Via Dolorosa: Christianity and Anarchism

At 200ProofLiberals, Jess Flanigan cites a famous passage of Tolstoy’s to suggest that Christians ought to be anarchists. I don’t think anyone should be either a Christian or an anarchist, much less their conjunction, but let that go. It’s worth asking what would have happened had the early Christians followed Tolstoy’s advice.

I think the answer is that Christianity would likely have gone extinct. Between its anti-Christian pagan antagonists and the Islamic empires that arose in the wake of pagan Rome, anarchist Christians would likely have been wiped out, or turned into a tiny, inconsequential minority. Subtract Constantine and his successors from history (the real Constantine, not Keanu Reaves), and there’s little reason to think that Europe would have gone Christian. It would likely have gone pagan or Muslim or some combination of the two. In that case, Jess Flanigan’s Irish ancestors might never have heard of Christianity except as a predecessor sect of Islam. The Irish would most likely have been Muslims, as would have been their American generations. And Tolstoy or his equivalent would have had a hell of a time arguing that Muslims should be anarchists.

Head statue

Emperor Constantine (photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist)

There are Christians in the contemporary world who, whether or not they’re anarchists, live under conditions of anarchy–or at least live without the protections of a State. Consider the Palestinians of Bethlehem, encroached on all sides by the Israeli occupation, and awaiting imminent annexation by Israel. In 2002, the armed anarchist resistance to the Israeli Occupation was essentially wiped out by the Israeli military as it took cover in the Church of the Nativity.* For the last eighteen years, Palestinians (whether Christian, Muslim, or otherwise) have survived under conditions of constant subjugation by a Jewish State. That’s Christian anarchism for you. If that’s the martyrdom that Flanigan wishes on her co-religionists, fine. But I’d suggest taking a good, hard look at Christian life in the West Bank before making any hasty recommendations.

As I said, I’m neither a Christian nor an anarchist, so Christians should take my advice with a grain of salt. But if I were giving advice, I’d tell the Christians of the world to hold off on becoming anarchists until the non-Christians of the world do so. Better to side with the State than yet again to be fed to the lions.


*Michael Huemer argues that anarchist guerilla warfare “has proved surprisingly effective at expelling foreign invaders” (Problem of Political Authority, pp. xxiii, pp. 289-91), citing the examples of Vietnam, Ireland, Algeria, and Afghanistan. I don’t think the Vietnamese or Afghan examples prove what Huemer takes them to prove, but in any case, what about Kashmir, Tibet, or Palestine? What, for that matter, about Native Americans in the US, or the Uighurs in China? The examples he cites are not, Huemer says, isolated episodes, but then, neither are the examples he doesn’t cite.  A handful of highly contestable examples doesn’t dispose of the issue.

8 thoughts on “Via Dolorosa: Christianity and Anarchism

  1. … anarchist Christians would likely have been wiped out, or turned into a tiny, inconsequential minority

    Well, maybe. I’m not all that sure it’s wrong, but I’m not all that sure it’s right, either. It seems to me that the salient counterfactuals are both extremely complicated and extremely uncertain. (*)

    But in either case, I think the reason that this seems really uncertain to me, and also the reason that it seems to seem really certain to you, is partly the fact that, as you note, we are not Christians, so the answer to this is going to have to be settled on the basis of entirely secular premises. (For example, to me the big questions are going to have partly to do with alternative trajectories for intellectual and cultural history, partly to do with the possible alternative trajectories for ancient or medieval wars, economic and political regimes, legal institutions, etc.) But if I were a Christian, then there’s a good chance I would also be committed to some important and relevant non-secular premises, for example something like:

    (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE:) There is an all-powerful God who intervenes in human history, and does so in a way that, among other things, will sustain the church through persecution and preserve it from being wiped out.

    Now, I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t expect you to think that it’s true either. I wouldn’t counsel anybody to put their chips on that bet, either. But if (for argument) we suppose it to be true, then it seems like it would be a pretty strong reason for Christians to believe that they could have — and still can — overcome persecution and marginalization without the aid of worldly power. Wouldn’t it?

