Between Christianity and the Libertarian Left: How Wide the Gap? Part II

by Marc Young

Continued from Mormon Worker Issue #5.

Love: Religious or radical?

Now, what about this love talk, employed so much by Jesus and Paul? It is the sort of language that has so often put secular radicals off, uncomfortable with an emphasis on words that suggest the primacy of feeling or emotion. How might this Christian idea (or ideal) fit into a particularly libertarian socialist agenda? We must be careful. Precise parallels shouldn’t be made between Christian notions and social arrangements recommended by post-Enlightenment critics of the state. But the points of convergence between the two platforms (and the ways in which they both diverge from more pro-state, authoritarian types of radicalism) are frequent enough. And some notion of the word ‘love’ is essential to helping us understand how and why this is.

As religious radicals from the Bohemian Petr Chelcicky to the French Protestant and anarchist Jacques Ellul have noted, love takes the place of law in original Christian thought and practice. By love, of course, the ecstatic feelings that accompany an erotic or romantic bond are not meant. Nor do Paul and others mean by love the special, heightened, even obsessive affection felt by parents for their children. Indeed, Christian love is clearly intended to function, at least in part, as a check on these forms of attachment by emphasizing one’s responsibility to place the neighbor’s interests on the same plane as one’s own. Reason and compassion make the Christian see that social claims are as worthy as familial claims. This is love understood as solidarity.

When Paul originally spoke about the law, and the freedom of new believers from it, he was naturally thinking of Jewish law, at least in the main. But he did not mean just religious law, that is, forms of liturgy and rules of belief. For Jewish law regulated both the worship and the material lives of the community’s members. As numerous students of early Christianity have emphasized, spirituality and politics were as fused and intertwined in what we today call the Middle-East as they have been in most times and places in human history. The law told Jews both to worship the one, true, unnamable God with all their heart and not to kill. It told them not to steal or to covet. It aspired to be a guideline for all aspects of life, spiritual and material. Which of course indicates the error of those who argue that Paul’s notion of Christian freedom only refers to ritualistic matters (i.e. that he’s only discussing how circumcision is unnecessary if one has accepted the Lord in one’s heart, etc). He emphasized, on the contrary, believers’ freedom from the whole package. (“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”)18

Which of course never meant that followers of Jesus should be libertines. Confident that God loved them, Christians were, in the times prior to a divine re-ordering of the world, to fulfill the important ethical and social commandments precisely because they treated others with love. They would not steal livestock from their neighbor because that would cause harm. Sleeping with a married person would cause a neighbor hurt. Freedom is absolute at the same time as its key ethical tenets become self-enforcing. On the other hand, invitations or requests to serve the state or armed forces were to be resisted, for they had nothing to do with love.

Similarities with libertarian theory and practice prevalent among populations under the influence of anarchism in the last century aren’t hard to discern. It is almost quaint, to contemporary ears, to hear Gerald Brenan and the historian Hugh Thomas’s descriptions of atheistic workers and peasants in revolutionary Spain behaving in very ‘Christian’ ways – that is, observing strict sexual fidelity to their partners, closing bordellos and scrupulously respecting social property. And then of course, in the realm of anarchist theory, there is that well-known post-revolutionary scenario according to which, with the elimination of the state and its instruments of coercion, punishment for misdeeds is wholly or largely replaced by libertarian tools of crime-fighting: solidarity, moral suasion and social pressure from one’s peers. Here is not the place to consider whether or not radical Syndicalists or leftists who generally agree with Bakunin and Kropotkin have modified or should qualify their movement’s founders’ views on crime, punishment and incarceration. Our point is merely to indicate the interesting juncture between Christian freedom and anti-authoritarian thought on law. Both the preacher and the conscientious Wobbly are barred from taking their neighbor’s bike, but it is neither fear of punishment nor respect for the criminal code that dissuades them from such a theft. If it is, they’re fakes.

