Friday 30 April 2010

A really very short introduction to Christian Anarchism

About four years ago I made the Wikipedia-article on Christian anarchism in Dutch, which is much more concise than the English language lemma. The English article may be seen as a very short introduction, this one is a really very short introduction. One day perhaps there will be a small volume in the Very short introduction-series on this subject.

I made it a very short one with a shortcut definition because a) I consider definitions to be un- or anti-dialectical, which to me is the only valid approach to social and spiritual phenomena; b) it may include so-called right-wing Christian anarchists of the type called libertarians, who especially in the USA often identify themselves with Christianity too. If we aim to make peace the description has to be inclusive. All the names mentioned are however - apart from Kierkegaard - of the socialist-anarchist type.

When I started out on the journey of discovery of Christian anarchism I thought German and French would be the most relevant European languages for this subject, apart from Dutch.
There is a good Wikipedia article on the subject in French, the German is even shorter than the Dutch entry as I wrote it.

I now present a translation into English, probably the main language of reference on this subject nowadays, with the perhaps illusory idea of offering a possibility to those who mutter that Christianity and anarchism cannot be combined to get in touch with the people referred to below. Yes, most of them are males - it will take some time to change that too.

The reason to draw this piece from the draft mode is mainly the publication of the first introduction on the philosophical/theological tendency in English (the first in any language as far as I know). And on the other hand a reason is a coming across popular misunderstandings about anarchism as the pursuit of disorder.
(The [in-]famous encircled A actually is an abbreviation of Proudhon's maxim "L'anarchie c'est l'ordre". Anarchy is order).


The shortest possible description of anarchism might read: the pursuit of the largest possible order with the least enforcement possible. Christian anarchists appeal in this pursuit to (elements of) Christianity, referring mainly though not exclusively to passages from Isaiah and Mica and especially the Sermon on the Mount.

Christian anarchists often refer to predecessors throughout the entire history of Christianity. Since it is really only sensible to use the term anarchism relating to the modern state this might better be done when referring to Christian anarchism. The combined phrasing was introduced by the specialist in gnosticism Eugen Heinrich Schmitt, relating to Lëw Tolstoy.

At the dawn of the modern state thinkers such as Petr Chelčický, Hans Denck, Sebastian Franck, the Familists, Labadists and English revolutionaries as Gerrard Winstanley and Abiezer Coppe may be referred to as being actual predecessors.
In the past two centuries Christianity and anarchism or the rejection of the state were in some way combined by:
Adin Ballou
Søren Kierkegaard
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was inspired by the Doukhobors who in turn were supported by Tolstoy.

From the English tolstoyan circle around the journal New Order the most well-known author is Ebenezer Howard, the theoretician of Garden Cities.

For the Netherlands may be referred to Felix Louis Ortt. [illustration 1]

In the United States of America in 1933 the Catholic Worker movement was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The movement combines fidelity to ecclesiastical Roman Catholic hierarchy with explicit anarchism.

Related and originally associated to the Catholic Worker are e.g.
Ammon Hennacy
Daniel Berrigan [illustration 2]
Philip Berrigan

A few other thinkers:
Jacques Ellul
Vernard Eller
Dave Andrews
Paul Virilio

Karl Barth, the most important protestant theologian of the twentieth century, politically tended towards anarchism. The development of his theology however makes it difficult if not impossible to connect him to other thinkers mentioned above.

Vernard Eller also considers Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be a kindred spirit.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

The strange idea that Jesus meant what He said

It seems like Tolstoy-year these days because of the death of the author, a hundred years ago (round of applause, please). There is even a film about his last days. Any idea whether his idea of Christian anarchy will get some attention in the mainstream media?
I'm not betting on it, he wrote from Las Vegas NV.

A rare specimen, Tolstoy. He held the strange idea that Jesus meant what he said. And so he taught: "Do not resist evil with evil." And: "Respect the personal integrity of each person." "Assume direct personal responsibility for the moral world which surrounds you. Never delegate your moral responsibility." "Seek out all opportunities for direct, creative ethical action." "Avoid violence, anger, the invasion of others, refuse bloodshed, and all kinds of theft and lies, covert or open -- especially in their approved and institutionalized forms."
He wrote: "Christianity, which demands from its followers meekness, humility, kindness, forgiveness of sins and love of enemies, is incompatible with violence, which forms an indispensable condition of power."
And: "War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves."
John Dear on Tolstoy.

Friday 16 April 2010

Notes from the soupline - Part Two

"Let them eat cake". The quotation has been so good throughout the years that I presume it is not authentic. [No idea of the supposedly French original].But there's lots of it for the soupline of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, together with croissants and other luxurious kinds of bread, and "normal" bread (what should be normal about bread?). 

