On March 11, 2018, the New York Times introduced Eric Hagerman as “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” It seems that since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, Mr. Hagerman has embarked on a self-imposed “eccentric experiment,” which he calls the “Blockade.” Frustrated by recent political events, this fifty-three-year-old resident of southeastern Ohio has chosen to untether himself entirely from the media and to ignore current events. He confesses the “draconian” nature of his discipline, which makes him—in his own words—a “crappy citizen,” yet his practices seem to be grounded on something more than a midlife tantrum over the results of our most recent presidential election. Mr. Hagerman is intentionally striving to guard what informs and thus governs his life. Instead of living on a steady diet of media that feeds animosity toward his ideological adversaries, for the last eighteen months Mr. Hagerman has reoriented his politics exclusively toward what he supports. Instead of consuming the inexorable news feed, his reading and research now focuses on the reclamation of a nearby lake once damaged by strip mining. “He has come to believe that being a news consumer doesn’t enhance society,” reporter Sam Dolnick explains. “He also believes that restoring a former coal mine and giving it to the future does.” Although the New York Times article never intimates such, in his own way Mr. Hagerman practices a form of anarchy.
I admit that describing Mr. Hagerman using the Aword may seem impolitic, if not damnable—in popular lore, anarchists are reprehensible characters bent on destroying safe and secure societies. Nearly sixty years ago, however, a resident of a community that is not far from Mr. Hagerman’s current home offered a much richer understanding of the term. Thomas Merton, a monk at central Kentucky’s Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, explained that the desert elders were those who “did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted conventional values.” Thus, the desert mothers and fathers practiced an “anarchic ideal.”
In both the fourth and the twenty-first centuries, the decision to live a contrasting politics offends common sense and reason. It makes one a “crappy citizen.” Yet this gets at the all-important principle of Christian anarchism: rather than championing no government, Christian anarchists advocate a politics so odd, eccentric, and peculiar that it must be incommensurate with all other conventional forms of politics.
When it comes to a political theology for Christian anarchism, two elements are definitive. First, whereas the politics of civil governments operate out of self-interest and self-importance, God’s politics operate out of kenosis and agape. Insofar as no nation-state can operate according to the political ethics of kenosis and agape, God’s politics operate in irrepressible conflict with all other political ethics. Hence the anarchy. Most political theologies have fabricated some relationship between faith and the principalities. Martin Luther’s two-kingdom model, for example, crafted a dualistic relationship wherein practitioners maintain twin (often contentious) allegiances and ethics. Calvinists have historically practiced a transformationist model wherein disciples labor to convert the “earthly city” into the “city of God.” And Roman Catholicism has often operated according to a political theology that synthesizes faith and the principalities. By comparison to such popular models, Christian anarchy neither combats against governments nor cooperates with governments. The second definitive element of Christian anarchy, then, is that Christian anarchy practices the age-old discipline of apatheia, an idea that calls disciples to detach from conventional political processes rather than to topple them altogether. Christian anarchists practice God’s incomparable, contrasting politics in the midst of an incredulous world—come what may.
Looking back across the millennia, we often forget the scandal of Jesus’s advent. In the ancient Mediterranean world, Caesar, for example, was divi filius (the son of god), he was “the ‘savior’ who brought salvation to the whole world,” the “lord” who demanded the “faith” of the people and who “was to be honored and celebrated by the ‘assemblies’ (ekklesiai).” The introduction of Christianity’s euangelion (i.e., the good news that God had come to dwell with humanity) was, therefore, a political repudiation of Rome, as it reinvested the empire’s key political terms—lord, savior, assemblies—with meanings and practices that subverted the realm’s authority. Christianity’s “gospel of peace was an explicit critique of the ‘Pax Romana,’” Martin Scott writes, for “the kingdom (basileia) of God was a direct exposure of the Roman empire (basileia), and the insistence that ‘Jesus is Lord’ instantly defined that Caesar, in spite of his claims as a son of god, was not lord.” Even though the overwhelming majority of people in the first-century Mediterranean world believed Rome to be the political superpower, with the advent of Christ it was not.
