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.

2 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.

      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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