"The framers of the constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days; they too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty." ~ Justice William O. Douglas
Can a person be a Christian and also an anarchist? A friend of mine who has been reading my STR columns posed this to me recently. While answering his query, I realized that many of my readers might be wondering the same thing, so it seemed as good a time as any to lay out the biblical case for anarchy.
Before we get into the Good Book, however, let us define exactly what anarchy is and what it isn't.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines anarchy as the 'absence of any form of political authority,' which follows from the Greek roots of the word, which literally means 'without a ruler.' Notice that it does not define anarchy as the absence of any authority, only of political authority. Thus, in a state of true anarchy, numerous apolitical authorities may exist; and, in fact, in the absence of a political authority, these apolitical authorities will naturally assume responsibility for maintaining order and administering justice in a society.
God established the first of these apolitical authorities, the family, in Genesis 2, when he created Adam and Eve and, by presenting Eve to Adam, pronounced them husband and wife. He told them to 'fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground' (Gen. 1:26). The Bible repeatedly commands children to obey their parents (e.g., Ex. 20:12 , Eph. 6:1-3), and parents are commanded not to 'exasperate' their children (Eph. 6:4). Yes, there are also commands for wives to submit to their husbands (Col. 3:18), although God seems not to have intended for there to be inequality in the roles of husband and wife since he did not tell Eve that Adam would 'rule over' her until after the Fall (Gen. 3:16). The family, the very first institution established by God, therefore predates and supersedes any other authority.
Throughout the Bible, but particularly in the Old Testament, family heads are shown exercising authority similar to that of a government. Abraham, as the leader of a large clan, is a superb example. Abraham settled civil disputes (Gen. 13:5-12); called up an army to rescue Lot and mete out justice to his captors (Gen. 14:1-16); and even held conferences with kings, thus acting as head of state, so to speak, for his family (Gen. 14:17-24). God neither condemned Abraham's exercising such authority nor instructed him to establish an independent government, so it appears that he was satisfied with such arrangements.
Later, when God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt , he established Moses as their leader. Moses, acting on the advice of his father-in-law, then established a decentralized structure in which he acted as the final authority in difficult cases but otherwise left the day-to-day administration of justice to his subordinates (Ex. 18:13-27). This was a form of government, but it was not an independent institution which claims a monopoly on violence and subsists by forcibly taking property from the people it is supposedly serving. As a matter of fact, while God did indeed command the people to give certain tithes and offerings, he never established any mechanism for punishing them (outside of direct divine intervention) should they fail to pay up. Good luck finding any government in history that has ever made payment of taxes optional!
Israel continued to live under a more or less anarchic system after taking possession of Canaan . God seems to have been satisfied with this situation, for he made no attempt to modify it, merely appointing judges from time to time to rescue the people from foreign invaders. The Israelites, on the other hand, were not satisfied with God's system of government and demanded a king so that they would 'be like all the other nations' (I Sam. 8:19-20), which was, of course, precisely what God did not want them to be.
As I explained in my very first STR column, God told Samuel that by asking for a king, the people had rejected not Samuel but God and were 'serving other gods' (I Sam. 8:7, 8). God then instructed Samuel to tell the people just how horrific human government would be and that ultimately they would end up as slaves to their human king, at which point God would refuse to liberate them (I Sam. 8:11-18). Samuel even called down thunder and rain upon Israel 's wheat harvest to demonstrate his and God's displeasure at their request for a human government (I Sam. 12:17 ). God clearly did not want his own people to be ruled by a coercive institution but by the non-coercive, natural, organic structures that he had already established.
The establishment of an earthly kingdom in Israel , however, did not come without its stipulations. Samuel made it plain that '[i]f you fear the Lord and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God'good! But if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers' (I Sam. 12:14 , 15). Similarly, Paul in Romans 13:4 asserts that the human ruler 'is God's servant to do you good,' which therefore implies that the ruler is to abide by God's law and to enforce it upon the ruled.
The problem, of course, is that the state never, ever even comes close to remaining within the bounds of God's law. As noted earlier, every government in history has levied taxes upon its subjects; but what is taxation except legalized theft, a direct violation of the commandment not to steal (Ex. 20:15 ), which makes no exceptions for government?
Now one might counter that Jesus, when asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, replied by first noting that Caesar's picture was on the money and then saying, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's' (Matt. 22:16-21). Notice, however, that Jesus never actually said what is Caesar's and what is God's. He cleverly avoided getting into a political argument because he wasn't here to establish a political kingdom and the time wasn't right for him to be crucified. The Pharisees recognized this because, as Matthew records it, 'they were amazed' at Jesus' deft sidestepping of their attempted trap (Matt. 22:22 ).