Scott describes this new political theology as kenarchy, a term underscoring kenosis as God’s archē or principal political ethic. Roger Haydon Mitchell coined the term kenarchy some seven years ago not only to bring together “kenō to empty and arkhō to rule,” as Scott does, but also to highlight “how the politics of sovereignty impregnated the West.” In other words, Mitchell pits sovereignty against kenosis, indicating that sovereignty pursues the accumulation and use of power whereas kenosis seeks the renunciation of power.
Long before Mitchell’s diagnosis, Merton identified how conventional political science had taken the term sovereignty hostage. The very enterprise of “politics,” Merton warned, “is a matter of defining how you think things ought to be and then making them come out that way by cunning or force. If you aren’t strong enough or smart enough to verify your ideas by putting them into effect, then you have no business saying how things should be in the first place: follow somebody else who has the necessary power!” According to the Merton view, sovereignty is the quest of politics. Study, for example, the Maccabean revolt, the American Revolution, or the rise of Islamic State. No matter how (un)warranted the rebels’ claims, in each movement the political diagnosis and response are essentially the same. From the revolutionaries’ perspective, the entity exercising hegemony—say, a second-century BCE Seleucid tyrant, an eighteenth-century English monarch, or a twenty-first-century Western oppressor—is illegitimate. Thus, across the annals of history, conventional politicians have called for better, more effective sovereigns to impose their visions of justice. When the wrong sovereign is wielding power (i.e., an evil, oppressive, or tyrannical sovereign), the solution is to empower a good sovereign who will move the needle of history toward justice. In typical political discourse, therefore, the question is not about sovereignty per se but about how to elevate and sustain proper and good sovereigns.
This conventional reasoning is now taken as common sense, having embedded itself as an assumed grounding principle in the American political philosophy. And the unquestioned popularity of this way of thinking exposes how Christians have allowed the political science of this world to define what is normative for their political theology, rather than vice versa. Consider how our models of God—and especially God’s sovereignty—succumb to human political paradigms of monarchy and dominance, and how this renders omnipotence and omniscience as synonymous with “supremacy” and “command.” With the sovereign God acting as an exemplary emperor, political theology degenerates into strategies for manipulating circumstances and wielding coercive power. “Peace through sovereign power,” Mitchell contends, “is not the testimony of Jesus.” Suffice it to say, by getting God wrong, we deform all our politics.
The Gospels, of course, reorient our understanding of God, God’s sovereignty, and, as a consequence, our politics. In the person and work of Jesus, God’s power is at best precarious, if not a fiasco. In the Gospel narratives, “Jesus passes from success to failure, from gain to loss . . . He passes from doing to receiving, from working to waiting, from the role of subject to that of object and, in the proper sense of the phrase, from action to passion.” Like Christ’s first-century disciples, today’s political theologians want a savior who lives and works in the active voice; today’s political theologies want a good, effective sovereign. The Gospels, however, provide us with a Messiah in the passive voice. Especially from the Garden of Gethsemane on, the gospel story is not about what Jesus did but about what was done to him, and yet this “passion of Jesus” is not some misfortune. Christianity speaks of this chain of events as “the completion of His divine purpose and mission.” In other words, God’s love does not seek to control the object of love, and outcomes are not forced. Even though God labors, God’s love may come to nothing.
Having loved, the only thing left for God to do is to wait, which is not some design flaw or quirk in the system. From a kenosis perspective, for God’s love to be love, it must often fail. As W. H. Vanstone describes it, the loving “endeavor is ever poised upon the brink of failure.” To the extent that an act is the “work of [God’s] love, then its shape cannot be predetermined by the Creator, nor its triumph foreknown. . . . This is the vulnerability of authentic love—that it surrenders to the other power over its own issue, power to determine the triumph or the tragedy of love.” Thus, God’s agape love foreswears the power to control, just as kenosis empties God incarnate of all rights, privileges, and powers.
Understanding God’s sovereignty as weakness rather than force, early Christians practiced the politics of Christ’s kenosis and agape, which presented an intractable conflict with the predictable politics of dominance and power. This is what H. Richard Niebuhr missed so significantly in his critique of the “Christ Against Culture” typology. The Christian anarchist political theology is not some apolitical withdrawal or separation from the world. Rather, in the tradition of early Christianity it strives to honor the profoundly political properties of Christ’s incarnation and his ongoing kingdom on earth. Of paramount importance, however, Christian anarchy is a politics based on the abnegation, rather than the acquisition, of power over others.
