That Holy Anarchist


November 23, 2012

I have such cool friends.

I really do.

You will, therefore, have to forgive me (literally–just ask Jesus) if in the next few weeks I spend some quality time highlighting their stellar work. From farming to animal liberation to books on the grotesque, I’m going to show you just how awesome I am due to my proximity to other awesome people.

It’s a win/win situation.

This post features an interview with author, educator and co-founder of The Mennonite Worker, Mark Van Steenwyk. Check out his latest book, That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism.

“Tripp thinks we’re friends. Oh man, that’s rich.”


1) How do you negotiate the emphasis on freedom that anarchism stresses with Jesus’s requirement that we be enslaved to one another?

There are strands of anarchism that emphasize individualism and personal autonomy in ways that don’t really fit with the early Christian emphasis of mutual submission. But I see oodles of overlap between socialistic/communistic strands of anarchist thought and Christian mutual submission. Of course, what I mean by “mutual submission” is decidedly non-hierarchical. Think Quaker, not charismatic. Being slaves to one another looks a lot like consensus decision-making, diversity of gifts, valuing of all voices, etc.

2) How is Christian anarchism, ultimately, not theoretical? That is, we’re all capitalists, right? I sell my books; you sell your books (though, thank you for the free copy!). I often get the feeling that more literature, t-shirts and stickers praising anarchism is decidedly NOT the way to go. What’s our exit strategy here? Or, is there an alternative strategy for getting the word out that does not employ the various venues of our criticism.

Well, so far, I’m not as good of a capitalist as you are. But I hope to be someday! Sales of That Holy Anarchist have been good considering my narrow “target market” and the humble manner by which I published it (self publishing is for folks who can’t write real books, right?) My consolation is that in 5000 years, when another civilization excavates some library somewhere, the only book that will have been perfectly preserved is my book (books like Purpose Driven Life will have turned to dust). They’ll suppose that in our age, most Christians were anarchists. And this discovery will lead to a new golden age of radical thought. It is this idea that keeps me going.

I think that these things—books, radical websites, cool patches on backpacks, buttons that say “Amish for Homeland Security” and the like are only useful if they help folks find each other so they can experiment in communities. I take almost zero comfort from the people I know who say that they affirm my work and agree with me, yet haven’t changed their way of life in any substantial way. Yet, there are folks who have. People actually read stuff I write and it starts them on a radical journey.

But here’s the thing: There are thousands and thousands of people in this country that basically affirm the primary emphases of my book. They believe in a liberationist Jesus who hates imperialism, who calls us to live in communities of practice and discernment who attempt to, as the old saying goes, “create a new society in the shell of the old.”

I firmly believe most of our creative energy should go towards experimenting and organizing, not towards more ideas. That is actually why I wrote my book (ironic, huh?). The book urges us forward in a way that I believe is fruitful. This is why I self-published this first book—to control the price, to release it without copyright, and to give away as many free copies as I can afford without negotiating it with a publisher. I know that there is a stigma associated with self-publishing. But perhaps we should find other forms of legitimization and peer-review than publishing companies and institutions of higher education.

If I had more resources, I would have controlled the printing of it more directly, so that the whole process—from writing, to printing, to distribution, were more DIY. I’d also love to explore a sort of peer-review system that isn’t as institutionalized. I’d love to explore that more as I am able.


3)  Every movement needs a soundtrack. To this, I am firmly committed. Hell, I can’t even write these questions without listening to the ‘right’ music (which includes, at this very moment, Propagandhi, The Clash and Against Me!). Who’s on your playlist these days?

“Sorry, Mark. There’s no chance there will ever be an image of Richard Marx on here. Ever. Any other questions?”

Finally, we’re getting to the important questions. My playlist tends to be bloated with 80s pop music. Though I also listen to a fair bit of 70s prog-rock, post-punk, and newfangled hipster music. But right now, I’m not kidding, do you want to know what is playing? I wish I were making this shit up, but the most un-anarchist song imaginable is playing: Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting.” I used to tell myself I liked listening to crappy 80s music because it was ironic. But I realized I actually like it. It reminds me of my childhood. I was a fat little boy who didn’t have many friends, so I listened to the radio a lot. And read. Somehow it gives me joy to listen to music that reminds me of that.


4) When I published Living on Hope While Living in Babylon, I was surprised by how peeved many of my friends in the Christian anarchist movement were for not writing the book they thought I should have written. I chalk most of that up to puerility (that, or I really do suck). Have you found the ongoing dissension in our Christian anarchist circles to be incredibly disconcerting? Do you ever wonder if a thicker Eucharistic theology may be more helpful than our need to adopt the kind of language (i.e., anarchism) that is, historically, reactionary?

Yes. And, just so I can thoroughly piss people off, I think such dissention shows a profound lack of imagination. It is funny how folks can reject the faith of their childhood as being rigid and joy-killing only to embrace ever-purer political thoughts that are rigid and joy-killing. Of course, I’m generalizing here. Most folks that I know who dance at the intersection of Christianity and anarchism are fairly humble. But so many are not.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I understand why you suggest a Eucharistic theology may be more helpful. My own journey has taken me more in the direction of they mystics as a way forward for Christo-anarchism. But whatever we do, I’m convinced that it is highly problematic simply to smash our Christianity and our anarchism together. It is bizarre—and I hope I’m not becoming the non-humble jerk I just criticized—that I find so many people who can quote Kropotkin, compost their own shit, and protest at the RNC, but, when articulating their faith, sound like an evangelical with all of the standard theological constructs.

The imaginative impasse of smashing these two things together often lead folks to atheism, to a sort of vague earth spirituality that renders Jesus as unimportant, or—worst yet—to go back to their old middle class American Christian way of life. What we need is to discern a way forward that is alive. A way that is informed by Christian tradition(s), that develops practices of spiritual discernment, and can take the anarchist conversation in ways that don’t simply regurgitate the latest book we just picked up at the radical bookstore. Not that I’m there yet. But I have hope that if we give ourselves permission to explore a way forward in our communities, we’ll surprise ourselves.


5)  If you could belly up to the bar for one night of drinks and dialogue with ether Tolstoy, Ellul or Berdyaev, who would you choose and why?

Berdyaev. For several reasons. One, he is the one I know the least about. Two, I think he has more practical experience to share with us than the Count or Jacques. He was in the thick of things during the revolution and was imprisoned and exiled. I get the feeling he’d have more strategic insights for us today than Tolstoy or Ellul. Finally, he shares Ellul’s critique of modern technological society but with a more mystical flavor. His focus seems to be on liberating the imagination, which is a burning concern of mine as well. A few hours with Berdyaev would probably take me further than a year or two of reflection on my own.

But most of all, because Tolstoy renounced alcohol and tobacco and Ellul comes off like he’d talk too much. Of the three, Berdyaev seems most likely to enjoy beer, and fall into a heated (but good-natured) argument.