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Opinion

In Theory: Do the origins of major religions have roots in peace-seeking anarchism?

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The Buddha told followers to question authority, according to an article that suggests there were anarchistic influences on the world’s major religions.
(Gail Fisher / Los Angeles Times)

An article published on Big Think last month makes the argument that four major religions were founded on principles of anarchism.

Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount may have inspired Leo Tolstoy’s call to end all governments, the article posits, while Kibbutzim, a communal-living movement in Israel, is said to have had strong anti-authoritarian roots. A 15th-century Muslim revolutionary’s words led to a revolt against the Ottoman state in the 1400s, the article explains, and the Buddha is said to have advised followers “to be critical and question things and people like religious dogma, news sources, experts, authorities and even oneself.” 

An entry on Britannica.com says anarchy isn’t just a rejection of government but an effort to return human beings to an innate cooperative social order. Anarchists, the entry explains, “would argue that their denial of constitutions and governments leads not to ‘no justice’ but to the real justice inherent in the free development of human sociality — the natural inclination, when unfettered by laws, to live according to the principles and practice of mutual aid.”

Q. Do the world’s major religions reflect anarchistic aims to replace centralized governments with structures that would offer communal benefits and peace on Earth?

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I can only respond with authority regarding Christianity’s teaching on this subject, and it is most assuredly not anarchistic.

The Book of Romans chapter 13 affirms the Christian’s responsibility to obey our governmental officials: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; or it is a minister of God to you for good” (:1-4). Notably, this applies to Christians who live under every form of human government, including dictatorships. It applies to Christians in America who are told by others that they must “resist” our President.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught: “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). This was a direct reference to a Roman soldier’s authority to conscript a Jewish passerby to carry equipment for one mile. Simon of Cyrene was pressed by the Romans into this service when Jesus could no longer carry his cross due to extreme exhaustion. I suppose Simon could have objected or practiced passive resistance against the Roman authorities, but instead he complied. And to this day he is honored by people around the world every Good Friday. Yes, there may be times when a Christian’s commitment to Jesus Christ would force him to disobey a human government. Examples of this might include smuggling Bibles into a hostile country or sharing the good news about Jesus Christ when it is forbidden. But apart from this exception Jesus Christ teaches his followers to obey human government while it exists and to hold onto the hope of his return to reign eternally in love and righteousness.

Pastor Jon Barta

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Burbank

As religions are of this world, they are worldly means of making sense of the ineffability of our existence and purpose. And, while we make a great show of separating the worldly from the godly, we continue to seek out comfortable hierarchies while pretending we’re not. Jesus told followers to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and 1 Corinthians establishes a clear hierarchy with God being the head of Man as the husband is the head of his family. While the testaments definitely tell us that Man is fallible, they are all about submission to authority, both earthly and celestial.

And that’s fine. The greatest musicians, from Bach to Miles Davis, employed a mathematical approach to their improvisations, knowing that music thrives within defined structures and patterns. And we can ask any of our local friends who’ve been kibbutzim, cultists or intentional livers to comment on how these community systems break down without fairly rigid hierarchies and leadership.

The world’s toasty places, from California’s High Desert to the Negev, are littered with the ruins of utopian communities that didn’t quite deliver on long-term communal benefits and peace on Earth, so, while we pretend at a Lockeian paradise of government by our own innate reason and tolerance, we actually tend toward the stern teachings of Locke’s wiser elder, Hobbes, who knew that all systems are entropic unless carefully guarded. Religion and government are just swapping one hierarchy for another, which is why we faithful gleefully mix and match each weekend.

Marty Barrett

President, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)

Religion and government are just swapping one hierarchy for another, which is why we faithful gleefully mix and match each weekend.
Marty Barrett, President, UUVerdugo

Christianity (the world’s largest religion) does not; at least not this side of Heaven, and our Western Culture is based on Christianity (which is why it flourishes on Capitalism and is not without governance). The Bible speaks to the maintenance of “attainable” earthly peace, but anarchism is not promoted; rather, God teaches us to pray for our governors and to be good citizens. And distinguishing between centralized or federal governments does not diminish the fact that either has some sort of hub out of which all law disseminates.

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What does the Bible say (i.e., God say)? First, that “government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason” (Rom 13:4). God establishes law for our proper ordering and good thrivance. Sans government, lawless people will kill, steal, rape and pillage, without regarding those of loftier ideals. We need the Marshall to come to town, and we need the hanging judge.

Secondly, the Scriptures go on to teach that “Anyone who does not want to work for a living should go hungry” (2Th 3:10). There are people who would rather defecate on the sidewalk, get the free lunch, and camp in a tent under a bridge smoking crack rather than work a job and abide the law. Likewise, the whole world is very self-serving, and despite the do-gooder perception that mankind might best flourish without governmental interference and live in harmony as wonderfully peaceful contributors, it just isn’t reality. No, we need law if we want peace, and we need to work or we default to our lazy, selfish, gimme state. If you have a commune and “Fedora” doesn’t want to pick weeds, who’s going to make him/her? You have no central authority, right? So you’ll still owe the bum an equal “peace” of the ungoverned pie.

Jesus did not advocate anarchy. Others may clamor for anarchy while believing that all the cons in State Prison really just need a nice opportunity for sharing and cuddling, but true world peace comes only from the “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6) Jesus Christ, who died for our sins to make us right with God and our fellow man. Genuine peace comes only through allegiance to him and by his divine transformation of our fallen human nature.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem, MA, MDiv

Tujunga

To me the rejection of secular authority and a total embrace of communal sharing and mutual aid, all to be carried out without violence as anarchy envisions, would seem to go hand in glove with religion. Instead the relationship of anarchism to the world’s major religions has often been an inverse one. It is true that quite a few anarchists have emerged from religious traditions, beliefs which many of them rejected or which rejected them.

Anarchists in early Christianity were dissenters, for instance within the medieval Catharists and the Anabaptists of the Renaissance. A disproportionate number of modern (19th- and 20th-century) European anarchists, such as Emma Goldman, Martin Buber and Noam Chomsky, were born Jewish and rejected religion entirely for atheism and radical politics.

English Protestantism produced notable anarchists including Gerrard Winstanley, a Church of England dissenter with ties to Quakerism, a not uncommon combination in his 17th century. He founded the True Levellers, or the Diggers, as their contemporaries nicknamed them. Wanting extreme land reform, they took direct action by removing hedges and other barriers around farmland, filling in the ditches for maximum community cultivation, hence their name. William Godwin, whose 1793 book, “Political Justice,” is a foundational text of anarchism, was a former minister.

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Religions have not been at all tolerant to the relatively few anarchists within their midst. Take the example given in today’s “In Theory” question — Leo Tolstoy, 19th-century author of great novels (including “War and Peace,” a prescient explanation of the futility of nearly every U.S. war since 1945), believed that the logical extension of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek is complete pacifism. Because every government in history had waged war, to Tolstoy the entire concept of government was therefore inconsistent with Christianity. He further declared that any other conclusion is misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus, a view that got him excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.

My take is that anarchism’s rejection of all privately owned property — they, not the communists, were first to declare that property is theft — hasn’t appealed to institutionalized, land- and building-owning religions any better than it has gone over with governments and, unsurprisingly, property owners.

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose


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