Anarchism & Christianity: Fruits for the Spirit
Submission by Ross Martinie Eiler
I am a Christian Anarchist. I have been for fifteen years. As a founding member of the Bloomington Christian Radical Catholic Worker Community, my faith has been instrumental in arriving at a revolutionary criticism of modern capitalism, and my politics have been instrumental in developing my religious beliefs. I want to share some particular gifts that Christianity can bring to anarchist thought and practice.
These gifts are gifts of emphasis; these elements can be found both in people of different religious traditions and in people with no religious traditions at all. But they have a distinctiveness within the Christians tradition, and they can enrich secular political radicals. I share these reflections not to convert anyone to Christianity or to get folks to join the Catholic Worker, but rather to encourage reflection and dialogue on these ideas and also to build awareness and comradeship between my Catholic Worker community and Plain Words readers.
But first things first. I am painfully aware that people who claim to be Christian have perpetrated some of the most oppressive evils and reprehensible crimes against humanity in the history of the world. Many of the most dangerous people alive today claim the mantle of Christianity. The majority of Christians either stood aside or cheered developments such as slavery, the crusades, colonialism and nuclear weapons. Those facts are indisputable, and the hypocrisy and failure of professed Christians is a profound challenge to the entire religion.
However, there are also other facts to consider. Jesus of Nazareth was a brown-skinned Hebrew rebel, nailed to a Roman cross as a threat to the empire. Jesus of Nazareth went to his death challenging unjust state power. Jesus proclaimed a new Kingdom, one that opposed the powers of his day, a Kingdom that privileged the poor and outcast while condemning the rich. He invited his followers to “take up your cross and follow me,” inviting them to a life of communalism, peace and confrontation with empire and its enablers. These facts offer a continual reminder that the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting, woman-hating Jesus of the religious right is a god of their own making. And that “god” is one I have no interest in defending.
So what am I defending, then? I want to discuss six characteristics emphasized in Christian Anarchism that are beautiful, good and true: sharing, selflessness, reconciliation, hope, tradition and love. A fine definition of “anarchism” I once read in Plain Words suggested that anarchism demands “we sow the seeds of a new humanity now.” These six virtues, I propose, are good seeds; and we who are trying to forge new societies should cultivate them.
To provide practical examples, I will also touch briefly how these seeds are (imperfectly) lived out in our Christian Radical Catholic Worker community. I’ll say more below, but the Bloomington Catholic Worker is a community gathered together to imitate Jesus’s nonviolence, voluntary poverty and radical hospitality. We are committed to caring for children, homeless people and the earth. We have no connection to the Roman Catholic Church or any other church institution.
It is reported that the first Christians rejected private ownership of any possession but instead held everything in common. Those who had wealth sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to whomever had need. This tradition of communities in which people work according to their ability and receive according to their need has been unbroken for 2000 years, continuing through counter-cultural Christian communities. And it reminds us that the first work of culture-building is taking care of one another.
The Amish call this duty of sharing “mutual aid.” It is the recognition that you exist in a wider community and are responsible for it, whether you asked for it or not. The virtue of sharing also reminds us that our work needs to be intergenerational. We cannot be radicals if we are not hospitable to children and to old people. There will never be a revolution if the only people who can participate are single, able-bodied 16–to-36-year-olds.
At the Bloomington Catholic Worker, we talk about “personalism:” that we are bound to take personal responsibility for the people around us at a personal sacrifice. We commit to caring for our homeless sisters and brothers, for our own children and our neighbors’ children, even if it means we have less time, money, or energy for ourselves or things we want. To take sharing seriously, then, we also have to cultivate selflessness.
Capitalism is dependent on selfishness. Indeed, the profit motive is nothing other than a monetized form of self-concern. We daily swim through a morass of propaganda and advertising telling us to be selfish and to pursue our own self-interest. One of the traditional “seven deadly sins” is Avarice, also known as “greed” or “desire for wealth;” and yet Capitalism lies by elevating greed to a virtue rather than the vice it is.
Because selfishness is so deeply ingrained in our culture, it is exceedingly difficult (and counter-cultural) to uproot. This is one place where spiritual roots and traditions can be valuable. Reflecting on God can help us cultivate selflessness. A friend once told me that the heart of all religious traditions can be summarized as “Get Over Yourself.” Christian Anarchism reminds us that the individual self, while good, is not the object of ultimate concern.
