catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14


Anarchism and hope

The prophetic imagination

“Post-” as Cynicism

There is a certain kind of “tiredness” in the post-ness we inhabit today, as the grand modern attempt to replace the glory of God with human rationality and technology gives way to the disillusioned-yet-hopeful postmodern empire of consumer capitalism enforced by the tyrannical logic of the so-called “free market” and the technological superiority of American weapons. “Post-modernity” turns modernity back in on itself, revealing its vacuity and replacing the pseudo-grandeur of universal rationality with power through propaganda and military might.

This fundamental emptiness is not a new phenomenon, just as 21st century American empire is not itself entirely new. As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”

Cynicism-as-deconstruction is a wonderful tool Christians would do well to wield more effectively, but alone it is not enough. As Christians we are committed not just to criticizing the world around us, but to unmasking what is false so we can participate in the New Creation—for as the Apostle Paul has said, “the new has come; the old has passed away!” We must be committed to the reshaping of our world through the Word and the Spirit and pray to see the world as if the New Creation was already, even though it is also not-yet, to uphold the high calling to be ministers of reconciliation and heralds of Jesus, the Messiah, and his not-of-this-world kingdom.

With our hearts and minds rooted in God's overarching story of creation, fall, and New Creation, we prayerfully deconstruct the world so it can be reconstructed according to the anticipation of the final, complete restoration. I believe that the anarchist critiques of the modern nation-state and capitalism are vital tools we can and should appropriate to help us unmask the oppressions of the world that masquerade as benevolent order. Anarchism convicts the world of its violence and injustice, as well as convicting the church of certain ways we have failed to live up to the example of Christ and the apostolic church. Because I do not believe in anarchy as a good in itself, but rather as an active philosophy that can serve the practice of the church, I will construct a framework for the church in conversation with the Old Testament prophets to show how anarchy can aid the prophetic task today. We start with Ecclesiastes.


Hebel and Empire

Ecclesiastes 1:2 says, “'Meaningless! Meaningless!' Says the Teacher, 'utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” And in verse 14: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” This is the quintessential text of cynicism in all the Bible, but it does not end with despair. The Teacher does not necessarily condemn all activity, or at least not all of them equally. For instance, even though wisdom is meaningless, it is still better than ignorance and folly. There is still a time to be born, a time to die, a time to mourn, a time to dance, and so on. Even though we should not be surprised by oppression, injustice is not justified—indeed it seems to be precisely because of folly, because people believe acquiring wealth and power is a good thing, that there is injustice at all. In the end the Teacher presents following God and keeping his commandments as the ground of meaning in human life, which requires one to look back to the Torah and its stipulations for love of God and neighbor, for living in community in such a way that justice and shalom are foundational to life together.

Even the word “meaningless” does not impart the sort of existential angst that seems to be popularly attributed to Ecclesiastes; indeed, I would question whether “meaningless” is even the best translation. The Hebrew word is hebel, which has as its basic meaning “vapor” or “breath.” In fact I argue that the fundamental issue for the Teacher is not that life is meaningless, but that it is a breath, a vapor, and that folly is trying to take hold of something that is fundamentally dynamic, changing, breathing, something that cannot be grasped, and seize it as something static, concrete, and tangible. If we see ourselves and the world in right relation to God then we will receive it and each other as gracious gifts to be loved and honored, rather than seized and exploited.

I suggest that the fundamental folly in Ecclesiastes and the nature of empire are essentially the same, that being an exercise of the will to godlike power over what is given as a gift, trying to seize hold of it and appropriate it for our own use. Or, in the case of empire, to apprehend people and their lives, cultural creations, and ways of being, subjugating people made in the image of God to an exploited subordinate, a commodity if you will, that exists as an object to be acted on by the structures of power, rather than as human beings in their own right.

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