viewed from the perspective of those who have not (yet) recognized the new age of Christ.

Stated briefly, the Christian anarchist position is grounded in a theological claim about what God is doing in the present age:

  • In Christ, God’s kingdom (i.e. the “reign of God”) has come near to the world (Mk 1:14-15). God has transformed human history, bringing into being a new age in which God reigns over the principalities and powers of this world.
  • God has called into being a community of people–the “church”–that is called to bear witness to the truth of God’s present reign. The church bears witness to God’s reign by embracing a radical, countercultural way of life that contrasts with those principalities and powers of the world that resist God’s reign.
  • This Christian community lives out its countercultural calling by rejecting the world’s violence, pursuing a communal existence in which love of enemy, peacemaking, and self-giving love replace hatred, violence, and selfishness.
  • Christians find themselves in a world populated by principalities and powers resistant to the kingdom of God. These powers do not (yet) recognize the transformation of the world wrought by God through Christ. Faithfulness entails that Christians face this conflict with patience, endurance, and hope, confident that God’s victory has ultimately been won by Christ. The resistance of the present age is but temporary.

The critical point in all of this for our present conversation is this: Christian anarchists believe that human political communities (i.e. “states”) are a reflection of those principalities and powers that God’s present kingdom has overcome. To borrow a phrase from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, the state is a “province of the sovereignty of Satan.” The biblical starting point for Christian anarchist accounts of the state is Revelation 13: the Roman empire–and, indeed, all human empires–are here depicted as grotesque, monsterous beasts at war with the Lamb of God.

Now to be clear there are biblical texts in the New Testament that sit, at best, “uncomfortably” within the Christian anarchist account of the state. Many Christians points to Paul’s words to the Roman church, for example, in which Paul offers a more positive description of the state’s function:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no feat of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them–taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Rom 13:1-7)

Christian anarchists do not neglect texts like this. Romans 13 is part of a larger argument that begins with Romans 12, where Paul points the Christian community toward embrace a nonconformist, sacrificial pattern of life. In Romans 13, say Christian anarchists, Paul is not offering a theological foundation for justifying the rebellious work of human empires. States are not so much ordained by God as they are a taken-for-granted reality of the present age of human rebellion, a reality that is ordered and constrained by God’s sovereign will. Says John Howard Yoder of Romans 13,

“God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been a hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does. The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious ‘powers that be’ of for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that God orders them, brings them into line, providentially and permissively lines them up with divine purposes” (The Politics of Jesus, 201-202).

God can use the rebellious power of states today to further God’s own ends, much as God ordered the Babylonian empire responsible for Israel’s exile. In our present age, every state is a Babylon.

Recall from my earlier post the anarchist conclusion:  justice entails the elimination of all states. At first glance, the label “Christian anarchism” might suggest that there is substantial overlap between the theory I’m unpacking here and the secular libertarianism of Murray Rothbard I described and critiqued previously.  Indeed, there are those who suggest that Rothbardian anarchocapitalism is entirely compatible with the anarchist implications of the Christian tradition–I’ll come back to this in a future blog post.

However, digging more deeply into Christian anarchism one will find differences far more important than the similarities the common label implies. Rothbard’s case for an ethic of liberty begins with a picture of a man acting freely in nature to pursue his own rational ends. The commitment to nonaggression and the consequent claim that all states are illegitimate agents of aggression flow from a natural rights account of the human person entirely devoid of theological grounding.  By contrast, Christian anarchism begins not with a claim about human nature but with with a theological/eschatological claim about God’s work in Christ. This theological claim is essential to the coherence of Christian anarchism.

The theological basis of Christian anarchism leads to some conclusions about the state that differ sharply from those of anarchocapitalists like Rothbard. Rothbard points us toward a political ethic that idealizes a community in which human communities are freed from the aggression of states. Christian anarchists typically are wary of pinning Christian hope on such utopian aspirations. Human rebellion and sin can manifest themselves in insidious ways even in a stateless society, and voluntary associations can themselves come to mask and justify individual aggression, a truth laid bare in a most ironic fashion in Yoder’s own ministry. Christian anarchism embraces not so much an antipathy toward the state as an ambivalence to the presumptuous claims that states make of their own power. The power of states, say Christian anarchists, is itself subject to the sovereign power of a God who both counters and coopts the state to further divine ends.

Moreover, Christian anarchists do not presume that the solution of the rebellious nature of the state is to eliminate the state altogether. To the contrary, it is because Christians recognize God’s sovereign power over rebellious states that Christians can live with their eyes open to the possible ways that God can order the work of states. As the apostle Paul himself says, it is possible for the state to be “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4). Yoder argues that Paul’s appeal to the good function of the state is best measured by seeing how the state functions to further “the welfare of each individual subject” (207). Thus, while Rothbard perceives state-funded social welfare and public education as just another example of unjust coercion–the state is stealing from some to benefit others–Christian anarchists remain open to the possible ways that God’s providential care for creation can manifest itself in the work of those states that God orders for God’s own purposes. When the idolatries of Babylon are subverted in service to the reign of God, Christians have every reason to celebrate.

In short, Christian anarchism does not offer so much a Christian theory of statecraft as it does a way of life rooted in an eschatological vision of the present age. In the face of rebellion against the kingdom of God Christians live open to God’s ongoing, redemptive work, a work wrought through the church, through society, and through, yes, even states that cannot escape God’s sovereign reign.

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