Jesus was not always so coy when answering questions with potentially explosive repercussions. When Pilate asked him if he was king of the Jews, he very forthrightly replied, 'Yes, it is as you say' (Matt. 27:11). It seems reasonable to assume, then, that if Jesus had wanted to say, 'Pay your taxes,' he would have said so quite directly.
(If the reader is still convinced that Jesus was implying that the coin with Caesar's picture thus belonged to Caesar and that, in turn, the people were obligated to pay 'what is Caesar's' in taxes, then he has just made an excellent argument for getting government out of the business of coining money altogether. As long as government makes the money, it can logically claim that all the money belongs to the government and what we have is simply what our benevolent leaders allow us to have.)
What, however, are we to make of Paul's exhortations in Romans 13 to be subject to the authorities and of other New Testament verses that also counsel respect and submission? Do these imply that government must exist and that it is necessarily a good thing?
Let's look at what Paul actually says in Romans 13:1, which sets up his remarks on authorities, and the Christian's response to them, for the rest of the chapter: 'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.' This seems at first glance to be a clear indication that God establishes all governments and that Christians are bound to obey them'but is it?
This cursory reading of the verse introduces some problems, to wit: Was the Third Reich established by God? Was the Soviet Union established by God? Was the rule of (insert your favorite dictator's name here) established by God? If so, then what right did anyone have to disobey them, let alone attempt to overthrow them? What right did the American colonists have to overthrow British rule? How dare anyone rise up against what God has established!
No, I think Paul was trying instead to convey this: 'Everyone must submit himself to those governing authorities that have been established by God. There are many who set themselves up as authorities, but there is no authority except that which God has established.' If Paul didn't mean this, then he was guilty of violating his own writings countless times, for he routinely defied the authorities, as did all the other apostles and Jesus, as well as numerous Old Testament figures.
Furthermore, an exhortation to obey authorities does not imply that those authorities are required to exist in the first place. 'Children, obey your parents' (Eph. 6:1) is a useful command, but what of orphans? They have no parents. Therefore, they are not violating the command if they do not obey an authority that does not exist. If there is no state, there is no need to obey it.
Also, Paul was writing to people who were considered a threat to the Roman Empire . He wanted to make plain to the believers, and to any Roman authorities who happened to read his letter, that Christians were not a sect out to overthrow Caesar and force their religion on everyone else. Paul understood, too, that Christ's kingdom is spiritual, not temporal, and that the job of Christians was to win hearts, not political battles. Therefore, he exhorted Christians to obey and by so doing set an example of humility and peaceful living for others. The church was not going to grow if its members spent all their energy on political machinations. He clearly did not imply that Christians ought to obey in any and every circumstance (or, again, he was a huge hypocrite), nor did he imply that government necessarily has to exist.
Where, the still-skeptical reader might ask, are the verses that explicitly state that government should not exist? The answer is that, aside from the clear indications that God did not want his people to have a human ruler, there are no such verses. This does not, I believe, preclude the possibility that God's desire is that the state should not exist.
Consider the issue of slavery. The Bible neither approves nor condemns it in specific terms. It merely accepts the existence of slavery as a fact of life and then tells both slaves (Eph. 6:5-8) and masters (Eph. 6:9) how God wants them to behave toward one another. At the same time, it makes exceptions for special cases. For example, God plagued the Egyptians ten times in order to cause them to free the Israelites from slavery (Ex. 7-12); and Paul tells slaves that they should obtain their freedom if they can (I Cor. 7:21 ).
The Bible treats the issue of government in much the same manner'not coincidentally, I believe, since government is slavery, at least insofar as it must force its subjects to work a portion of their time for its upkeep. The Bible neither approves nor condemns the institution of government in specific terms. It merely accepts the existence of government as a fact of life and then, as we have already seen, tells both subjects and rulers how God wants them to behave toward one another. As with slavery, it makes exceptions, allowing for disobedience to, and the deposing of, unjust rulers.
One could muster biblical arguments on both sides of the issues of slavery and government. However, just as we can logically extend passages dealing with the worth of the individual and the immorality of theft to condemn slavery, so we can, without distorting the clear intent of the writers of the Bible, also extend those and other passages to condemn the state.
It is very comforting, for those who fear anarchy, to believe that government is instituted by God and exists to uphold his law'and not to go beyond it. The problem, though, is in finding any government that has ever come close to meeting this ideal for any length of time. As noted earlier, every government in history has taxed its subjects, a direct violation of the commandment against theft. Even the kings of Israel directly appointed by God strayed far from his laws, to the point that David, the king closest to God, committed adultery and then murdered the cuckolded husband to cover up his crime (II Sam. 11).