    If so, then it hardly seems surprising that someone else’s argument, to the effect that if you are a Christian, then you should also be an anarchist, might not be particularly sensitive to objects that start out from the tacit premise that (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) is false.

    (* SALIENT COUNTERFACTUALS: We’re trying to deal with a divergence point that is both 1,688 years or so remote in time, and also seems to be extremely causally significant, both of which make it that much harder to be very confident about figuring out the counterfactual alternatives. To get a start, you might look at other minority faiths that were in a similar position to early Christianity, which didn’t succeed in taking over the Roman Empire in the 300s; it’s true that most of those were wiped out. But a big part of the reason they were wiped out was because Christianity succeeded in taking over the Roman Empire, and Christian Emperors had some peculiarly Christian — monotheistic, universalistic, missionary — religious reasons to care about getting rid of heterodox religious minorities, which most pagan Emperors mostly did not have. If you don’t have Christian Emperors, then you may well have persecution — it did certainly happen before, including to early Christians — but perhaps not on the same scale, or for the same duration, and maybe not with the same overall effect. Early Christian history does offer some relevant evidence on that point — since early Christianity did survive and indeed seems to have successfully grown and spread for 300 years or so under those conditions; just prior to the unpleasantness at the Milvian Bridge, Christianity was a minority faith, but not a tiny or an inconsequential minority; nor do I think there’s any sign it was on the way towards being wiped out. It is also true that if pagan Emperors went on being pagan, and continued not to succeed in wiping out Christianity, even so there were other religions that might have swept in to do the same damage or worse. You mention Islam, and Muslims did wipe out a lot of heterodox minority faiths in the Middle East when they arose in power. But I don’t know how certain it is that the Muslim — monotheistic, universalistic, missionary — pattern of religion would have prevailed over a counterfactual still-pagan Roman pattern of polytheistic religion. Maybe it would have, and maybe not; maybe this would have depended on hard-to-foresee cultural and intellectual developments, or maybe it would have depended on something more brutally material, e.g. the outcomes of another, counterfactual series of medieval wars. Moreover, if Christianity had remained a relatively anti-imperial and anti-militaristic minority religion into the early 600s, rather than being transformed into the established and persecuting state religion of the neighboring imperial superpower, then we’d have to know something about whether Islam would also have out differently as a religion when it arose, since Near Eastern Christianity and Imperial Rumi politics were both influences on the religious and political development of Islam. Etc. etc.)

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    • You make a fair point, or bunch of them, but granting all of it requires me to weaken my thesis rather than abandon it, and even the weak thesis cuts against Flanigan’s argument. At a bare minimum, she has to acknowledge that if Christians had become anarchists (or stayed anarchists), they would have run the high risk of either being wiped out, or being rendered an inconsequential minority, or suffering catastrophically high losses consistent with Christianity’s continued survival. Zoroastrians, for instance, may not be an inconsequential minority, but they’ve suffered the kinds of losses I have in mind.

      You’re right that I ignored Special Providence as a possibility, but even if I’d taken stock of it, it’s so inscrutable a claim that it seems to point everywhere and nowhere. Even if we grant a God who intervenes in history, maybe He has his own reasons for not sustaining the Church through persecution. Maybe he’s a Hayekian who wants Christianity to be radically decentralized. Or a sadist. Or a Hayekian sadist. It’s always hard to guess the direction of Providence.

      I agree that between the pagans and the Muslims, the Muslims would have been by far the greater threat to anarchist Christianity. So I basically agree with you about the pagan part of the equation. That said, the pagan Romans did persecute the Jews nearly to the point of being an inconsequential minority. Granted, the Romans conceived of the Jews as a political threat (to the stability of the empire), and the Jews conceived of themselves (fitfully) as a nation, so the cases are not parallel. But Christians had a motivation to seek state-like status in the wake of the pagan persecution they did face, so all things considered, I think the jury is out on pagans versus anarchist Christians.

      I don’t think the jury is out on Muslims versus anarchist Christians. The status of Christians under Islam would likely have been similar to that of Jews. Jews were an inconsequential minority, and Christians (I think) would have been rendered the same.

