Updated: May 15, 2019
What is the relationship between spirituality and anarchy?
It should be acknowledged first that anarchist sentiments typically oppose organized or institutional religion, and its construct of “God.” Notable anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote, “The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” Marx wrote, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Emma Goldman spoke out against what she believed to be the falsehoods of Christianity: “Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us today. The rulers of the earth have realized long ago what potent poison inheres in the Christian religion. That is the reason they foster it; that is why they leave nothing undone to instill it into the blood of the people. They know only too well that the subtleness of the Christian teachings is a more powerful protection against rebellion and discontent than the club or the gun.”
There are some who would say that to be anarchist is to be atheist. Gustave Brocher wrote, “An anarchist, who wants no all-powerful master on earth, no authoritarian government, must necessarily reject the idea of an omnipotent power to whom everything must be subjected; if he is consistent, he must declare himself an atheist.” There is logic in associating anarchy and atheism. Too often the Church has supported the State, and many times these two hierarchies of power have acted corruptly together out of self-interest. It is a tragic tale of history that organized religion has often been an oppressive institution the likes of which anarchists seek to abolish along with the State. Aristotle wrote, “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” William Hazlitt said, “The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.”
Perhaps the greatest injustice of religion has been covering up and concealing the anarchist spirit of their own spiritual leaders. Case in point – Christianity and Jesus. Jesus was an iconoclast who rejected, opposed, subverted and undermined the religious and government hierarchies and powers of his day. He called the “God” of religion a “liar” and “murder.” Jesus challenged people to turn away from the false beliefs, mindsets, narratives and ideologies that were programmed into their heads through religion and government, and to find their truth within themselves through a higher awareness that is naturally present in every person. He told people they were not in need of a cleric or teacher to show them the way, and that the power and authority to direct their lives was within themselves. Contrary to Christian teaching, Jesus never taught that human beings are intrinsically bad and sinful, or that our humanity is an obstacle to overcome, a limitation to transcend, or an offense in need of forgiveness.
Having a Master of Divinity degree myself and many years a religious leader before leaving organized religion behind, I vigorously deconstructed my Christian beliefs and practices and found them grossly inconsistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. I wrote extensively about this in my third book: Being Jesus in Nashville: Finding the Courage to Live Your Life (Whoever and Wherever You Are). The book was not without controversy. My Christian publisher accused me of heresy, refused to publish the book, and promptly canceled my publishing contract. In the years that followed, I discovered a very different Jesus than the one associated with Christianity. I share this view of Jesus in my latest book: Inner Anarchy: Dethroning God and Jesus to Save Ourselves and the World.
Throughout history there have been groups who were inspired by the life of Jesus to live as anarchists. For example, the Doukhobors, dating back to the 17th and 18th century Russian Empire, believed in God’s presence in every human being. They considered clergy and rituals unnecessary. Their rejection of secular government, the Russian Orthodox priests, icons, all church ritual, the Bible as the supreme source of divine revelation, and the divinity of Jesus elicited negative response from the government and the established church. There has been an enduring thread of Christian anarchism through the ages – movements of people who see anarchism as inherent in Jesus’ life and teachings.
Adin Ballou (1803–1890) was founder of the Hopedale Community in Massachusetts, and a prominent 19th century exponent of pacifism, socialism and abolitionism. Through his long career as a Universalist (and then Unitarian) minister, he tirelessly sought social reform through his radical Christian and socialist views. Tolstoy was heavily influenced by his writings. Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) wrote extensively on his anarchist principles, which he arrived at through his Christian faith. He has several books related to this, most notably, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which is regarded as a key Christian anarchist text. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an American author, pacifist, nature lover, tax resister and individualist anarchist. He was an advocate of civil disobedience and a lifelong abolitionist. Though not commonly regarded as a Christian anarchist, his essay Civil Disobedience does include many of the Christian anarchist ideals. William B. Greene (1819–1878), an individualist anarchist based in the United States, was a Unitarian minister, and the originator of a Christian Mutualism and mutual banking. There is a litany of people through history who have found their anarchist inspiration in Jesus – Nikolai Berdyaev, Peter Maurin, Ivan Illich, Vernard Eller and Dorothy Day to name a few.
