Early Christianity and Anarchism

An anarchist Jesus?

Ever since anarchism emerged as a distinct doctrine in the 19th century (largely through the debates within the First International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements), there have been Christians who have claimed that Jesus was a kind of pacifist anarchist. I examine these claims in my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, by reviewing the history of early Christianity. In this section, I compare the early Christians to the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, who appear to have been much closer to modern anarchists than Jesus and his followers.

Early Christianity and the Jewish Revolts in Palestine

When considering the alleged anarchism of Jesus and his followers, it is useful to compare them to the Jewish groups in Palestine who refused to pay taxes to the Roman Empire and denied the legitimacy of Roman authority. The refusal to pay Roman taxes pre-dated the so-called Jesus movement by about 30 years. Then between 66 and 70 CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ purported death, there was a protracted Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the Jewish high priests and aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans. Some of the Jewish opponents of Roman authority, the “Fourth Philosophy” group, refused “to call any man master,” taking “God as their only leader.” [Horsley and Hanson, pp. 191 and 215; Horsley, p. 41] As we shall see, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any earthly authority is the basis of much of what is now described as “religious” anarchism.

During the rebellion, a group called the “Zealots” fought not only “against the alien Roman oppressors,” but also “a class war against their own Jewish nobility.” [H & H, p. 226] The Zealots opposed “hierarchical power and privilege,” and chose their priests by lot, which was meant to ensure that the priests were chosen by God, “the true ruler of society.” [H & H, pp. 233] Unlike other Jewish rebel groups, and the nascent Christian communities, the Zealots did not have individual leaders, but reached “decisions collectively.” [H & H, pp. 235] While 19th and 20th century anarchists did not believe in any master, including a divine one, they believed, as did the Zealots, that no person had the right to rule over others; they rejected hierarchy and privilege; many of them advocated class war against the aristocracy and the capitalists; and they also practiced forms of non-coercive collective decision-making.

The Zealots share more similarities with 19th and 20th century anarchists than Jesus and his followers, who do not appear to have participated in or to have supported the 66 – 70 CE Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, which was consistent with Jesus’ advice to suffer earthly authorities gladly. [Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), trans. O.C. Dean, Jr., p. 212] According to the early historian of Christianity, Eusebius (c.260–c.340 CE), the Christians left Jerusalem at the beginning of the rebellion to sit it out in areas that remained under Roman control. [Stegemann & Stegemann, p. 220]

The four gospels in the New Testament that purport to set forth Jesus’ life and teachings all post-date the 66 – 70 CE rebellion. Despite the fact that the Christians had not supported the rebellion, the Christian communities in Palestine suffered along with the Jewish ones as the Romans put down the rebellion and reasserted Imperial authority. [Horsley & Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 259] According to Horsley and Hanson, the “violent reimposition of the pax Romana […] meant that little survived of the concrete movement started by Jesus in Palestinian Jewish society.” [p. 259]

It is possible then that the authors of the gospels gave Jesus’ views a more spiritual slant in order to avoid further persecution by the Roman authorities. But even before the suppression of the 66 – 70 CE rebellion, Paul, perhaps Jesus’ most important disciple, was telling his fellow Christians that:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive (Romans 13:1–3).

This is anything but a religious anarchism denying the legitimacy of earthly authorities. Christian teachings like this provided support for the later transformation of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the transition of Christianity from an outlawed religious movement to state religion was to take over two hundred years. Regardless of whether the authors of the New Testament gospels tried to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ teachings, and despite Paul’s admonitions to the faithful to obey those in authority, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Roman officials remembered that they had executed the founder of this sect as a dangerous rebel who claimed to be the Messiah. By around 117 CE, being a Christian had become a crime under Roman law. [Stegemann, pp. 323 – 324]

Robert Graham

Voluntary Servitude and Other Anarchist Heresies

Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

Here is the second installment from the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day.

Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563)

Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563)

Étienne de la Boétie and Voluntary Servitude

The Daoist sage Bao Jingyan argued that the strong and cunning forced and tricked the people into submitting to them. That the people may play a part in their own servitude is an idea that was explored in much greater detail by Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1552, Volume One, Selection 2). Seeking to explain how the masses can be subjugated by a single tyrant, de la Boétie argued that it is the masses themselves “who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their own servitude.” Despite de la Boétie’s focus on tyranny, rather than hierarchy and domination as such, as Murray Rothbard points out, de la Boétie’s critique of tyranny applies to all forms of government, whether democratic, monarchic or dictatorial, such that his arguments can easily be pressed on “to anarchist conclusions,” as they were by subsequent writers (1975: 20).