      One possibility I didn’t consider is that anarchist Christians might have “taken cover” behind pagan regimes against Islamic imperialism. I agree that that strategy would have saved them, but it would also have required them to flout Flanigan and Tolstoy’s advice to Christians, which was not simply to be philosophical anarchists, but to put anarchism into practice by actively refusing the protections of a state. Free standing anarchist communities unprotected by pagan or Muslim states would have been easy targets for destruction.

      That, I take it, is the situation of contemporary Palestinian Christians. Stuck between a Jewish State on the one hand, and specifically Islamic militancy and state-like institutions on the other, they’re caught in a kind of political vice. In one direction, they’re threatened by the Israeli military and settlement movement. In the other, they’re threatened by the increasingly Islamist cast of resistance politics. It’s not a happy place to be, and Flanigan’s advice rings hollow in light of it. I don’t think such people can be faulted for wanting to side with some version of an equal rights state over the situation they’re in–unprotected by any state, under siege by one (Israel), under pressure by elements of the other (Hamas), and being eaten alive as a result.

      Here’s a Christian anarchist agricultural cooperative I visited last year that’s in that very situation.

      http://www.tentofnations.org/about/about-us/

      I’m not sure whether they would agree with me or with Flanigan. I would just say that there are limits to how long they can insist that their farm is “not of this world.” They’re surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements. Little by little, those settlements are eating inward at Nassar’s Farm. At that rate of advance, it won’t be long before the farm isn’t of any world. It seems to me that anyone taking Flanigan’s line has to consider that possibility and have an answer to it.

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      • Separating out into a couple of separate threads, one on Special Providence, the other on counter-factual history…

        You’re right that I ignored Special Providence as a possibility, but even if I’d taken stock of it, it’s so inscrutable a claim that it seems to point everywhere and nowhere. Even if we grant a God who intervenes in history, maybe He has his own reasons for not sustaining the Church through persecution. …

        I agree that there are alternate views available within a theistic framework besides the Christian doctrine of Special Providence — views which are theistic and interventionist, but which are for any number of reasons pessimistic or radically uncertain about the future of the Christian Church. I’m inclined to think that Christians don’t have any better reason for believing in (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) as formulated than they have to believe in, say:

        (SPECIAL IMPROVIDENCE) There is an all-powerful God who intervenes in human history, but They don’t care about the Church and won’t stop it from being wiped out by persecution.

        Or:

        (SPECIAL ANTI-PROVIDENCE) There is an all-powerful God who intervenes in human history, in such a way as to destroy the Church or to corrupt or frustrate its aims.

        But then, it’s not surprising I’d agree that they don’t have any better reason for believing (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) than they do for believing (SPECIAL IMPROVIDENCE) or (SPECIAL ANTI-PROVIDENCE), since I agree that Christianity is not true, and probably that all things considered, people shouldn’t bother with being Christians. My point is just, if you already think you have pretty good reasons to be (to become, to remain) a Christian, then you’re probably committed to think that you have pretty good reasons to believe and act on the belief in some doctrines that I, infidel that I am, prefer to discard in favor of secular considerations. (A doctrine more or less like SPECIAL PROVIDENCE is I think harder to separate out from Christianity per se than, say, a highly theological doctrine like the Trinity or Original Sin. It has a lot of red-letter Gospel behind it, it’s nearly impossible to make sense of Christian prophetic and eschatological writing without presupposing that something like it is true, etc. etc. So whatever reasons there may be for rejecting SPECIAL PROVIDENCE, whether in favor of one of the theistic alternatives, or in favor of atheism, I take it those reasons are just reasons not to be a Christian, whatever political conclusions you settle on.)

        Further, I think from the Christian standpoint there’s going to be a pretty strong doctrinal case for putting a lot of faith, in the sense of trust, in the truth of some key doctrinal propositions like (SP), even if the Christian in some sense or another doesn’t have propositional knowledge that they are true as against alternatives like (SI) or (SA). In particular, something like:

        (FAITH NOT SIGHT) If Christianity is in fact true, then Christians ought (i) to believe, and (ii) to act as if, (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) is true, even if they do not know that (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) is true.

        … which, again, is a doctrine that I’m going to either pretty openly hostile towards, or at best baffled by, but precisely because I am not a Christian, and so also not signed on for either Christian providentialism or for Christian fideism.