Other points of Christian-libertarian convergence are less obvious and perhaps more debatable. But they are there. Ellul stresses, in his critique of capitalism and Marxist socialism, these systems’ enormous confidence in technique and productivity,19 their objective of human happiness through abundance, through the conquest of Nature. In anarchism and radical Syndicalism strains with a different nuance have always been dominant, ones that emphasize liberation from excessive toil right now, or at least tomorrow, not in some golden future. Free time to learn, to aid others, but not necessarily to access shops overflowing with goods. Libertarians have never denied that the good human life requires a material basis – sufficient food, drink, libraries, transport – but their emphasis has not been quite the same as others’. “We do not live by bread alone, but of course we have to be fed,” might have been a libertarian slogan. It certainly encapsulates Jesus’ view.

In this connection, Crossan has advanced interesting theories about the sociological nature of the Nazarene’s movement. He sees a ministry springing from itinerants pushed off the farm in a region and an epoch characterized by imperial urbanization and rural exploitation. Peasants who lose access to land learn crafts (carpentry?) and sell their labor.20 A leader makes a virtue out of their homelessness, instilling a sense of self-worth and pride where before there was shame at finding oneself near the bottom of the social heap (and in a material state more destitute than that of many slaves). But poor itinerants need to eat and so forge an alliance with householders who, though still relatively poor, can offer a table as thanks for some healing service, kindness or insight.21 Literate persons, intellectuals without access to wealth and attracted to an agenda of peace, brotherhood and shared food and goods, join on…and write down the central tenets of the fraternity.

Does this sound so different from a European movement in the nineteenth century, one fed by landless laborers inspired by Bakuninist disciples who either stayed and struggled in the countryside or took their attitudes and ideology into the factories of newly industrializing cities such as Barcelona and Turin? A movement led, at times, by skilled, autonomous craftspeople fearful of voracious industrial capitalism, as in the Jura region. A movement not enamored of the five-year plan but searching for some means of returning integrity and dignity to those processes through which humans produce goods and ensure their own re-production. One that said proletarians can at least partially reclaim their humanity by collectively running their own factory or office, or network of factories and offices, rather than being satisfied with either a ‘fair day’s pay’ or the achievement of a technocrat’s production target.

Let’s not fail to give space to the differences between the traditions. On these, Bakunin for one was clear. We can probably say that his hostility to God and to Christianity derived chiefly from what he perceived to be the effects of religious belief – attitudes of servitude and debasement on the part of many persons, presumption of power by others. “All men owe [to prophets, priests, and diviners] faith and absolute obedience; slaves of God, they must also be so of Church and State, insofar as the latter is blessed by the Church.”22 Similarly, the Russian theorist and man of action cited God’s failure to pass the test of reason. “Nothing that hasn’t been analyzed and confirmed by experience or by the most severe critique can be accepted…”23 He was a son of the Enlightenment who denied that faith was a valid category of learning. And of course he denounced religion’s history of shed blood.

But Bakunin was only partially correct when he depicted religion as, objectively speaking, a brick in the wall known as the status quo. Of course the Church hierarchy – Catholic and Reformed – often served this function. And certainly hope for eternal life ‘in the sky’ encouraged the passivity of many. But that’s just part of the tale. Determination to make the world conform to biblical ethics spurred peasant rebellions throughout the Middle Ages. German-speaking peasants who mobilized in the 1525 rebellion, cited above, were not rendered less militant because they believed their communist preacher Münzer when he said God would intervene on their side as soon as cannon balls came whizzing their way. Faithful or not, they understood that material change depended on their actions, as Engels surely knew when he wrote about their struggle in the Peasant War in Germany.

