Monday 8 March 2010

Christian anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel

A Review of Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A political commentary on the gospel, Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2010.
by Keith Hebden

Alex Christoyannopoulos's new publication, Christian anarchism has been a labour of love for the author who has worked with thoroughness and care to present an almost exhaustive everything of Christian anarchism.

The only word of caution would be that because it is a doctoral thesis – turned book it can feel dry in its thoroughness sometimes and so won't suit every reader. But as academic works go there's no fancy language and everything is properly explained so if you can read you can read this book.

Christoyannopoulos works with texts and ideas that have been key for Christian anarchists to show coherence and diversity in the tradition. Part one would make a great reading-circle for radical Christian groups to explore their own response to the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 13 for example or the relationship between the state and the Christian community. Almost all of part one and much of part two is Jesus-focused and Leo Tolstoy features heavily throughout. Plenty of room is left in the book for exploring Christian anarchist practices too.

Christoyannopoulos brings to our attention a need within Christian anarchist thinking to develop a more thought through Christology. He does this without criticising the present thinking but simply outlining them as he does reveals their inadequacy.

Christoyannopoulos refers to Christian anarchist understandings of history as mysteriously unfolding. He claims they are united by a refusal to “hasten God's kingdom by political means” (276). They anticipate the kingdom but they don't precipitate it. This is important because the Christian anarchist critique of the state arises out of a commitment to non-violent resistance and not vice-versa. This means Christian anarchists would rather live in submission to the state than violently overthrow but because the means matter as much as the ends. This is what sets the radical Christian approach in contrast to much of the secular anarchist approach to social change.

Christoyannopoulos's social ontology is a brilliantly clear apology for a theology of love as social transformer. He chooses to draw on Paul Ricoeur and Paul Tillich to describe society's struggle to articulate justice. This is a wonderful antidote to the cynical view it is so easy to fall into of a Manichean state hell-bent on domination for the sake of exploitation. Christoyannopoulos seeks to widen the Christian anarchist understanding of the state from “the monopoly over the legitimised use of violence,” to a more generously phrased “articulation of a society's definition of justice”.

The arguments of Christian anarchists are based largely in a literalistic or deferring reading of selected parts of the Bible, mostly in the New Testament – they often ignore church traditions, being skeptical of any theology produced within a Church grappling with its compromise with the state. But Christoyannopoulos draws Christian anarchists back to these Christendom theologians.

Christoyannopoulos notes the literalism in much of the Christian anarchist tradition as evidence of its place in a modernist worldview. This happens to be the same enlightenment worldview out of which anarchist theory was born. A post-modern shift in thinking for Christian anarchism would helpfully push boundaries of thinking, speaking and doing. Perhaps engagement with other faiths and contemporary anarchists will help make this happen.

Alexandre Christoyannopoulos does a great job of outlining the arguments that have been made and suggesting a number of possible directions for future discussion. This book could easily be for Christian anarchism what Gustavo Guttierez's A Theology of Liberation was for that school of thought. And if anyone thinks theology can't change anything look at The Jubilee Debt campaign, Fair Trade and the many other ways in which liberation theology has shaped political agenda's and policies over the last fifty years. Then buy this book and see if Christian anarchism can do it all over again.