Living on Hope While Living in Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the Twentieth Century
Tripp York. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. 117 pages.
It is a mistake to equate “anarchism” with commonly evoked images of chaos and violence. Every political philosophy, including anarchism, which is not violent by definition, has used violence to advance its cause. Indeed, the nation-state depends on a monopoly on “legitimate” violence. According to Tripp York, anarchism is a helpful (though not necessary) lens through which to view Christian discipleship. This is the case because anarchism rejects government/coercive authority as a basis for politics while discipleship names as idolatry ultimate allegiance to the nation-state. Christian anarchism highlights the calling of Christians to not be in charge, to reject the false securities promised by the state and pledge allegiance to the true politics of the cross.
This brief and engaging book (originally a masters thesis written under the supervision of Stanley Hauerwas) consists of two theoretical chapters addressing Christian anarchist politics and Christian apocalyptic politics. Three biographical chapters profile some people who have embodied a witness to and against the state. Some secular anarchists maintain that Christian anarchism is oxymoronic, since it recognizes the authority of Christ, though precisely on that basis rejects the authority of the nation-state. Yet York argues persuasively that secular anarchists have typically appealed to some liberal concepts of individual rights, freedom, and choice, on which nation-states also depend. By contrast, Christian freedom rests on the resurrection of Christ beyond all political theories.
York maintains that this book is fundamentally about Christian discipleship, not anarchism. In his profiles of several Christian anarchists (not all of whom would have embraced the label), York displays the lives of each as a response to one element of the “triple axis of evil”: materialism, racism, and militarism, all of which are explicitly implicated in the logic of nation-state. Thus, Catholic Workers Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin exemplified an alternative to capitalism through houses of hospitality and voluntary poverty. Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farms community he founded in rural Georgia embodied a rejection of racism that went far beyond civil rights advocacy. In fact, Jordan’s life was an implicit criticism of some elements of the civil rights movement that sought change within the political framework defined by the U.S. government. He believed that “the most direct action one could take was to first and foremost live the change sought” (78). Because of their acts of resistance to militarism, the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, were frequently imprisoned, exposing the idolatry of American civil religion and exceptionalism.
By correlating biographies with a particular pathology of government power, York successfully presents focused accounts of these persons, without suggesting that their witness is limited to just one theme. York has used the manuscript in his undergraduate classes, and I would consider doing so in my own teaching. The book introduces Christian discipleship in a clear and engaging fashion that is bound to provoke constructive discussion.
Nevertheless, a “thicker” account of the lives and witness of Dorothy Day and the others would have strengthened the book as a whole. I had hoped for a discussion of some of the conflicts within the Catholic Worker communities that emerged from their commitment to organize by anarchist principles, or how radical communities make use of temporal goods of the earthly city such as the marketing within the capitalist system of the pecans grown by Koinonia Farms. Though all of these witnesses “failed” by worldly standards, they were consistently faithful according to the account of discipleship proposed. The danger in a hagiographic presentation of only those aspects that advance and illustrate the underlying argument is that, despite York’s intention to the contrary, these lives may be reduced to a premise in a theoretical argument, instead of being fully embodied, complex, conflicted, compromised, and thus truly imitable.
I am very sympathetic with York’s constructive proposal, and I find the witness of these Christian anarchists tremendously compelling. Nevertheless, I am compelled to ask what seeking the peace of the city “without compromising who we are as Christians” (34) might mean for someone who, like me, does not live in a Catholic Worker community or risk long prison sentences protesting militarism. York is not advocating a rule that any contact with government structure is simply equivalent to idolatry, since he rejects the very modern conception of ethics as rules. But his narration of these lives through the lens of Christian anarchy may, nevertheless, imply otherwise. Is the rejection of government a sine qua non of true discipleship (“universally,” as it were, despite itself), or rather a feature of the particular responses that these witnesses discerned in their times and places, but may be discerned very differently, nevertheless faithfully, by others, or in different times and places? To the point, would further reflection on the lives (and presumed compromises) of Day, Jordan, and the Berrigans reveal a complexity that might still be instructive for communities convicted that different relationships with government may be faithful?