        As I see it, even if all that is the state of play, then one of the big questions is, what the logical or dialectical value of arguments to the effect of “Given you are a Christian, Then You are committed to believing a bunch of stuff Christians are supposed to believe; Therefore you should believe/do/commit to PHI” are for someone starting out from a secular view like yours or mine. Depending on the details about PHI, maybe that’s just setting up a modus tollens or two (because PHI is false or acting on or committing to PHI is unwise or…), and maybe you just end up with a destructive dilemma concluding “If you are a Christian, then you ought to stop being a Christian.” Or maybe this kind of argument has some genuine positive value even if it simply serves as a consistency check for the believer, while they remain a believer. I don’t know. But I think the dialectical position of somebody who starts out from within a Christian point of view that already bakes in doctrines like (SPECIAL PROVIDENCE) and (FAITH NOT SIGHT) is necessarily going to be pretty different, and I’d expect this to affect both the kinds of normative claims that they are going to be open or closed to when it comes to means of responding to persecution and violence, and also the kinds of historical-causal claims that they are going to be open or closed to when it comes to the likely outcomes of very different paths in ancient or medieval history.

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      • On counterfactual history, setting Christian providentialism by the wayside in favor of the secular considerations that I actually think affect the question…

        Zoroastrians, for instance, may not be an inconsequential minority, but they’ve suffered the kinds of losses I have in mind. … So I basically agree with you about the pagan part of the equation. That said, the pagan Romans did persecute the Jews nearly to the point of being an inconsequential minority

        Right, so I agree that Zoroastrianism (after the Arab conquest of Persia)* and rabbinical Judaism (after the Roman incorporation of Judaea, and the defeat of the first and second revolts) are good potential peers for comparison with pre-Constantianian Christianity. They are faiths that (1) have survived, (2) despite extremely violent conquest and prolonged, intense persecution, (2.1) at the hands of victorious, hostile imperial powers, (2.2) partly or chiefly driven by hostile state religions. As a result, although they have survived to the present day, (3) they are now, and long have been, much smaller in numbers, much more scattered, under much greater threat to future continuity, etc., (3.1) than post-Constantinian Christianity is, and (3.2) than they would have been if they hadn’t endured (2).

        I’d want to distinguish a couple issues for the sake of argument:

        EPISODIC (HAMMER) PROBLEM (2): stateless religious minorities relevantly similar to pre-Constantine Christianity eventually suffer extreme violence and persecution that nobody should have to endure, per (2).

        SYSTEMIC (VISE) PROBLEM (3): stateless religious minorities relevantly similar to pre-Constantine Christianity eventually suffer catastrophic demographic decline — perhaps because of (2) — that leaves them as beleaguered or imperiled minorities, per (3).

        So, if we’re trying to sort out the counterfactual history where Christianity never gets taken over by the Caesars, then we might ask whether or not they’re going to go on facing episodic hammering persecution. Or we might ask whether they would face systemic collapse as a community or a religious movement, and whether the end result of that would be either extinction or survival only as an inconsequential minority.** (For instance, I’d argue that early Christianity had a hammer problem, but judged by the survival and growth of early Christianity up to the 300s, it doesn’t seem that it had a vise problem. A few of the more relentless persecuting Emperors might have wanted to put them into one, but if so, they didn’t succeed.)

        Now if it’s the latter question, about the systemic problem, then I guess I’d want to know how to assess the counter-factual results — in particular, how far back of a setback they’d have to suffer to count as an insignificant minority for the purposes of this argument. At one extreme you might ask whether they’d end up like the Manichaeans (this is slightly controversial, but I’ll just assert that there aren’t any Manichaeans around anymore) or the various sorts of reconstructionist paganism (the cult of Serapis, various mystery cults, etc.) — or they might end up like the Zoroastrians, or they might end up like the Yazidis, or they might end up like rabbinical Jews, or they might end up like the Jains.

