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Violence and Anarchism

The critic of any Christian appropriation of anarchism tends to argue that anarchy is more violent than the current order, and, as such always inherently worse than our desires to oppose whatever hegemony happens to be in place. It seems incontrovertible that the recommendation of anarchism is, by its very nature more violent, dangerous, and irresponsible than the legitimation of the status quo, which is always propped up as the form of responsible Christian action.

What Slavoj Žižek says in his book, Violence may be helpful to addressing this argument. He notes that we often reduce violence to “subjective violence”, namely the sort of visible agential violence that can be seen in an act of physical assault or harm. Violence is seen as an intrusion into a previously peaceful state of tranquility, much as critics of anarchism would see it as introducing disorder and dysfunction into a state of order and functionality. Žižek goes on, however to argue that the tranquil state into which subjective violence seemingly intrudes is not peaceful, but is in fact deeply violence, being what he calls “objective violence”, that is the violence of structures of oppression, marginalization, etc. Thus, what seems to be an intrusion into a state of peacefulness is simply an event within an already-existing reality of violent, chaotic conflict that has simply been rendered invisible by its state of acceptance and legitimation by those in power (i.e. the “invisibility” of racism or sexism).

The critic of anarchism is making essentially the same argument that the aristocracy makes against the poor in situations of conflict, that of denying the inherent disorder, irrationality, and violence of present order. Moreover, Christian anarchism  disrupts the current “arche” of the world, not with violence but with an interruptive peace — the peace of Christ. This denial of the “arches” of this world is neither violent, nor irresponsible, but rather is form of the kingdom of God breaking into the world in pneumatic, apocalyptic foretastes. Such an articulation of Christian anarchism seems supremely appropriate to the gospel, and its practice in the service of the mission of the church. What that looks like is, of course, the important question.


  1. Dan wrote:

    Wow, I’m reading this book right now, I think you nailed a certain application of Zizek’s thesis.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Thanks for the stimulating comment, Halden.

    If I were to try to construct a political philosophy from the Bible, I think it would probably be something like some versions of anarchism (as articulated, say, by Kropotkin). It would understand human beings to be best organized in decentralized communities that emphasize a kind of “body poliitcs” (Yoder), focusing caring for others, mutually respectful decision-making, practicing forgiveness and generosity.

    This political philosophy would be deeply suspicious of large-scale political organizations–and of large-scale religious organizations. I think Christian anarchism should be antithetical to many if not most formal expressions of the church.

    The major message the Bible gives concerning political structures, as I read it, is that the state cannot be a primary channel of God’s work of healing in the world (this is the message of the Old Testament prophets in relation to the failure of the ancient Hebrew nation-state to embody Torah; then reiterated by Jesus, Paul, and Revelation). Jeremiah’s message to seek the peace of the city wherein God’s people find themselves seems like a calling to see the politics of the faith community as it practices restorative justice in the world as the locus of God’s politics.

    To the extent this kind of politics is “anarchism,” it must be nonviolent. The problem I have with Zizek’s book (I have only read part of it so far) is that he seems to have no sense of the on-the-ground practice of community-centered politics.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Ted,

    With respect to your problem with Zizek’s latest I would recommend that you read (if you haven’t already) In Defence of Lost Causes, and if you are feeling extra sneaky just read the final section (or worse, just the final chapter). He outlines what I conceive to be exactly what you find lacking in Violence and frames a revolutionary political position around averting the ecological crisis with a sort of collective dictatorship and revolutionary terror, which of course is a gross oversimplification that sounds a hell of a lot scarier than it is when he writes about it.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Thanks, Colin. I have the book on my shelf and will do what you suggest.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben Myers wrote:

    Great post — and an uncanny coincidence: I’ve just gotten back from a conversation at the pub about this very topic (specifically in relation to Zizek’s book on violence). Must be something in the air today…

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  6. Theophilus wrote:

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve been contemplating Christian anarchism a fair bit lately, and this certainly helps make some more sense of it.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Mike Bull wrote:

    Perhaps it looks like the visions of Zechariah. It begins with the church in “the abyss”, and God’s horses reporting on a bad type of peace. The visions follow roughly the pattern laid out in Genesis to Joshua, with more horses at the end, riding out of the new Temple.

    The point is, God always sends His word to disturb man’s manufactured peace, bring a construction of true worship, testing, reconstruction, cleansing and finally a true Sabbath. It never comes without conflict, and it always begins with worship.

    Saturday, November 15, 2008 at 3:35 am | Permalink
  8. Rasselas wrote:

    The peace of men, or Man, is no peace at all, but it is hard to take Zizek’s description sympathetically while bearing in mind his adoption of the rationale propounded by the government of China for the annexation of Tibet.

    Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  9. Good post.

    I’m not sure that anarchism is the best word for the radical Christian political agenda/ideology/whateverism.

    Christian anarchism certainly opposes the “arche” of the world, but is an attempt at building an “arche” of God here in the world. In Christian anarchism, there is still a King.

    Moreover, anarchism as understood by the general public is not a solution to the violence and disorder of the current system–I know this is not what you’re advocating, but I don’t understand why we can’t come up with a word that doesn’t carry so much negative baggage in the public sphere.

    Also, hi–my name is Michael. I just started a theology blog ( and would love for anybody to come visit. I don’t get much intellectual Christian community in real life, so I hope I can find some on the interweb. Thanks!

    Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  10. Scott Lenger wrote:

    Peter Rollins showed how Batman is an illustration of subjective vs objective violence in part 1 of his lecture at the Emergent Mid-Atlantic Conference.

    Monday, November 17, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  11. Chris Donato wrote:

    “What that looks like is, of course, the important question.”

    What that looks like, in principle, is quite clearly spelled out for us by Saint Paul: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…” (1 Tim. 21:ff.).

    This isn’t, of course, to be taken as support for the violence of the status quo, it is, rather, to be taken as a simple acknowledgment that the status quo is itself under the lordship of Christ. Christian anarchism, therefore, is to exist as a culture within whatever larger culture it finds itself. The latter is therefore rendered somewhat irrelevant—or at least it’s properly subverted.

    Interesting point about the “critic of anarchism [who makes] essentially the same argument that the aristocracy makes against the poor in situations of conflict.” Yet look at Luther’s example: did he not subvert the status quo in his implicit support of the peasants revolt? And what did he do when that bit him on the ass? He shut up, following St. Paul’s advice above, which is what he probably should have done from the beginning.

    In that case, it just might have been that the road to hell (the failed Peasant Revolt) was paved with good intentions (Christian anarchism).

    Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

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