It is generally said that poverty has a colour, and you can conclude to that seeing the queues for the meal handout on a morning like this. Yet, there are many whites among the poor stretching out the bowl for soup and croissants and the rest. If poverty has a gender too you might conclude it is male, but there may be many reasons why women will not queue up at 6.30 a.m. The few women in the queue turn out to be more modest than the men. Modest would be the right word - some men return for a second, third or fourth helping. One young woman, a new face, aks for a second helping, saying: "I have to eat for two, I am pregnant."
This morning there was absolutely nothing left for the people who were doing the handout, leaving us - ironically - rather hungry after the job. At other occasions the feral pigeons get the remaining bread, there was none for them today.

Before we start we have a morning service with psalms - the order of the day is randomly chosen - and the common prayer for everyone participating:

Oh, God...

Oh, God, when I have food,
help me to remember the hungry:
When I have work, help me
to remember the jobless:
When I have a warm home,
help me to remember the homeless;
When I am without pain,
help me to remember those who suffer;
And remembering, help me
to destroy my complacency
and bestir my compassion.
Make me concerned enough
to help, by word and deed,
those who cry out
for what we take for granted.

There is something miraculous about the Catholic Worker. This morning a lady, associated with one of the abundant churches here in da hood in West Las Vegas stopped by and asked with slightly jealous amazement who was doing this handout. "CatholicWorker?" Never heard of...
The ones who get the croissants and the muffins and all the jalapeño-spiced hot meals out.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Notes from the soupline - Part One

When I left for Las Vegas I did not realize that nights could be cold, and especially that high up in the mountains the weather would still be chilly. So one of the first things I had to do after arriving was to get a jacket, the kind of clothing I did not think necessary - the contrast with the weather in Western Europe would be too big anyway.

Sr. Megan took me to a thrift store atached to a Lutheran church which looked like a monastery - and thrift stores belonging to churches over here really are thrift stores. For five dollars I got a jacket I immediately fell in love with - it reminded me of Indorockers like the Tielman Brothers or the Blue Diamonds. When I presented myself on A Pinch Of Salt it was with spinning an Indorock record. A real Indorocker jacket. Phew wow!
(Chances were I would even wear it at a possible wedding ceremony, which  I did - it is one of the Must-Do-Things in LV, NV. We did it in the chapel of the franciscan house we are staying in, between washing the dishes and the coffee before turning in for the very early tour of duty).

When I looked at the inside I noticed the jacket was Made in Indonesia. An ironical (and sad) detail. Sweatshop clothing real Indo-style.


We show up in the early morning at the Catholic Worker House LV where preparations are made for the soupline of the day. "Where' you guys from?" asks a CW with a southern drawl. "From Hulland," we have to say ("Holland" makes no sense, it sounds too much like Poland, the politically correct Netherlands is too tedious and most of the time needs more explanation - so we learned to pronounce the country's name as if it were the surroundings of Hull). Yes, it is pretty decadent to come all the way from Western Europe to hand out meals to the poor of Las Vegas, to the ambassadors of God as Peter Maurin calls them, quoting classical Greek sources. It is not the only thing we arrived for but it is part of the activities.

And how is meeting the ambassadors of God? I can assure you it does not feel special. In fact, they look a lot like you and me. And digging up spoonfuls of spaghetti from a deep pan in the strong desert wind has its own problems. Drops of sauce are flying all around. Most of them land at the clothing of the person digging for the soup. Here you can get an idea of the size of these pans. They are stirred on the spot by a canoe oar.

My sweatshop Indojacket had to be dry-cleaned after the spaghetti serving.
At the appointed date and time it is not ready. I am told it is silk and needs an extra turn to remove the soup stains. Silk? Another embarrassing detail. So it is not even vegetarian?

Neither are the meals in the soupline, by the way.
(to be continued)

Wednesday 14 April 2010

How I will be voting in the 2010 UK General Election

This run-up to the general elections has made me feel reasonably reminiscent, though not necessarily in the fondest of ways. I am reminded in particular of last summer's European elections, which as everyone knows by now were conducted by proportional representation, ie, smaller parties actually had a real chance of gaining seats to represent Britain in the European Parliament. If the emphasis on getting out to “use your vote” was always high in different elections, it seemed especially so in 2009 when it seemed that the neo-fascist British National Party, who had up to this point only really been a minor threat on the fringes of the political radar, were now likely to gain hideous prominence.

