He accepted Prime Ministers as he accepted railway trains – as part of a system which he, at least, was not the revolutionist sent on earth to destroy.
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Fad of the Fisherman,” in The Man Who Knew Too Much
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It’s been said that, for the Pilgrim, there can be no allegiance to anyone or anything but Christ; that when the state, or any other merely human entity, demands his loyalty or obedience, he can respond in only one way: with gentle but firm resistance. It remains to be clarified that this has nothing to do with political rebellion or revolution.
This is as good a place as any to pause and review definitions. A Pilgrim, we’ve said, is a temporary resident. A refugee. A person living in a strange land among a people not his own. The Pilgrim knows that “this world is not his home” – that he’s “just a-passin’ through.” Being a stranger and an alien, he does not become entangled in things that are none of his business. His outlook is founded upon a supernaturally inspired distance and detachment. His vision and perspective shape his concept of authority and accountability.
It is one of the sublimest ironies of the Gospel story that Jesus was executed on a charge of political insurrection. Of all the many and varied characters on the scene that day, He had the least interest in the political aspects of the situation. When Pilate asked Him, “Are you a king?” His matter-of-fact response was, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And when the Governor pressed Him with, “Don’t you know I have the authority to release you or to crucify you?” He said, in effect, “You have no authority at all. Your ‘authority’ is an illusion. Apart from God’s will, you could do nothing.” He was not particularly impressed with the majesty of Rome.
Celsus, a philosopher of the second century, was just one of many respectable Romans who accused the early Christians of undermining society and behaving as “haters of the human race.” The basis of their charge? For the first three centuries of the Common Era, followers of Jesus, the King whose kingdom is “not of this world,” declined to become active participants in the “system.” So firm were their convictions on this point that Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor from 361 to 363 A.D, renounced Christianity altogether and championed a return to ancient polytheism on the grounds that it would improve the civic situation. “We can ignore his argument,” writes Jacques Ellul, “but what historians of the later empire all agree on is that the Christians were not interested in political matters or military ventures.”[i]
Ellul, following Vernard Eller, refers to this lack of interest as anarchy. It’s a word most of us associate with chaos, disorder, and Molotov cocktails, but its meaning in the present context is quite different. Eller explains:
‘Arky’ (from Gr. arche) identifies any principle of governance claiming to be of primal value for society. ‘Government’ (that which is determined to govern human action and events) is a good synonym – as long as we are clear that political arkys are far from being the only governments around. Not at all; churches, schools, philosophies, ideologies, social standards, peer pressures, fads and fashions, advertising, planning techniques, psychological and sociological theories – all are arkys out to govern us.
‘Anarchy’ (‘Unarkyness’), it follows, is simply the state of being unimpressed with, disinterested in, skeptical of, nonchalant toward, and uninfluenced by the highfalutin claims of any and all arkys. And ‘Christian Anarchy’ … is a Christianly motivated ‘unarkyness.’ Precisely because Jesus is THE ARKY, the Prime of Creation, the Principal of all Good, the Prince of Peace and Everything Else, Christians dare never grant a human arky the primacy it claims for itself. Precisely because God is the Lord of History we dare never grant that it is in the outcome of the human arky contest that the determination of history lies.[ii]
Christian Anarchy, then – a Christ-centered disregard for the claims of “government” in all its forms – occupies the next spot on our list of distinctive Pilgrim values. Because he owes allegiance to one Master, and one only, the Pilgrim’s attitude toward every other so-called authority is necessarily “disinterested, skeptical, and nonchalant” – in a word, “anarchical.” For love’s sake, he is more than happy to tolerate, co-exist with, and, where possible, even submit to the powers that be, whether that means Washington, City Hall, or Denominational Headquarters. But this does not mean that he takes their pretensions seriously.
On the contrary, he views most of their antics and shenanigans with a sort of benign and amused indifference.
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[i] Jacues Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, 92.
[ii] Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy, 1-2.