In modern times, it's probably not far off the mark to say that the United States government, at the time of its founding, was arguably the closest approximation of the ideal. Unfortunately, the Constitution of 1789 was mortally wounded by 1865 and died more or less completely by the end of World War II. If limited, constitutional government cannot last even a century, and most definitely not two centuries, when planted in the most fertile soil imaginable'among a largely Christian people with deep distrust of centralized power'then how can it last anywhere? It has been tried, to one degree or another, in numerous countries since 1789, and it has failed there, too.
Limited government sounds like a nice idea in theory, but in practice it is an oxymoron. Government refuses to be limited. No government in history has allowed its own power to diminish peacefully. Thomas Jefferson expressed this well when he said, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.' In other words, government cannot be limited by peaceful means. Is it worth having the state around if patriots are going to have to keep dying periodically in order to keep it in its place?
How would society be organized in the absence of a state? One thing is for certain: The state does not need to be replaced with another coercive institution. As Joseph Sobran wrote: ''But what would you replace the state with?' The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives with a century [as governments did in the last century] hardly needs to be 'replaced.'' Indeed, as I argued in my column 'Finally, a Drug That Should Be Banned,' government does vastly more harm than good, so why keep it around? Surely there are better ways of keeping order in the world than, in essence, by spraying it with machine-gun fire, hoping that some of the bad guys will get taken out while you're at it.
First of all, let's return to the point about clan systems, such as in Somalia , which currently is a stateless society, or in the time of the Patriarchs. There is a huge difference between a system of family governance and a system of state governance. For one thing, family governance is natural and God-ordained'no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The state, on the other hand, is an artificial system imposed from without. The interests of family leaders are very much intertwined with the interests of the rest of the family. They seek to protect their own without unnecessarily antagonizing other families, knowing that failure to do so could easily mean their own doom as well. They govern, in general, with a light hand, dealing with only that which is necessary, not trying to micromanage the lives of their relatives. They do not extract taxes from their relatives because, as productive members of the community, they do not have to resort to theft in order to support themselves.
Meanwhile, the state has interests which are often in direct conflict with the interests of its subjects. The state seeks to protect itself; it protects its subjects only insofar as is politically necessary for its own survival. (Remember that our own courts have ruled that the police have no duty to protect us whatsoever.) State rulers know that their futures are secure, even in a democracy, regardless of whether all, or even most, criminals are caught and punished, as long as the rulers can keep the people believing that they are trying to protect them and that they would be worse off without the state. In fact, failure on the part of the state often redounds to its benefit, as witness the immense amount of power the federal government has been able to arrogate to itself in the wake of its miserable failure to protect Americans on 9/11. The state governs with as heavy a hand as it can get away with, stopping just short of provoking an armed uprising among its subjects. The state taxes its subjects into penury because the state, as a separate entity, does not produce anything and can only support itself by theft. As I have also pointed out in a previous column, the state is nothing but a legalized Mafia protection racket, only it doesn't even guarantee to protect the people from whom it is extracting protection money.
Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty, demonstrates the superiority of the ancient Celtic stateless system, which governed Ireland for nearly a millennium. Rather than quote it at length here, I'll just direct you to this link, where you can read it in full. Suffice it to say that the system relied on an entirely voluntary system of free property owners and craftsmen, with judges who were completely private and a system of justice that relied solely on private enforcement of the judges' rulings. This is just one, and probably the best, example of a society in a state of anarchy that not only functioned smoothly but was highly civilized as well. Since such societies have existed in the past, it seems reasonable to conclude that they could exist in the present and future as well.
The Celtic system is, in fact, a fairly good model for what a stateless society in the present might look like. With the extended family in the West being much less common, we would not likely develop a clan-based system of governance. Instead, a modern stateless society would be based on the free market, which exists on the basis of cooperation rather than coercion, the mark of the state. The market, which already supplies so many goods and services at reasonable costs to consumers, could supply police protection and a justice system as well. As Rothbard and others have argued, insurance companies would probably take on the largest part of the burden of providing security, which makes sense and is closer to the family model than the state model since both the insurer and the insured have a common interest in the protection of the life and property of the insured, whereas the state has an interest in co-opting as much of the individual citizen's life, liberty, and property for its own use as possible. The beauty of the market and of cooperative systems, too, is that neither Rothbard nor I nor any other individual or group has to come up with all the answers, unlike the state-run 'public sector' of today, which is a command-and-control structure necessarily doomed to failure.
Thus we see that (a) the Bible does not require coercive government to exist and, in fact, provides good reasons not to accept the existence of the state; and (b) stateless societies have existed in the past and could exist in the present, with the market providing the services now provided by the state. Therefore, the answer to the question 'Can a person be a Christian and also an anarchist?' is a resounding YES.
Perhaps a better question would be 'Can a person be a Christian and not also an anarchist?' As the psalmist wrote, 'It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes' (Ps. 118:9) and 'Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save' (Ps. 146:3).