A Preferential Option For the Individual


by Brian Burch

(first appeared in Epistle, a publication of SCM Canada)

One of the most persistent strands within the Christian faith is the view that we are in the world but not of it—we are centred in creation and in relationship to humanity and to the divine but not firmly rooted to the social world we find ourselves in. In the conflict between compassion and obedience, compassion is to dominate. And given the choice of care for one or comforting the many, we are to opt for the one. This is, paraphrasing a concept from liberation theology, ultimately a preferential option against the state and a preferential option for the individual—anarchism in its most refined form.

Suspicion of the state is not specifically a faith phenomena, any more than communal ownership or helping those in need is. But it bubbles up repeatedly in Judeo-Christian scriptures, predating secular expressions of anti-authoritarianism. While proof-texting can be a dangerous exercise, it does provide a common point of reference.

For example, in a lengthy passage in 1st Samuel we read a warning to those asking for a king:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and given to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1st Samuel 8:4-20).

This calling for a king was acknowledged later by the people of Israel as a sin:

And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” (1st Samuel 12:19).

Jesus, in his temptations, rejects the offer of Satan of worldly power. It is interesting to note that it is assumed to be within the power of Satan to grant earthly/traditional forms of power:

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'” (Luke 4:5-8).

Christ did not deny that there was a power or authority; rather that this was a different and transcendent power:

Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from this world.” (John 19:36)

This was not merely a theoretical rejection of the state and traditional forms of power. It has practical expressions as well. When challenged to stop talking about the faith, the reply as to where the is ultimate loyalty of the Christian was made clear:

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather man.” (Acts 5:19)

And where this is a bias against the traditional forms of power, there is also a bias in favour of the individual—an unusual focus. For many, opposition to the state is expressed through collective focus—intentional communities, alternative institutions and similar practical forms of organising that are experimental and more human scale. We find this stress on the value of the individual expressed in a number of different ways, both in terms of love and justice and in terms of the value of the individual among the collective. Good examples of both can be found in the Gospel of Matthew:

“See that you do not despise one of these little one; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matthew 18: 12-14)

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you From the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and cloth thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 34-40)

While these passages are by no means exhaustive, they are to me representative a what a peculiar people Christians are ultimately expected to be. In a world where community and nation and people are ways of understanding society, Christians should focus on the individual, meeting their needs, being with them when they are separated from the majority—an odd, non-selfish expression of individual identity. And when nations and communities and people express their identify through a state, through traditional forms of power, ultimately we are to stand outside these structures.

This becomes complex in theory but simple in practice. Ultimately, the state and all other structures exist parallel to the lives of people. They can only extract obedience and compliance with conscious consent. Representatives of power can bully, harass, oppress and kill, but obedience ultimately is something granted or rejected by an individual. The state, and structures, can order you to kill and one can do so, or one can follow the example of Franz Jogerstetter, the Austrian peasant who in 1943 refused to serve in an unjust war and was executed by the Nazis.

Ultimately, for a Christian, our anarchism is not one of imposing a solution on others or demanding that a social order transform to meet our expectations. Rather, it is living freely as if the transition has happened already. If our society is one that permits hunger, we are to respond to the need as it exists in the here and now. It is not enough to desire a utopia; we already have the Kingdom of God Within, as the Christian anarchist Tolstoi reminds us. Living within and amoung the expressions of this non-traditional form of power puts us at odds both with the state and traditional expressions of opposition to the state. Our desire is not to seize power; we are not seeking to impose a view on others. Rather, our concern is to live out the freely accepted authority offered to us as people of faith and not to accept the imposition of power over the living out of the faith.

This freedom, this anarchism, is not lived in isolation. It is not a demand to put personal desires first. Rather, it is an acceptance that all individuals are to be valued and offered the means to live in dignity and comfort. The passage from Matthew, with the statement of the basis for the last judgement, is not a call for anything other than the most radical possible society—we are to help ensure everyone, whether we like them or not, whether they are one of us or one of them, are valued. And this is something to be seen as universal—it is not the correct practice of the Christian faith that the divine will honour, but right relationship with one another. We are to resist the call to selfishness, to personal accumulation, to trusting that the state or charities will meet human needs. In God’s name, we as individuals are to be this compassionate presence in the world—even where with the sharing of food, as in the West Bank, one can risk death.

This makes Christians very dangerous. The state can not, while we remain true to our faith, convince us to stop loving one another. The party can not, while we remain true to our faith, require us to stop providing food to our neighbour. The police can not, while we remain true to our faith, stop us from caring for those in their custody.

Alternatively, we can not impose our beliefs and practices on others while being true to our faith. Individuals are called to be Christians—despite efforts to the contrary, it is not an hereditary position. We can not, at gun point, force others to love another. Those that will neither submit to authority or use it are perhaps the only free people. We can actually be one body, seeking harmony in autonomy, gaining strength through a relationship with the divine that is lived out in the here and now with every individual.

And our approach to politics is therefore different. If we gather with others, it will not be seeking to raise one authority in place of another authority. We realise that all powers and principalities are flawed and inherently evil. Rather, it is to ensure that there is space for freedom and compassion to be shown as possible in the here and now. We preach a gospel of dignity, of equality, of love—sometimes preached in a cloud of teargas, at other times preached through the clouds of fear to let someone know that they aren’t alone.

This piece was influenced by:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Meditating on the Word. David McI. Gracie, trans. Cowley Publications, Cambridge 1986.

Brock, Peter. A Brief History of Pacifism from Jesus to Tolstoy. Self published, Toronto, 1992. Distributed by Syracuse University Press and the Peace Pledge Union.

Brown, Raphael, translator and editor. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Image Books, New York 1958.

Childress, James F. Civil Disobedience and Political Obligation: A Study in Christian Social Ethics. Yale University Press, New Haven 1971.

Coleman, Janet. Against the State: Studies in Sedition and Rebellion. BBC Books, London 1990.

Coy, Patrick G., ed. Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker. New Society Publishers, Gabriola 1988.

Desroches, Len. Allow The Water. Editions Dunamis, Toronto 1996.

Douglass, James. The Non-violent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace. Macmillan Company, New York 1966.

Elller, Vernard. Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids 1987.

Ellul, Jacques. Anarchy and Christianity. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids 1991.

Horing, Bernard. A Theology of Protest. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1970.

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. HarperCollins, London 1992.

McDonnell, Thomas P., ed. A Thomas Merton Reader. Image Books, New York 1974.

Merton, Thomas. The Non-violent Alternative. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto 1980.

Mott, Stephen Charles. Biblical Ethics and Social Change. Oxford University Press, New York 1982.

Penner, Kate, ed. Risking for Change: Stories of Ordinary People. First Freedom Foundation, Victoria 1999.

Ruth-Heffelbower, Duane. The Anabaptists Are Back: Making Peace in a Dangerous World. Herald Press, Waterloo 1991.

Stone, Ronald H., ed. Theology of Peace: Paul Tillich. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 1990.

Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Jane Kentish, trans. Penguin Books, Markham 1987.

Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. Galilee, New York 1998.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism and Anarchists. Quarry Press, Kingston 1992.
Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Meridian Books,
New York 1962.
Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver 1978.

Zahn, Gordon, ed. Thomas Merton on Peace. McCall Publishing Company, New York 1971.

All biblical passages are quoted from Herbert May and Bruce Metzger, editors. The New Oxford Annotated Bible With the Apocrypha (Revised Standard Version). Oxford University Press, New York 1977.


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