        If being reduced to an insignificant minority means a stronger claim than just the fact of becoming (or remaining) a minority simpliciter, I take it it’ll have something to do with different orders of magnitude in terms of numbers; with how scattered or connected their communities are in the lands where they are minorities; the security or precariousness of their position against the predominant majority; with how securely or not members of the faith are still able to preserve the continuity of their religious traditions and practices; with degrees of communal isolation or insularity with respect to majority society; with how much/little they’re able to play significant roles in the societies, cultures or economies of the broader societies that they inhabit; etc.

        So then part of the question is going to be, in the alt.-Christian, non-Constantinian counterfactual, are you expecting Christianity to probably end up like the Manichaeans or the Zoroastrians? Or (possibly? probably?) ending up like rabbinical Jews or like the Jains?

        I’m happy to stipulate that it’s perfectly likely that Christianity without Constantine would’ve ended up a perennial minority faith. Maybe not; there’s a lot of history in between and stranger things have happened. But there’s minorities and then there’s minorities, so part of my question is, whether you want to make the stronger claim that Christianity without Constantine probably specifically would have fallen towards the extinction/bare-survival end of the spectrum, or just the weaker claim that they would have fallen somewhere between that end of the spectrum and the embattled-but-durable-minority end?

        I agree that between the pagans and the Muslims, the Muslims would have been by far the greater threat to anarchist Christianity.

        I’m actually not entirely confident of that. There’s a case to be made along the lines you indicate, but there’s also a contrary case to be made based on the peculiar content of Islam with respect to Christians and Jews, as well as some idiosyncrasies about the early Caliphate’s attitude towards urban centers and their policies toward conquered cities.

        I’d say it’s very clearly the case that, in the hypothetical scenario, the Muslim pattern of imperial religion would be a lot worse than a still-pagan Roman Empire for religious minorities in general (including all the other non-Christian, non-Jewish religious minorities), but whether a Christian minority would be better or worse off is probably going to depend on whether the still-polytheistic Caesars tend to act more like, say, Trajan, or more like, say, Diocletian, and also on how you rate the conditions of Christians and Jews under real-world early Islam; etc.

        (Christians and Jews are tiny and extremely marginalized minorities now in the Islamic Middle East, but I think the reasons for that have a lot more to do with modern developments than with the immediate consequences of the Arab conquests or later waves of Muslim expansion. For example, Christianity remained the majority religion in Muslim-ruled Egypt for centuries after the initial conquest. The conventional range of dates that historians venture for the turning-point from a Christian to a Muslim majority range from the early 800s to the mid-1300s. Whatever the case, it took centuries after the conquests, and political changes, some of them closely tied to the growing antagonism with Christian empires and crusaders abroad, for Egyptian Christians even to become a minority in the first place. Cf. for example Shaun O’Sullivan, “Coptic Conversion and the Islamization” http://mamluk.uchicago.edu/MSR_X-2_2006-OSullivan.pdf for a partisan but usefully detailed survey of the literature — the author favors an “early,” i.e. late Umayyad, date for the demographic turning-point, while his main interlocutor, Tamer el-Leithy, favors a relatively “late,” i.e. mid-Mamluk, date. There’s lots of ways that Muslim rulers treated Christians and Jews pretty shitty, but I would argue that the earlier the period you’re looking at, the less often the persecution reduced them to the extremely marginal and precarious position that they mostly occupy today.)

        In any case, I think there is also a different, further question if we can sink even deeper into the counterfactual, which is: whether or not Islam would have turned out the way it did — or even arisen at all — in the world of a non-Constantninian, still-pagan Rome and a non-imperial, still-minority Christianity. Of course it’s possible that it might. But Late Antique Christianity was one of the major influences on the first development of Islam, in terms of its religious content, and the Christian Empire was another major influence, both in terms of its geopolitical predicament and also in terms of models for its political structure. If Christianity and the Empire had been very different, then early Islam might have been very different too. Of course, it need not be — Islam drew on Abrahamic traditions but like any prophetic religion a lot of it was sui generis; Muhammad and his companions were pretty comfortable modifying or supplanting the Jewish and Christian traditions they referred to, when it suited them to tell a bit of a different story. But I don’t know how certain I’d be one way or the other about the form that it would take with such a big difference in prominent sources of influence.

