Friday, December 3, 2010

A Radical Faith

If you’re looking for a new way of going at the Christian faith, Jacques Ellul is your man.  He insists it is not new – that he has not “discovered” some truth that all previous generations have overlooked.  He would point to many groups down through the centuries who dared to oppose the prevailing notion of the faith – as defined typically by the Church, that is, Rome. They longed for an authentic experience of God demonstrated in real life in acts of love, sacrifice, and justice.  They sought to model a new kind of community, one marked not by hierarchy, legalism and power but by equality, love, and care for the poor.

Christendom has been seduced time and time again by power – power corrupts, says Ellul, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Instead of faith empowering people to live in trust and harmony and mutual care and respect, it has been more often a means for power, for control over others.

“God is love,” says 1 John, and Ellul takes this as his fundamental belief.   Love requires freedom; God has given us that freedom so that we can love genuinely.  And so any act of control, when one person or an institution such as a government or church deprives another of his or her freedom, is sinful – morally corrupt.

Thus, anarchy: radical freedom of the individual with regard to any institution.  And in a statement that Sam Harris would like, Ellul says that “religion is an incontestable source of war.” (250 But by “religion” Ellul means a corrupted faith, one that seeks to destroy freedom, to make its adherents behave a certain way, especially in obedience to the officers of religion.

Ellul is careful to say that he is not a secular anarchist – the sort who seek to overthrow an institution only to replace it with another that will control people in new ways.  His Christian faith – which includes belief in “sin, not the breaking of moral law but rather covetousness and power (20) – won’t allow him the optimistic view that humankind is capable of a purely anarchist society.  “I do not believe in a pure anarchist society, but I do believe in the possibility of creating a new social model/” (21)

A brief essay in the Appendix by a priest, Adrien Duchosal, states the position most plainly: 

“I reject all human hierarchy.”  We congregationalist ought to warm to that!   But further, and more radically for a person of traditional faith:

“I reject hierarchy between us and God.”   And even further . . . 

“Finally to accept or reject the existence of God is unimportant.  What counts is having the taste and joy that live gives.”  (98)  That should take your breath away.

Ellul in the last half of the book is at pains to show that Christian anarchy is biblically based.  He begins with the Hebrew Scriptures, especially noting that the beginning of the monarchy was not God’s idea, but the Israelites’ – so that they could be like the other nations.  No good will come of it, says the Lord.  And none did, says Ellul.  So far from being instituted by God – Divine Right, we later called it – the monarchy was a human device only reluctantly allowed by God.  (God gave us freedom to do dumb things, remember.)  

In the gospels Ellul is most interested in how Jesus responded to the powers of his day, embodied in the religions rulers and by Pilate at his trial.  That Jesus had nothing good to say about the former is certain.  When confronted with Rome itself, Jesus said nothing – a contemptuous silence Ellul would say. 

The book of Revelation, that strange piece of apocalyptic writing, portrays government – Rome, “Babylon” – as being against all that is good.  Ellul (and an article in the Appendix) also addresses Romans 13 – “a very embarrassing passage” he says, page 86.  Embarrassing because at first blush (and this is the way the Powers That Be have always read it for obvious reasons) Paul seems to be telling Christians to obey every authority as if they are God Himself.  

Of course Romans 13 is “embarrassing” only to those who take the Bible (“cover to cover”) as the authoritative Word of God.  Ellul despite he radical understanding of how Christian faith should be lived is nevertheless quite orthodox in his faith in many ways.  He thus feels it important to show that his Christian anarchy is biblically based and supported by an authoritative scripture.