Andrew Fulford Archive Civic Polity

Ellul’s Anarchism

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you hear that, did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn’t you?

It’s hard to deny anarchism has a bad name. The mere mention of the term summons images of whiskered bomb-throwers and Black Bloc window smashing sprees. But in fairness, like Christians, anarchists are variegated in theory and praxis. And regardless of their ideological distance, as fellow human beings they are prima facie worthy of our respect and dialogue. Beyond being neighbors, too, many of them clearly have very good political intentions, and claim truth and reason for their cause. For all of these reasons they deserve a considered reply. While this post will certainly not fulfill the entire conversational duty, it will attempt to begin discharging it. For sake of starting somewhere, I have chosen a fairly well known proponent of Christian anarchism: Jacques Ellul, author of Anarchy and Christianity. The following will attempt to briefly summarize and evaluate Ellul’s position in that book.

Ellul’s Doctrine

Though he does not present them in such a form, Ellul supplies answers to the questions of most of the main dogmatic loci. For the sake of brevity, we can survey the topography of his thought from these hilltops.

Ellul’s conception of God has love at its foundation, and this love is the kind that desires freedom for the beloved. It therefore is opposed to coercion by definition, though Ellul does say that God from time to time uses power in history (Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999, 33). God made human beings in his image, and so fundamentally for the same kind of freely given and received love. They were meant to show it to each other and receive it from God (Ellul, 33-34.) Unfortunately, this freedom created the possibility of evil, which is what humanity chose. As a result, the nature of human beings is warped, such that they innately hunger for power and wealth. In other words, it is not coercive politics that leads to evil people, but the other way around (20). The coercive political order that results from the human condition is presented in mythical terms as the devil who has dominion over the world (58).

Jesus’ work brings the solution to this condition:

I know how scandalous for non-Christians is a God who demands this death. But the real question is this: How far can love go? Who will love God so absolutely as to lose himself? This was the test (stopped in time) for Abraham. It was also the test that provoked the anger of Job. But Jesus alone obeyed to the very end (when he was fully free not to obey!). For that reason, having loved beyond human limits, he robbed the powers of their power! Demons no longer hold sway. There are not independent exousiai. All are from the very outset subject to Christ. They may revolt, of course, but they are overcome in advance. Politically this means that the exousia which exists alongside or outside political power is also vanquished. The result is that political power is not a final court. It is always relative. We can expect from it only what is relative and open to question. … Power is indeed from God, but all power is overcome in Christ! (84-85)

The revelation Christ provides through his death correlates with his teaching. That is, according to Ellul,

…we note also that Jesus does not advocate revolt or material conflict with these kings and great ones. He reverses the question, and as so often challenges his interlocutors: “But you… it must not be the same among you.” In other words, do not be so concerned about fighting kings. Let them be. Set up a marginal society which will not be interested in such things, in which there will be no power, authority, or hierarchy. Do not do things as they are usually done in society, which you cannot change. Create another society on another foundation. (62)

As should be clear from what has been said thus far, for Ellul Christianity teaches that violence is intrinsically wrong (12-13), and thus are all governments. Is there any hope for a life beyond violence? In Anarchy and Christianity there is no explicit treatment of the eschaton that I can discern, but Ellul clearly finds the idea of a progressive elimination of vice (i.e., coercion) unlikely: “As I see it, then, an ideal anarchist society can never be achieved” (20).


Most of Ellul’s book consists of an argument for this doctrine based on selected biblical texts. I’m not going to engage in a point-by-point refutation here. Many of Ellul’s texts received treatment in my series on pacifism, and I think adequate replies to the others could be derived from the principles of interpretation given in that series. Instead of engaging in that extensive project, then, I will content myself with noting some of Ellul’s important but disputable assumptions.

1. Ellul seems to equate power with violence (33). This position perhaps finds a partial precedent in Augustinian approaches to politics; yet respectable precedent does not excuse from the duty of making a case against the Thomist position

2. Ellul sees no difference between a kind of fatalism and the classical Christian tradition that supports a doctrine of comprehensive divine providence (35-37). This matter is important to Ellul because his definition of “freedom” is libertarian in nature. Ellul intuits a limited freedom as incoherent, but does not engage with arguments that suggest their compatibility.