Again, in the tradition of early Christianity’s political theology, Christian anarchy offers an option beyond yet another refrain in political science’s clichéd litany of replacing one power with another, for example, the exasperating search for an authority that will acquire and use power justly. Kenosis and agape, by contrast, are the clear, definitive political tenets of Christ in the Gospels, and they are a central pillar for a Christian anarchist political theology.
The scandal of Christian anarchy is that we are called to live life in the passive voice. Following the example of God, for whom “there is no control of the other who is loved,” we act in self-emptying, even self-annihilating ways, and then we wait. Such a political theology is, no doubt, abhorrent to the contemporary world. Nonetheless, this politics is the gospel corrective to today’s misguided, misdirected political theories.
In a world in which supreme power is the ultimate political prize, and where realpolitikoperates from the proposition that only power checks power, kenotic love may seem like a peculiar, even quixotic, quest. But the reality in which we find ourselves is defined neither by context nor circumstance. Reality is defined by the person of Christ. In this way, Christ’s “poverty of spirit” so redefines our political lexicon that even the very category of “enemy” is transformed into “the ones we love.” And as a political theology, Christian anarchy pursues self-emptying, self-surrender, and self-abnegation, with the privileging of all others. Practicing the self-annihilation of passive-voice politics, Christian anarchists aspire to a poverty of spirit that foreswears strategies to advance their own causes (i.e., being controlled by others instead of scheming to control others). Politically, therefore, one ceases “the swagger of the executive who knows what is up and has all under control.” One silences the braggadocio of the sovereign who orchestrates events and controls outcomes. One repudiates the saber rattling of the powerful who sacrifice others for their own preferred cause (whether it be for ideology or nation-state). In the political theology of Christian anarchy, authentic love makes disciples powerless. This is the political poverty adherents pursue.
The biblical model of God’s sovereignty may be weakness, and perhaps the early Christians embraced such an ethic of powerlessness, but Christian critics might rightly ask about anarchist perspectives concerning the abolition of the government: Is it not true that anarchists desire no government? Can the chaos of no government ever be loving?
Historically, some secular anarchists have envisioned abolishing nation-states and civil governments, but this is not the vision of a Christian anarchist. As historian Lewis Perry notes, Christian anarchists have “insisted that they were striving for, and placing themselves under, the only true and effective government: the government [or kingdom] of God. . . . They opposed not government, but human pretensions to govern.” Stated otherwise, Christian anarchists practice a kind of apatheia toward civil governments.
The history of apatheia goes back to Greek Stoicism, which precedes the birth of Christianity. At first glance, the term might seem a cognate for the English term apathy, but appearances can be misleading. Instead of a synonym for “glib indifference” or “morose carelessness,” apatheia rises from a far more positive meaning. We all know how easy it is to become distracted and diverted, despite our best intentions—our focus is misoriented and our desires become misaligned before we realize what has happened. Apatheia, Joseph Nguyen explains, is the discipline of keeping the “mind free from disordered bodily senses, disordered emotions, and disordered attachments.” Thus, apatheia is neither emotionless, nor apathetic; rather, it is a practice of promoting healthy emotions, properly directed thinking, and rightly centered living. It is a purifying “fire of dispassion” burning off the world’s delusionary and disordering passions, which tend to distract, deceive, and bind one to the world. Apathēs, such as the desert mothers and fathers, detach from social convention, choosing to become strangers to, and exiles from, the world. In so doing, however, apathēs find themselves in a better position to discern what is right and good (e.g., what matters) from what is false and illusory (e.g., what does not matter). Knowing that something does not matter enables one to let it go.
Perhaps a contemporary example may help illustrate this phenomenon. Whether we are aware of the brain science behind the phenomenon or not, we know from personal experience that humans are incapable of concentrating on two conversations simultaneously. Imagine that we are sitting in a waiting room trying to concentrate on a text of some importance. A gentleman sitting near us is chatting it up on his cell phone a few decibels too loudly. In this scenario, no matter how diligently we may try to concentrate on our concern (e.g., the text), the gentleman’s conversation steals our attention. Soon we are invested in his phone conversation, and our ability to focus on our own concern is at an end. In this scenario, apatheia refers to our ability to ignore the man’s conversation, which really does not concern us. If we have cultivated the skill or discipline of apatheia, we may be aware of the man’s conversation while also being able to let it pass on by without paying attention to it or becoming invested in it. Because his conversation does not matter to us, we can let it go.
