Today’s book review is of Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers“> by Vernard Eller. When I was first getting interested in reading more about Christian Anarchy, I was told that this book was the MUST read book on the topic. It was pricery and hard to track down and once I got my hands on it I was so excited to read it. And I was disappointed. I think part of the problem is that it had been so hyped up that it couldn’t live up to its expectations. The other piece is that Eller is an incredibly quirky writer and that began to grate after a while.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Like I mention, Eller has a strange writing style. In some cases he comes off as flippant which is insulting. He also repeats himself a lot. This book could have been at least 50 pages shorter. I don’t mind reading long books, but not if they repeat themselves. He also spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Karl Barth. Like, way too much time. Especially when he comes to the conclusion that Barth wasn’t really a Christian Anarchist. That whole section just made me wanna throw things.
My other big complaint is that Eller is of the school that believes that one day God is just going to come back and fix things. So our job is to wait for that day to come by not getting involved in anything. His view is more than just non-resistance, it’s non-action. He advises against civil disobedience because this Bible says to “not resist evil”. His reading is incredibly simplistic in some cases, again, there is no conversation at all around Empire scholarship. What I am seeing in a lot of these books is a very cursory reading of the text. By that I mean that there is no real attempt to put it in its historical context or to grapple with what it would have meant to the people hearing/reading it. Instead, they read it and take it at face value. I think, especially when one is reading such politically charged texts, that this is a really dangerous way of reading.
With all of that said, there are some really helpful portions of the book. Eller really breaks down what he means when he says we shouldn’t get involved with the “arky” (his term for worldly systems) powers. “For us, then, “arky” identifies any principle of governance claiming to be of primal value for society. “Government” (that which is determined to govern human actions 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.” (pages 1-2) I think Eller makes a point that is sometimes overlooked. Being against the “powers” (to use Walter Wink’s term) isn’t just about the state and/or the government, but it is about being against all of the things that try to make us conform or obey or be silent. I think one of the areas where this really comes up for me is in my opposition to denominations. I hear so often from people inside the church about their support of resistance to the state while they sit by and allow denominations to also demand conformity. Denominations which privilege the privileged, which are racist and sexist, which worry about losing money, etc. How can we be against the state while allowing such things in our churches?
Eller also has good things to say about the danger of revolutions. In this I found his work to sing in concert with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed Eller says, “Indeed, the regular procedure of “revolution” is to form a (good) power-arky that can either overthrow and displace or else radically transform the (bad) arky currently in power. This selectivity amounts to a passionate faith in the power of arkys for human good and the farthest thing possible for a truly anarchical suspicion and mistrust of every human arky.” (page 3) His point is a good one. When your aim is to simply overthrow the old regime and put a new one in its place there is no space for redemption of the oppressors. Freire takes this into account and, I think, shows us more of the way forward.
Eller is realistic about human nature and the quest for power. He cautions against the forming of “counter-arkys” in an effort to affect change.
I also appreciate some of the Scriptural work that Eller does. I won’t go into all of it here, but his tracing of anarchist thought throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures was really helpful. Most folks tend to dwell only on the Christian portions and so to see a grappling with the thought in the Hebrew Scripture was really helpful.
Again, what it comes down to, for me, is that Eller doesn’t show us the way forward. It is also incredibly clear from Eller’s analysis of the appropriate responses to the arkys of the world that he is a privileged, white, male who benefits from keeping the systems as they are. It is easy for him to say that we shouldn’t challenge the status quo when he is able to eat, be clothed, have a home, write books, etc. He is not oppressed and therefore cannot tell the oppressed how they should or shouldn’t respond. It’s easy to say “just wait it out” when you have everything that you need, when laws protect you, when you can be comfortable. His response is overall too passive.
I think the first couple of chapters in this book are helpful, as well as some of his interpretations of Scripture. This is definitely an important read when it comes to Christian Anarchy, especially because of the ways Eller’s thought has influenced other thinkers. Overall, though, I was unhappy with the conclusions of this book.