3. Ellul takes a Barthian view of revelation (6, 35, 46). This allows him to disregard biblical texts and themes which contradict his favoured texts; it does not seem to occur to him that the presence of these other texts could imply he is distorting his favourites. Texts that would support a classical Protestant two kingdoms doctrine, or the classical view of God and divine providence, can be safely ignored as lacking authority for Christians today.

4. Ellul evaluates political authority in an all or nothing manner (14). Finding problems with those in power is a pastime as old as fallen humanity. But while sometimes needed, it can also be a mask for a kind of moral adolescence. The inability to make graded distinctions in value and usefulness is ultimately a kind of intellectual and moral vice. For example, though I know full well that the American and Canadian governments have many flaws, I also realize that, at this moment, I am at least still free to say that. Things could be worse. I could be presently standing in front of a firing squad for having said similar things in the past. I cannot avoid, therefore, making moral distinctions between governments. Some are better than others. The inability to acknowledge this also ensures a practical problem: the belief that governments can never be improved through “politicking” (to use a pejorative term for not always negative behavior) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if governments have been better in other times and places, there is no necessity that they can never be so again.

A wholly negative treatment of Ellul would not be fair to his position, however. His voice can be a prophetic one at times. This is true especially with regards to his diagnosis of the current political order, and some of his practical suggestions for response to it. More specifically:

1. Without agreeing with his practical pessimism, his analysis of our present condition is incisive:

The matter is all the more urgent all our political forms are exhausted and practically nonexistent. Our parliamentary and electoral system and our political parties are just as futile as dictatorships are intolerable. Nothing is left. And this nothing is increasingly aggressive, totalitarian, and omnipresent. Our experience today is the strange one of empty political institutions in which no one has any confidence any more, of a system of government which functions only in the interests of a political class, and at the same time of the almost infinite growth of power, authority, and social control which makes any one of our democracies a more authoritarian mechanism than the Napoleonic state.

This is the result of techniques. We cannot speak of a technocracy, for techniques are not formally in charge. Nevertheless, all the power of government derives from techniques, and behind the scenes technicians provide the inspiration and make things possible. There is no point here in discussing what everybody knows, namely, the growth of the state, of bureaucracy, of propaganda (disguised under the name of publicity or information), of conformity, of an express policy of making us all producers and consumers, etc. To this development there is strictly no reply. No one even puts questions. The churches have once again betrayed their mission. The parties play outdated games. (22)

2. And part of his suggested response to this condition may have some use—at least with modification—even for heirs of the magisterial Reformation:

There remains the anarchism which acts by means of persuasion, by the creation of small groups and networks, denouncing falsehood and oppression… (13-14)

For my part, what seems to me to be just and possible is the creation of new institutions from the grass-roots level. The people can set up proper institutions … which will in fact replace the authorities and powers that have to be destroyed. As regards realization, then, my view is in effect close to that of the Anarcho-Syndicalists of 1880-1900. Their belief was that working-class organisms such as unions and labor halls should replace the institutions of the middle-class state. These were never to function in an authoritarian and hierarchical way but in a strictly democratic manner, and they would lead to federations, the federal bond being the only national bond. (21)

While we need not maintain Ellul’s condemnation of middle-class institutions as such, the idea of restoring institutions of civil society, those historic mediators between the individual and the magistrate, remains an eminently reasonable one.


More needs to be said about Ellul, and certainly about anarchism, but this will have to suffice for the present. But I cannot end without one final remark. It is very easy to be scared of anarchism, destructive as its tendencies might reasonably seem. And it is easy to make fun of anarchism, as unrealistic as it can appear. But it would mistaken to pretend we can learn nothing from it. Christianity is not anarchist. But it is not sycophantic either. The anarchistic mind misses some aspects of reality, but it also speaks boldly about others that apologists for power would just as soon ignore. A prudent Christian political theology will thank God for his truth wherever it is found—even in the words of annoying peasant.

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