And yes, worst fears did come to pass as the BNP gained their two seats, one of them being in my own region of the North-West. For well over a month up to that point, I had personally been agonising over whether I was going to vote or not. If someone had asked me not even three months earlier, I would have been firm in my resolve: I do not vote, because my primary allegiance as a Christian is to the Kingdom of God, and not to any of the kingdoms of this world. At the time, however, as public concern began rising so did mine rise along with it, particularly as I was working alongside asylum seekers and refugees, and therefore alongside persons who stood to lose the most if the BNP ever had a significant say in the running of the nation. It seemed like there were few options left but to fight fire with fire: I went to the ballot and voted for the Green Party, not because I believed in them or felt allegiance to them, but because I felt they were the most effective option to keep the BNP from gaining seats. My gesture was one of protest rather than pledge, of mere damage control and nothing more.

After the results, as I listened to the woes of others who saw the low-voter turnout as the principal cause, I couldn't help but think about the ways in which the mainstream political parties have failed the people living under them. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, the BNP is effectively a monster of the government's creation, albeit an inadvertent one. It was, after all, the Labour government who took this country to war in Iraq and who have since contributed to the militarisation of that nation as well as the bombing of its citizens. Similarly, it is the Labour government whose policies on immigration are abhorrent to the extent that people seeking asylum are subjected to an oppressive legislative system, in some cases even being locked up in detention centres without word of warning or reason. While all this happens, this government has for the last 13 years consistently failed and abandoned the poorer communities of the UK; housing deprivation and unemployment soar, and within the recession the hot topic of immigration is utilised as a political scapegoat. “British jobs for British workers,” an explicitly racist phrase now appropriated by the BNP, originated as a Labour Party slogan.

It might sound like I am going off on an overly-cynical rant. Others might tell me to be more optimistic and own a political voice which addresses these issues. It's not just that, however, it comes down to this: I simply do not believe in centralised power of any form. I have good friends who are intending to vote Labour in this election to try and keep the Conservative Party out. I understand this position, I even respect it. To my mind, however, they are but two sides of one coin. For the reasons I have outlined above and more aside, I simply could not in good conscience vote Labour, and I consider that to be deeply personal, due to how much that government has hurt those who were (and still are) very important to me.

To extend this further to take into account other political options; well, on a purely pragmatic level, this first-past-the-post system of ours tends to void the significance of other votes cast for smaller parties, which is a sad sign of the broken electoral system in the first place. On an ideological level, however, none of these parties represent me, and it really is as simple as that. I say this not with a heavy heart, but as someone who did take their fight to the ballot box and was afterward able to fully appreciate it for what it is: a concession to the powerlessness of the general public. Moreover, no elected government could stand for the values I personally hold as a follower of Christ: of nonviolence and the perfect justice of people brought together into fair and equal relationships with one another. No government could legislate that because it would fail at the very moment of trying. Political seats, militarism, policing, and arms trading are all signs of uneven, oppressive, and subjugating power.

I do not consider voting, in and of itself, to be an effective drive for social change. To me, this comes from other areas which are far more prominent and powerful: from social movements, campaigning and lobbying networks, trade unions, cooperatives, community organisations, churches, direct action, civil disobedience, and more aside. The potential for powerful social change comes from people, not from government, and I believe that is a principle which has manifested very clearly and consistently throughout history. Voting can sometimes be a means to an end, but it is not nearly any substitute for revolutionary tactics.

So after all of this rambling, the question is, am I going to vote in the 2010 UK General Election? Well, yes, I am. With a spoiled ballot, expressing very clearly and literally that I am voting for none of them at all.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Blowing the dynamite and crossing the line

The opening piece of Peter Maurin's Easy essays seems to be appropriate in other ways too these days.


Writing about the Catholic Church,
a radical writer says:
“Rome will have to do more
than to play a waiting game;
she will have to use
some of the dynamite
inherent in her message.”
To blow the dynamite
of a message
is the only way
to make the message dynamic.
If the Catholic Church
is not today
the dominant social dynamic force,
it is because Catholic scholars
have failed to blow the dynamite
of the Church.
Catholic scholars
have taken the dynamite
of the Church,
have wrapped it up
in nice phraseology,
placed it in an hermetic container
and sat on the lid.
It is about time
to blow the lid off
so the Catholic Church
may again become
the dominant social dynamic force.

Then let us spare a thought or prayer for fr. Louis Vitale, serving time in a federal prison in California, because of his being a witness for peace. Being in a prison these days as a Roman Catholic priest means you are considered to be the lowest of the lowest in the pecking order of Prison Nation. You know what I mean.

Please write to:
Louis Vitale #25803-048
LOMPOC, CA 93436

Look here for more on Fr. Vitale and other SOA Watch prisoners.