In honor of the release of Mark Van Steenwyk’s new book the UnKingdom of God this week with Inter Varsity Press, I post below my foreword to the book. Mark’s book is a a presentation of the challenge of Christian anarchism to American church life. It is a therapy for us all in helping us uncover, unwind and extract ourselves from bad habits, bad agendas, and bad socio-economic patterns that we have become intertwined with as part of American life and then called it Christian. The purist Christian anarchist says all forms of coercive rule – government, church or otherwise – should be rejected. Jesus is Lord and no one else is. Together we must find ways to live out His rule, not accomodations to other powers and principalities. I think many are too quick to write off Christian anarchism and we need to understand its claims. Some people include Jacques Ellul and John Howard Yoder in the Christian anarchist camp. Sometimes I include myself in that camp. I’m glad there’s a readable book now that makes us think about it in real 21st century life terms. Check out the foreword, and hopefully, if I’ve done my job, you’ll want to buy the book.
The Challenge of Christian Anarchism for Our Time
When we think about anarchism, alot of pictures come to mind: hippies, communes, idealists, protests, idiots who want to blow up everything in sight. If we’re over the age of 40, and have lived any meaningful years trying to meet our obligations as members of society, we look with suspicion. Then, when we hear the qualifier “Christian” attached to the term and come up with ‘Christian anarchism,’ we are even more suspicious. This is an anomaly we say. Christianity is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Christ and restoring the world to peace, order and righteousness. Anarchy is anything but that. Surely this cannot be Christian! At this point in our mental processes we usually shut down. And since this book is about Christian anarchism, we are tempted to dismiss it and move on.
So I ask you, in writing this foreword, not to do that, and here’s why:
Anarchism, Mark Van Steenwyk tells us, is the belief that “a group of people may live together without being ruled” (p. 50). Instead we can organize our lives in other ways that do not depend on coercive hierarchal authority. In doing so we gain the wherewithal to discern patterns of coercion and exploitation in our own lives and the cultural patterns we live in. We can choose to resist these things around us in the structures in which we live. Suddenly this all sounds very Christian. If we are Christians, we should be doing this right? Theoretically then there is much for a Christian to learn from a good anarchist like Mark Van Steenwyk?
But there is more to it than this. There is something inherently anarchist about the primary claim of Christianity: that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” When we say “Jesus is Lord” we are in essence saying that God in Christ has achieved a victory over “the rulers and principalities.” He now rules and no one else does. He now rules over the whole world until “He has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:25 NIV). All other rulers, principalities and powers must become relative to that reality in our lives. Since Christ rules “not as the Gentiles do,” coercively, but in and among us with love, we too must live this way (Mark 10:42-45). Christians, you see, in a very unique way, are anarchists. What are we to do with this? I contend part of the answer is to read this book and become an anarchist.
But, practically speaking, how in the world are we to live like that? Surely you jest? We have to buy a house, get a mortgage, go to grocery stores, worry about our kids’ education, let the government tax us and submit to it on international relations, go use banks and let their investment professionals tell us how much money we need to retire. We have to worry about all these things. Right? How else are we to live?
The answer to all of these questions for the anarchist is “not necessarily so.” In fact, the Christian anarchist dares to say “stop everything and discern every socio-politico economic relationship all over again” under the terms laid down by following Christ. Again, this is why I’m begging you to not dismiss what the anarchist has to say to every Christian living in the United States of America (and the rest of the West as well). The Christian anarchist can help us in this basic Christian task by cracking open our imaginations to some other way.
Mark Van Steenwyk is a Christian anarchist that can help crack open our imaginations in this way. He can help us navigate our way through the morass of economic, social and cultural structures we must walk through each day in order to live in N America. He will not give direct answers. Instead he often just demolishes other answers. But again, don’t dismiss this. This can be remarkably fruitful. I don’t agree with Mark Van Steenwyk all the time. But when I do, it’s life shattering and life changing. Sometimes I find him too quick to write off the Christian participation in some political, economic or social enterprise. Nonetheless, when he exposes some bogus structure, some assumption that I have been using to participate in some self-protective or exploitive practice in my world, that revealing mars me forever. I am forced to repent and discern my own participation in it and my church’s. This is the kind of provocation the church needs at this time.
Two thousand years of church history reveals many ebbs and flows to the church’s ongoing relationship to culture. There have been times when the church has been persecuted and struggled for its very existence as a puny minority. There have been other times when the church has risen to such influence that it joined hands with the structures of society and all its powers seeking a way to make them more just. Often however, in those latter times of great comfort and great power, hubris set in. Instead of subverting the Empire, we got subverted by it. Every time though, down through history, God has raised up a ‘band of beggars’ usually at the fringes to cry “foul” and expose the church’s adulterous relationship with false power. From these places on the margins God has worked for the renewal of the church throughout history.
I think now is such a time. The church in North America is looking tired trying to hold onto its alignments with business, economy, university and culture. In many places, it has become too comfortable with the consumer shopping mall as its model for doing business. Sometimes I look around at the church and think the biggest need in the church is a revolutionary manual, a manual for undoing the myths that enslave us, for revealing the ideologies that blind us, a manual that probes for new points of engagement where we can start living this grand radical life that has been made possible in Christ’s victory over the powers. Mark Van Steenwyk’s book could just be that manual. Christian anarchism could be the way to the fringes where God can begin anew the shaping of His people for Mission.
So read on all who dare. We cannot predict what this new anarchism will demand of our lives. But that is a good thing, maybe just what we the church need for this time and this place in our history in North America.