Moving to contemporary North American history, it is evident that the struggle for civic equality by blacks was nourished in churches where a belief in God’s grace was central. Indeed, the theologian James Cone argues that black Christian belief in eternal bliss in divine company, after this life is done, was necessary to sustain African Americans in their earthly struggle against segregation. Atheists, he suggests, could neither have weathered the storm nor remembered that white people were, after all, humans ultimately worthy of love. He makes the case that a black man or woman looking around his or society in, say, 1952, would see no political reason to justify a claim for freedom. But black people knew “…we have a freedom not made by human hands.”24 One could reply that this is like grasping that all humans are entitled to equality because once, in Nature, it was so. No religious belief, strictly speaking, is required. But Cone’s point is that faith in God gave African Americans, in their concrete situation, a reference to justify their quest, a reference beyond what was socially or historically apparent.

Reasons for qualifying and revising traditional communist (authoritarian and libertarian) perspectives on faith are similarly revealed in the anti-Apartheid record of the South African black congregations. They are boosted by the fact that two of the writers cited in this piece, Jacques Ellul and Tom Wright, both advocates of justice against the violent state, believe quite literally in the divine program described by Paul. We see a coupling of theological conservatism and political radicalism throughout Latin America. In short, it not just evident that admirers of Jesus can be radicals; it is also evident that those who believe in the literal truth of Christ’s resurrection and eternal life in the ‘world to come’ are neither automatically passive nor defenders of the status quo, although they may be. Indeed, perhaps they think, as Wright and Ellul seem to, that the only way the kingdom will come is if humans model what Paul said is in store for us in a splendid future. “God does not do [works],” Ellul writes, almost acknowledging that humans will be the builders of the kingdom; “we have this responsibility.”25

Reason and faith

And still, the gap between reason and faith is there. Assuming the value of some of the arguments already made, secular radicals appear to remain at loggerheads with many Christians on the matter of science versus faith (and from this confrontation are not automatically spared those Christians who acknowledge the veracity of evolution). Religion remains objectionable ultimately for its superstitions. The Son of God is an unintelligible title for a human being. Dead bodies remain so. Virgins cannot bear children. Most importantly, perhaps, no cosmic creator, listener and supervisor is waiting to once again violate the laws of Nature with a grand act of supernatural intervention. That’s the philosophical indictment of classical Christian faith in a nutshell.

But again, not so fast. Seen from a historical perspective, Jerusalem’s place in the religiosity versus reason debate is more complicated. Here, once more, we make use of Ellul’s perspective, one that takes seriously ancient Rome’s charges of atheism against the Jews and their upstart, Jesus-movement cousins. As Ellul notes, a key function of Judeo-Christian monotheism, historically speaking, has been to denude the world of the sacred.26 In its birthplace, this tradition eventually routed the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods (who undoubtedly owed much of their origin to older beliefs in natural sprites, the gods of rocks and rivers and crops, etc.). Christianity’s later spread through Europe saw similar results, as did (incompletely, to be sure) its exportation on the back of colonialism and imperialism to the Americas and Africa. In the new faith, as in Judaism, a creator God sat ‘above’ or outside what he had made, but creation itself was material, generally obedient to the rules of inanimate forces. The stream, humans decided, was water; no local spirit inhabited the foam and made it flow. A materialist conception of things was partially attained. (Now it is true that elements of ancient Greek philosophy had already entertained the notion that Nature functions according to objective laws, that the earth itself moves and is hence not the static center, and that the caprices of the gods, who after all might not exist, aren’t causal factors. But these were the insights of some thinkers, not the core of a social program set to spread).

God, as the transcendent maker ‘out there,’ was only safe for the moment. If the earth is material stuff, so might be the heavens. After Copernicus and Galileo demolished the notion that the earth is the focal point of the universe, Spinoza drew his conclusions and depicted a universe entirely governed by networks of cause and effect. Phenomena occur as points in an infinite web of time and space; no universal ear and will unpredictably respond, or decline to respond, to human petitions for favor in a way that might violate this tissue of causation. Virgin births and the resuscitation of corpses are indeed untenable as literal, historically occurring events, since we understand, partially at least, how mammals are born and perish. Science, the method through which we grasp how Nature functions, becomes the pious activity in Spinoza’s view.