As Symeon the New Theologian warned, gold, silver, pearls, and gems will catch the apathēs’s eye, but at the end of the day those items are dismissed as just another metal or stone. The apathēs may see “silken robes,” yet know them as “merely the dung of worms.” The apathēs sees how society elevates some individuals with social standing and political clout but “smiles” astonished at how easily humanity is deluded by its own fiction. Conceivably, Eric Hagerman—the man featured in the New York Times profile—is something of a modern-day apathēs. He is conscious that the world’s political machinations are going on around him, yet the discipline of his “Blockade” allows him to remain centered on what he has chosen, freed from being drawn into what others deem real, relevant, significant, and central.
What, however, is the connection between apatheia and the political theology of Christian anarchy? Inasmuch as the quest of Christian anarchists is neither to eradicate governments nor to acquire the power of governments, and insofar as this political theology accepts that governments will be self-serving and self-promoting, the Christian anarchist lets go of all that self-interested will-to-power grabbing that defines political science. Practicing apatheia—a free, calm, and tranquil detachment from the politics demanding and disordering our attention—the Christian anarchist focuses singularly on God’s politics.
David Lipscomb is likely an unfamiliar name, but he provides a helpful concluding case study of this Christian anarchy in action. As a resident of Nashville during the American Civil War, Lipscomb lived under the governments of both the Confederate States of America (CSA) and the United States of America (USA). When Tennessee joined the secessionist movement, for example, CSA President Jefferson Davis required citizens under his authority to comply with the Conscription Act. Lipscomb wrote to President Davis explaining his noncooperation: “No man who regards the authority of God, the spirit and letter of the Sacred Scriptures, the life and teachings of the Son of God, or his holy Apostles,” Lipscomb abjured, “can in any manner engage in, aid, foment, or countenance strifes, animosities, and bloody conflicts in which civil governments are frequently engaged.” Then, when Nashville fell to Union forces in February 1862, residents were now required to take an oath of allegiance to the USA. This time Lipscomb wrote to the Union’s military governor, Andrew Johnson, explaining his defiance: “We firmly believe that the oaths of allegiance and oaths to defend and support governments of the world are contrary to the spirit and teachings of the Savior, and a violation of some of the plainest precepts of the Christian religion.” Whether a directive of the CSA or the USA, Lipscomb practiced apatheia, letting the demands of the civil governments go.
Lipscomb’s resistance to both the CSA and USA was not a wartime convenience. In the five decades that he lived after the Civil War, Lipscomb continued practicing this Christian anarchy, refusing to vote or serve on juries. In Civil Government, Lipscomb explains his political theology, indicating that to
use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these. To do so is to do evil that good may come. . . . The effective way for Christians to promote morality in a community is to stand aloof from the political strifes and conflicts. . . . Human government is the sum of human wisdom and the aggregation of human strength. God’s kingdom is the consummation of Divine wisdom and in it dwells the power of God. . . . We make the same reply as the early Christians made. . . . Let us serve God with all our mind and strength and soul in his kingdom.
Here Lipscomb calls for nothing short of renorming political philosophy. For 1,700 years—since at least the era of Constantine—Christians have presumed to change the world by appropriating the conventional protocols and weapons of that world. We could continue using this strategy. Or we might remember that Christ already changed the world with his protocol of kenosis and his weapons of agape. Moreover, Easter morning provided the imprimatur verifying Christ’s politics.
Measured by standard political metrics (e.g., sovereignty and power), Lipscomb’s Christian anarchy made him a crappy citizen, yet such measures are oblivious to the political theology that privileges an undivided and uncompromising commitment to Christ’s kenosisand agape. Lipscomb honored the venerable political discipline of apatheia, seeking to keep focus on God’s kingdom while resisting the seduction of political hubris. Would that Christianity had more disciples who “knew too little” of the politics of civil governments.