Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anarchy in May: Jesus on Ethics

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.

We began this investigation of Christian anarchism with a brief definition of the idea that stressed, in part, the necessity of all human structures of power to perpetuate themselves through immoral means. This observation about the intrinsic violence in government has often been the cornerstone for anarchist thought, and so I would like to conclude the series--on this final Wednesday in May--by quoting by far the oldest and most important anarchist text: Matthew 5. Unlike Eller, I shy away from calling God the "Primal Anarchist," because Christian anarchism is only anarchic with regard to human powers. God, therefore, is not an anarchist but the Supreme Archae, the only true and legitimate source of authority. It is with this authority that Jesus ascends the mount and delivers the famous sermon which is the greatest and fullest expression of Christian ethics. Within this sermon, no teaching has come to symbolize Christianity more than teachings at the close of chapter five (with the possible exception of the golden rule in chapter seven), and yet no teaching has been so diluted and distorted in an effort to escape its uncomfortable implications. Christian anarchism makes an effort to embrace those implications and to carry them to their logical ethical conclusions. If I must love my enemies, I cannot wage war against them, and I cannot elect someone else to wage war against them on my behalf. If I must not resist the evildoer, I cannot detain or execute criminals, and I cannot elect someone else to detain or execute them for me. If I must pray for those who persecute me, I cannot legislate that persecution away, and I cannot elect someone to legislate it away for me. No amount of ethical or exegetical contortionism has ever been able to convince me that the following means anything other than what it appears on its face to mean:

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And lest the interpretation and application of this passage be seen as the invention of a squeamish modern mindset, let me offer a few words of commentary from the second century Christian Athenagoras who, long before Anabaptists and Garrisonians and Tolstoyans, embodied the original spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and appealed to its honest and literal manifestation in the lives of ordinary Christians as the single greatest testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Above logic and apologetics and theology, the authentically lived Christian life confirms Christ:

If I go minutely into the particulars of our doctrine, let it not surprise you. It is that you may not be carried away by the popular and irrational opinion, but may have the truth clearly before you. For presenting the opinions themselves to which we adhere, as being not human but uttered and taught by God, we shall be able to persuade you not to think of us as atheists. What, then, are those teachings in which we are brought up? “I say unto you, Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven, who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”39 Allow me here to lift up my voice boldly in loud and audible outcry, pleading as I do before philosophic princes. For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such like instructions to make them happy: who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them (to abstain from which is of itself an evidence of no mean forbearance), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? On the contrary, they never cease with evil intent to search out skilfully the secrets of their art, and are ever bent on working some ill, making the art of words and not the exhibition of deeds their business and profession. But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.

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