Note the word ‘pious.’ For Spinoza, whom Bakunin adored despite his frustration with the rationalist’s tenacious adherence to divine references, God has not been demolished. Rather, He has been placed in the correct light: infinite substance, characterized by thought and extension.27 Perhaps no other philosopher mentions God so many times and so determinedly rejects the tag of atheist. God is Nature. Einstein will later be able to say he believes in God – the God of Spinoza.

So this Jewish visionary and lover of liberty completed the removal of the sacred…but then rendered everything, from trees to cats to children, sacred again by making God immanent. Being is God and the fruit of God (since infinite causation is the deity’s very nature). At the time, most Christians were outraged by this thesis. The traditional God had received a knife thrust. Jews had, for their part, already ex-communicated Spinoza. But a monotheistic spirituality remained explicit in his pantheistic argument. In our own time, over the course of the last century, rationalist/existentialist theologians like John Robinson, Paul Tillich and Jack Spong, unwilling to defend the literal truth of what they regard as the myths of Christianity, presented their God as an immanent one, as the “ground of being” rather than a being at all, and hence not resident in any single place in particular.28 For these Christians, heaven’s time was up – but they remained in good standing in their churches, sometimes, in the case of two of those mentioned, occupying (Anglican) bishoprics. Even if they did not cite Spinoza – and even if they were not in complete agreement with him – their debt to him was evident enough.

But now we jump back to Peter Kropotkin in the nineteenth century. Some readers won’t agree that the former prince’s greatest insights were not those regarding the organization of a libertarian communist society. But Kropotkin was first a geographer and naturalist, observing the life cycles and behavior of fauna during his expeditions in Siberia. In studies that eventually sprang from these adventures he observed how cooperation between organisms, at least those of the same species, is preponderant – and of greater importance to natural survival than is competition.29 He saw how a key insight of Darwin had been exaggerated by commentators with a penchant for rugged individualism and rivalry. Kroptokin, on his journey to theories about mutual aid in human society, identified solidarity – or love in the natural world, if you like – and provided an important corrective to evolutionary theory.

Of course, a hard version of survival of the fittest, with all its social Darwinian accessories, prevailed in the intellectual circles of bourgeois society for the next century. But recent years have seen the proliferation, in media first scientific and then general, of stories describing the likely presence of an ‘altruism’ gene, or genes, in organisms’ biological code.30 For backers of mutual aid, this is something of an intellectual vindication, if hardly a surprise. In Nature, in short, all is not cutthroat, as sensible people always knew. Christians, for their part, might have presented this development in their own language, e.g. “Science discovers the Holy Spirit at work in our forests and meadows – as well as in ourselves,” though naturally Kropotkin would have disapproved of such mystical talk.

A revolution in the human heart

In this article we have not tried to artificially narrow the gap between the libertarian left in particular and classical Christian thought and practice, but to honestly show that gap for what it is: something smaller than a chasm. Some readers might say that what is missing, what might enlarge that gap, is a serious exploration of the two movements’ respective attitudes toward violence or force. That objection doubtless contains some truth, despite the ample number of radical believers (think of leftist Christians who fought Nazi Germany, Salvadorans in the 80s and 90s and southern campesinos in Mexico more recently) who defend the right of the oppressed to bear arms in self-defense. For it does seem evident that Jesus and the early Christian community were determined to resist evil differently, the best efforts of just-war theorists notwithstanding. But here too, differences of opinion may not be tremendous. Tolstoy was both an anarchist and a Christian, of course, and renounced violence. Atheists like Kropotkin did uphold the justice of killing tyrants, for example, but only by those who did not seek power themselves, i.e. anti-authoritarians.31 Meanwhile, most revolutionary Syndicalists have long renounced terror, categorizing the tactics practiced by some anarchists in certain historical periods as unproductive explosions of frustration. Dismissive of the sort of insurrectionary war that so enchanted Guevara, they call for the general strike. When workers decline to run capitalism further, the door to the new world becomes ajar. Or, as the Q and A offered by the Industrial Workers of the World puts it, “Violence is not necessary when, united as a class, all that workers need to do is fold their arms to gain the world.” Enemies who might have to be constrained can still be loved – an important point for those who remember, with Marx and others, that the responsibility of the proletariat is not merely to liberate itself, but all men and women.