        Moreover, if we suppose that early Islam does still look more or less the same in a non-Constantinian counterfactual, the other potentially complicated question is whether early Islam would be able to make the kind of extraordinarily rapid imperial expansion that it did in the actual world of the Christian empire. This is complicated in part because, while the Christianized Empire did (with catastrophic un-success) attempt to oppose Arab conquests in the Near East, I think there’s a strong historical case that there are some important ways in which Rumi Imperial politics actually ended up unintendedly and perversely helping the Arab conquests sweep as extraordinarily rapidly and extraordinarily successfully as they did:

        (1) In particular, the Arab invasions of Persia and the formerly-Roman Near East were aided by coming just a few years after the end of a really devastating 25 year war between the Roman and Persian empires. The war had effectively broken the Sasanian regime, and exhausted the military resources of both sides. Pagan Roman Emperors had been waging war on Sasanian Shahanshahs for a century before Constantine, so it’s possible that this or something like it would have happened anyway in a still-pagan Roman Empire. But the question is why the final war ground on for as long as it did, and pushed on relentlessly to the bitter end; and one of the reasons for this may be Heraclius’s decision to shift the war from relatively secular political causes into a Christian holy war (to drive the infidel from Jerusalem, recover the relics of the True Cross, etc.; Heraclius also adopted a bunch of new sacramental titles during the war that distanced his regime from the Roman legal tradition and instead emphasized his role as Basileus through Christ).

        (2) The Arab conquest of Egypt also was significantly assisted by the cooperation of local Christian populations — Cyril of Alexandria (apparently supported by most of the Copts) signed a treaty with Caliph Umar, turned most of southern Egypt over to Arab forces, and supported them against the Byzantine garrison holding out in Alexandria. The reason behind this seems to have been partly to do with the tensions produced by Imperial enforcement of Christian orthodoxy, often at the expense of Coptic and Syriac churches. Of course, it’s hard to know whether Emperors who remained pagan would have, or would not have, enacted policies that pissed off Egyptian communities or produced the same kind of exploitable tensions. But in the actual-world case, it does seem that religious conflicts specifically spilling out of Christian imperial politics, and the Emperors’ takeover of church discipline and the delineation of orthodoxy, are the explanation of the exploitable tension that we actually see.

        Of course, all of this is really complicated and the counterfactual outcomes are impossible to observe, so it’s really hard to know whether early and medieval Islam would end up looking like it actually did, whether the Roman Empire would end up going the way it did, etc. if Christianity never became the religion of the latter, whether they’d go off on completely different trajectories, how this would have affected a growing but precarious and often persecuted anti-imperial Christian movement, etc. Counterfactual history is really hard, etc. But I think that’s a reason just to say that it’s really hard to know whether the result would end up being devastatingly bad for the counterfactual non-imperial Christians, or whether it would leave them with a lot of hardships that they’d be able to endure, or whether something else would happen entirely.

        (* There is a bit of a complication here, in that Zoroastrianism wasn’t a stateless faith at the time of the decisive events in its downfall. Under the Sassanids, it was the state religion of a big powerful empire. It lost out because that empire lost out to a couple of other religiously-driven big powerful empires in quick succession. After the destruction of Sassanid rule, it became a stateless, minority and diasporic faith, so that does give the comparison of what happened subsequently some pretty decent relevance. On the other hand you might worry that the memory of its imperial past significantly influenced at least some of what happened after Zoroastrians lost state power — e.g. in the first few centuries, a lot of the Zoroastrian religious establishment was caught up in the fortunes of Persian legitimist and revivalist movements, which spent a lot of their resources on ultimately futile efforts to undo the Arab conquest and restore the old regime or something like it.)

        (** To be clear, the episodic hammering might be one kind of reason to advise Christians to try to avoid that even if it doesn’t result in catastrophic demographic decline in the end — the question is about whether you’re trying to sort out what you can know about what would have happened to the faith, at some aggregate level, or what would have happened to the faithful, as individuals or communities.)

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    • Thanks for the reference. I still remember the sight of Patricia Crone striding across campus. She always reminded me of Ayn Rand’s description of Kira Argounova. I concede that that is not a useful commentary on the topic of this paper.

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