Sunday, May 27, 2012

Anarchism and the Just Society

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
There is a great deal to commend Vernard Eller’s arguments about human attempts to construct a classless society, but an arguments merits are normally apparent on its face. To that extent, I intend to let Eller’s point speak for itself. No argument, however, is entirely invulnerable to criticism. Two such criticisms came to my mind while I was reviewing Eller’s case that bear engagement. Though I do not think either is ultimately justified, the fact that Eller does not address them specifically compels me to address them.

The first and most obvious criticism that might arise from those who advocate revolutionary attempts to establish equity is that Eller’s Christian alternative does not actually achieve the ends for society that they pursue. No matter how hard we try, simply ignoring social inequality does not resolve the reality of it. As long as the “oppressing classes” continue to have recourse to their means of oppression, the “oppressed classes” will continue to be oppressed.

This is undoubtedly true. It must be remembered, however, that Christian anarchism makes no pretense of trying to reform human society through human effort. In fact, it is predicated precisely on rejecting such a pretension. Eller makes the point quite clearly that all human means for establishing social equity necessarily involve the use of force (in some fashion) which is itself a form of social oppression, even if it is the “oppressed” who are oppressing the “oppressors.” Christian anarchism doesn’t provide an alternative human means for achieving human ends, but a rejection of human means and human ends in favor of divine ones.

The church, in this understanding, becomes the only truly classless, and therefore just, society because it adopts, insofar as it is possible, the divine perspective of unity in Christ. When Paul says that there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, he does not believe that humanity becomes uniform by entrance into the church. Instead, the church becomes the proleptic experience of the kingdom on earth in which the incidentals which assume the status of identity in human society are relegated to their proper sphere.

This provides a perfect segue into the second objection: if classification as a means of domination is eliminated in the Christian community, what is to be made of the various economic recognitions of features such as gender in the church. If anarchism and its attempts to construct an equitable society by divine means is in fact the true means for achieving justice, does it not necessarily follow that people in the church cease to recognize as significant distinctions in gender?

I suspect that for Eller this is not so much an objection as a recognition of his logical conclusion. He appears to be the egalitarian type of anarchist more in the tradition of Garrison than Lipscomb. Being myself nearer to the latter, however, it is important to stress that egalitarian gender economics are only one possible implication to be drawn from Eller’s argument.

Even Eller recognizes that matters of sex, race, or socio-economic status are significant insofar as they are necessary categories by which humanity interacts with the world. For Eller this is an unfortunate byproduct of human finitude. He does not seem to recognize that there are realities which correspond to the categories which are generally labeled “oppressive.” The essence of anarchism does not need to be the elimination of all distinction because distinction is not only relevant and representative of reality but it is arguably the preeminent reality, enshrined before time in the trinitarian God and established as the predicate reality for a creation which is genuinely ex nihilo. (Eller presses this issue to its breaking point, wanting to blur even the distinctions between species as he makes a point to refer to sparrows as “individuals” in the same way that people are “individuals.”)

Instead, what Jesus does and what the anarchist vision of the church does is to divorce classification from value. This is the core of the complementarian argument of ontological equality and economic difference. It is critical to realize that difference in race, socio-economic status, and gender are non-essential, which is to say that they are not of the essence of things not that they are not meaningful. With this understanding in view, Eller’s stress on the church as the congregation of individuals standing equally before God and equally in one another’s estimation can be fully embraced.

Whatever you are, you are first and foremost a child of God, a sibling in Christ, and an expectant participant in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is what identifies us as Christians. That we may function differently in the church on the basis of the incidentals of our existence does not undermine that truth or in any way diminish its supreme importance. (And that stands not just for the issue of gender economics but also for the way people of different socio-economic status function differently but equally in the mission of the church not to mention countless other less controversial economic distinctions).

Undoubtedly, the fact that I agree with so many of Eller’s premises means that I am omitting or overlooking other potential errors in his thinking (any of which I would be happy to have pointed out to me). Nevertheless, it seems hard to contradict Eller’s acute sense of the flaw in historical and ongoing attempts by humanity to imagine and pursue and truly equitable society. The just society will always be out of the reach of optimistic human hands because humanity lacks truly just mechanisms of actualizing its vision, even if that vision were truly just.

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