The specifically Christian insight that many secular leftists could profit from is, we will suggest, a substantial one – and hopefully already apparent. It is that social transformation depends on a revolution in the human heart. Better put, that there is a dialectical bond between structural change and empathy. Correct opinion, whatever that is, and revolutionary action are insufficient to make a new world, although they are certainly necessary ingredients in the dish.

In that long meantime before the new world, in the here and now, there are acts, works and struggles to accomplish. And we, radicals and people of faith, may be bolstered by a confidence that existence is ultimately good. That life for human beings can be good. That compassion stands higher than anger. That there is a social virtue called justice, never the same as the law, so warmly discussed by one Spanish anarchist who, among his other sins, once accepted a ministerial chair. “Burning hot, justice must be alive,” he said, “justice cannot be restricted within the bounds of a profession…Justice, I firmly believe, is so subtle a thing that to interpret [it] one has only need of a heart.”32 Or as Paul said, if the Spirit guides you, you are free. Particularly, an ironic Bakunin might have added, if others in society are guided by the Spirit as well.

1. Galatians:5. Consider verses 13-18
2. Jacques Ellul, Changer de Révolution (Seuil: Paris, 1982) pp. 30-33. Here the author reviews how, for Marx, the rationale and practice of technique is most fully realized under communism, a system theoretically free from the profit-related constraints that can slow the application of technology under capitalism.
3. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, pp. 346-350
4. Ibid., p. 407. In this connection, also see pp. 294-295 for Crossan’s interesting discussion of the healing/curing distinction. While he clearly recognizes that treatments offered by Jesus and his disciples could not have been cures for pathogens, he makes the case that a movement that brought outsiders back ‘in,’ that relieved social stresses and gave a sense of belonging to those at the bottom of society, could have brought relief – of varying degrees and depending on the condition – to individuals’ symptoms and suffering. He quotes Rodney Stark, in the context of a discussion of ancient epidemics, to the effect that “modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two thirds or even more.” p. 296
5. Michael Bakunin, Federalismo, Socialismo y Antiteologismo, Obras de M. Bakunin Vol. 3 (Ediciones Júcar: Madrid, 1977), p.87. My translation from the Spanish.
6. Ibid., pp. 90-91
7. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Seabury Press: New York, 1975), p.140
8. Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1986), p. 5
9. Ibid., pp. 56-57
10. My understanding of Spinoza’s thought is derived from R.H.M. Elwes’s translation of The Ethics contained in The Rationalists (Anchor: Garden City, New York, 1974), pp. 179-406
11. Certainly, many orthodox theologians, like Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, object that serious Christian thought – informed by Plato and so convinced that full reality is ideal rather than material — always placed God beyond space and time, not somewhere above the earth, even as it affirmed His constant interaction with the universe. See Williams’ dispute with Spong,, first published in 1998.
12. An observation along these lines from early in Kropotkin’s career is recorded in George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, Peter Kropotkin From Prince to Rebel (Black Rose: Montréal, 1990), p. 73. See Kropotkin’s Anarchist Morality and Mutual Aid for a full exposition of the thesis.
13. See, for example, “Researchers trace origin of an ‘altruism gene,’” at summarizing a study conducted by Aurora Nedelcu and Richard Michod and revealed in Molecular Biology and Evolution, spring 2006.
14. Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Morality. See a copy on the web at The author discusses assassination in section vi. Incidentally, this pamphlet is very much about a moral code that hardly differs, in substance, from the one advocated by the apostle Paul when he writes of the believer ‘governed’ by love. Or so it seems to me.
15. José García Oliver is the CNT Minister of Justice in the Spanish Republic in question, from Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (Eyre and Spottiswoode: London, 1961) p. 368