This idea that the power of the state depends on the voluntary submission or acquiescence of the people, such that state power can be abolished or undermined by the withdrawal of cooperation, was taken up by later anarchists, including William Godwin (Volume One, Selection 4), Leo Tolstoy (Volume One, Selection 47), Gustav Landauer (Volume One, Selection 49), Praxedis Guerrero (Volume One, Selection 72), Alex Comfort (Volume Two, Selection 26) and contemporary writers, such as Noam Chomsky (Volume Two, Selection 68) and Ed Herman (Volume Three, Selection 40), who have emphasized that so-called democratic states require an extensive propaganda apparatus to “engineer” or “manufacture” the consent of the people to their own continuing domination and exploitation.

English Ranters

English Ranters

Heresy and Revolution

While religion has often served as both a justification and palliative for coercive authority, various heretical religious currents have emerged throughout human history denying the legitimacy of earthly authority (Walter, Volume Two, Selection 43). In the 1960s, Gary Snyder highlighted those strands of Buddhism that evinced an anarchist sensibility (Volume Two, Selection 42). In the 9th century, a minority among the Mu‘tazili Muslims argued that anarchy is preferable to tyranny (Crone, 2000), while another Islamic sect, the Kharijites, “disputed any need at all for an imam, or head of state, as long as the divine law was carried out” (Levy, 1957).

In Europe, several heretical Christian sects emerged during the Middle Ages and Reformation, rejecting human authority in favour of freedom and community. The Brethren of the Free Spirit adopted a libertarian amoralism similar to Max Stirner’s egoism (Volume One, Selection 11), advocating total freedom for themselves while taking advantage of others (Marshall, 2008: 87-89). In contrast, the Taborites in Bohemia were egalitarians, seeking to abolish private property, taxes and political authority, asserting that “All shall live together as brothers, none shall be subject to another” (Marshall: 92). The Hussites and Moravian Brothers also advocated an egalitarian community without coercive authority, modeled after Christ’s relationship with his apostles.

But it was not until the English Revolution (1642-1651) that Christian teachings were transformed into a body of ideas resembling modern anarchism. The Ranters advocated and practiced free love and the holding of all things in common, with some adopting a libertarian amoralism similar to that of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The Diggers also advocated holding things in common, and sought to establish egalitarian communities on waste lands.

diggers winstanley

Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers 

One of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), published a pamphlet in 1649, The New Law of Righteousness, in which he advocated an early form of anarchist communism, drawing inspiration from the Bible (Volume One, Selection 3).

Winstanley argued that anyone getting “authority into his hands tyrannizes over others,” whether husband, parent, master or magistrate. He saw private property, inequality and exploitation as the inevitable result of “rule and dominion, in one part of man-kinde over another.” He advocated making the earth the “common treasury” of all, such that anyone in need should be able to “take from the next store-house he meets with.” There “shall be none Lord over others,” and “no need for Lawyers, prisons, or engines of punishment,” with the distinction between “Mine and Thine” having been abolished.

In opposing coercive authority, hierarchy and private property, Winstanley was careful to endorse means consistent with his ends. He endorsed a form of nonviolent direct action, while denouncing those who would replace one tyranny with another. For Winstanley,  “the manifestation of a righteous heart shall be known, not by his words, but by his actions,” for “Tyrannie is Tyrannie in one as wel [sic] as in another; in a poor man lifted up by his valour, as in a rich man lifted up by his lands.”

Although couching his argument in religious terms, Winstanley conceived of God as “the law of righteousness, reason and equity” dwelling within all of us, a position similar to that later adopted by Leo Tolstoy. He advocated freedom for both men and women, applying his critique of hierarchy and domination not just to their more obvious manifestations, but also to relationships between husband and wife and parents and children.

Robert Graham

Additional References

Crone, Patricia. “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists.” Past and Present, No. 167. 2000.

Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. London: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Rothbard, Murray. Introduction to Étienne de la Boétie, The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975.