At the Bloomington Catholic Worker, one way we try to cultivate selflessness is commitment to Voluntary Poverty: we pledge to serve God rather than money, success or stability. By accepting less than we want, we learn to place a higher value on sharing and we learn to give up our own wishes in order to better serve one another.
Everyone who hangs around in radical or community circles learns a very difficult lesson: even if our politics are good, even if we’re badass, even if we all like the same music, we are all of us nevertheless still broken and damaged people. (If you haven’t learned it yet experientially, hang around for a while… you will.) We gather as comrades to escape the senseless cruelty of imperialist capitalism, and then we turn around and act senselessly cruel to one another. If a community is going to be truly life-giving, if it is going to be sustainable for a new future, then it has to create spaces that accept our own failures and hurts. It has to be an instrument of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a pretty unnatural concept, and yet it is essential for any group of people who will truly and intimately live together and bear one another’s burdens.
At the Catholic Worker, we have a weekly ritual of reconciliation. We sit together quietly, we encourage one another, we confess if we’ve made mistakes or hurt one another, and we share grievances if there is conflict between or within people. We try not to leave the circle until everyone is in right relationship with each other. Because there is no joy or love in one another without forgiveness.
One persistent enemy of all those who work for justice is despair. The powers and forces of oppression are so great, and our resistance is so small. The planet is unlikely to survive long enough for even the most short-term revolutionary timeline. The game is rigged on the side of the rich and we can’t change the rules.
And yet the message of Easter is “Do not be afraid.” An affirmation of Christian hope is that Love Wins; as Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We should not despair but have hope, hope that nothing, not even death, will defeat the cause of the just. What can stand against us?
At the Catholic Worker, we try to express hope by continuing to work and engage in direct action against war, knowing that we are merely sowing seeds. We continue in protest and hospitality not because we expect them to yield results, but because we are part of something greater. We also have babies, which reminds us that God has not given up on people. We also like to sing a lot.
If we are marching toward a new society, it helps to have a sense where we are going. Moving toward an utterly unknown destination is not only disorienting, but more importantly it allows our own prejudices and flaws to sabotage the journey. It is good, then, to remember we are not the first humans to strive for justice, nor are we the first people to try and love-in-action. Heroic and inspiring people have come in every generation before us, and we can use their lives and examples as signposts to discern the path before us.
This is not to discount the serious flaws of previous (and current) generations. Consider Francis of Assisi, Harriet Tubman, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Martin Luther King: there’s not an anarchist among them, and yet we still have much we can learn from these forerunners. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, once wrote “Tradition is the democracy of the dead,” meaning that we will be severely impoverished if we limit our pool of wisdom to only those who are still breathing.
Our community has a “saint wall,” with pictures and stories of flawed yet profound examples of well-lived lives: folks like Basil the Blessed, the Buddha, Eugene V. Debs, John Donne and Therese of Liseux. It reminds us that we don’t have to figure it all out ourselves, but can receive the torch from others before we pass it along.
At the Catholic Worker, we “hope and work for a new society brought about by the revolution of the heart.” We hope to be the vanguard of a revolution of values, declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism by continually welcoming the poor and homeless into our midst, affirming the sacred value of all human beings, and by nonviolently resisting the works of war. This must be no weak and sentimental love; but Love as an empowering force that actualizes the saving choice of life and good against the damning forces of evil and death, Love as the supreme unifying principle of life. Anger and hate are completely justified in this world of capitalist oppression; and yet anger and hate are self-defeating. We must love another, love our children, love our friends, love our planet, love our neighbors and, yes, even work to love our enemies.
This is not about dictating to oppressed people how they should respond to their oppression or encouraging victims to love their victimizer; no one should do that. But we must also not be ashamed to recognize that communities and nations built upon hatred, fear or violence inevitably spawn greater hatred and violence; while communities and societies truly organized around the principle of love create beauty and human flourishing. Whoever does not love abides in death, and so we must love in truth and action.
Love, Tradition, Hope, Reconciliation, Selflessness, Sharing: these are indispensable nutrients for planting a new society. If we want a world without police, we need to build communities where people know how to get along. If we want a world without corporate power and upscale condos, we need communities that are content with sharing and simplicity. If we want a world without national anthems or borders, we need to build communities rooted in something deeper than patriotism. We need deep reserves of power to fight the masters of postindustrial capital. We can find deep wells of that power in religious traditions and in Christianity, and we should take it. We all have so much to learn, one from another.
Ross E Martinie Eiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org