Perhaps at this point it would be useful to mention that not only is it not a prerequisite to be atheist to be anarchist, neither is it necessary as an anarchist to hold belief in Jesus. But even if one did, it would not require them to subscribe to the Christian religion.
Be that as it may, I do believe there is a connection worth exploring between one’s inner life and the sentiments and efforts of anarchism.
The work of inner anarchy involves turning away from the false beliefs, mindsets, narratives and ideologies that have been programmed into our heads, and turning toward that higher spiritual awareness within us that operates in the realm of love, harmony, peace, oneness, and well-being. It’s about being an expression of that higher awareness in our world by divesting ourselves from the current systems that operate upon those false mindsets, narratives and ideologies, and birthing a new reality in its place by all of us taking direct action together. There are many different paths and ways that connect us with that higher awareness within us. Too often we have become too attached to our particular way rather than simply living from that highest common denominator that is within us all. This could be a starting place in terms of connecting spirituality to anarchism. We meet each other in that place of higher awareness where we know that love, liberation, harmony, peace, oneness and well-being is what we are here for. Together, we imagine and work together toward that world for everyone.
Speaking of inner anarchy, I have observed a couple things since the release of the book. There are some people who are especially drawn to the “inner” part of the equation. This focus is on one doing their inner spiritual work. This involves turning away from the false beliefs, mindsets, narratives and ideologies that have been programmed into our heads and ruling us from within. We pick up these false beliefs and mindsets through our families, education, religion, mass-media, popular culture, government, corporatism and other societal systems, structures and institutions. They control how we see ourselves, others, God, the world and life itself. The other part of the inner work is turning toward the power and authority within ourselves and trusting what is real in our deep feelings and what we know to be true in our gut. The highest common denominator inside all of us is the awareness that love, freedom, harmony, wholeness and well-being is what’s true. In a nutshell, the inner work is switching sources – turning away from what has been programmed into our heads, and turning to what we know and feel is real and true in out gut.
I chose the words “inner” and “anarchy” to describe this. The root principle of anarchy is the absence of a ruling class. Combined with the word “inner,” the idea is for each of us to dethrone those false beliefs, mindsets, narratives and ideologies that have been ruling us from within and to instead turn to the power and authority of our inner awareness. I also chose the two terms because one implies a more inward reality, and the other rouses the sentiment of engaging the world in revolutionary ways. We need a personal revolution inside each of us first, and then this sets the stage for the passing of the old order and the birth of a new world.
Then there are people who are more drawn to the “anarchy” part, which is the tangible expression, demonstration and manifestation of a new world and society. This focus is upon the oppressive systems and structures in our world that are standing in the way of humankind’s liberation. Although the word “anarchy” can be a polarizing word (mainly because of people’s misconceptions), the underlying principles and sentiments are a solid practical framework for considering what it would mean to lift up a new reality out of ourselves and into the world. More specifically, some of those principles and mindsets include: (1) The absence of hierarchical power structures and systems; (2) voluntary association; (3) mutual aid; (4) self-organization. Virtually all anarchists view government and capitalism as the antithesis of these values.
So, these are the two sides of “inner anarchy.” A simplification of this might say that the “inner” folks are contemplatives. and the “anarchy” people are activists. What’s critical in my view is that the two be wed together. The “inner” (contemplative) without the “anarchy” (activist) won’t work, and the “anarchy” (activist) without the “inner” (contemplative) won’t work. Not only is it a challenge to unify these two sides on an individual level, it can be a challenge at times for these two groups of people to work together. The “inner” folks and the “anarchy” folks tend to have a different kind of mindset and energy, which sometimes leads to a misunderstanding and conflict between them. In a perfect world, the inner folks would shut up and listen/learn from the anarchy folks, and the anarchy folks would shut up and listen/learn from the anarchy we folks. In my view, we need each other.