Anarchism as Spiritual Practice

February 13, 2011Ric Hudgens

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“Wake up to reality!”
(1 Corinthians 13:11, Phillips translation).

The fledgling democracy in Egypt may struggle to find its legs; nevertheless it is impossible for most of us to resist the joy and excitement of these events. It awakens us to how easily we succumb to the weight of “reality” where “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little closing of the hands to rest, and poverty (or tyranny) will come upon you like a bandit” (Proverbs 6:11). That “reality” that seems so fixed and unyielding in our lives may in fact be a fantasy, a projection of our own fears, our own inertia, our own lack of imagination. No matter that that “reality” is stealing our souls, deadening us to our own pain. More often than not, no theft is even necessary. We gladly sell our souls in exchange for the capitalist trinkets and electoral air-fresheners that keep us distracted from the crises and opportunities before us. Egypt woke up. Those protesting in Liberation Square during the past three weeks have shaken themselves and all of us awake again.

A struggle for power? Of course. But first of all a struggle against power: a struggle to shrug off the paternalistic grip of a dominant father, and an effort to affirm their own dignity and integrity as human beings. A political struggle? Of course. But first of all a moral struggle to affirm their agency as human beings imagining and working towards a future of their own choosing. A struggle of the spirit? I say yes. Clearly those Muslims praying in the Square saw no contradiction between their faith and their protest. Clearly those Christians who were protected by those Muslims as they prayed and worshipped saw no tension between their witness and their defiance. Even those Egyptians who prayed with neither group participated with both in occupying a public space that did not exclude any nonviolent participant who wanted to be there. It was a spiritual struggle in that it was a struggle motivated by an abiding human desire to not be dominated by political propaganda, government coercion, or institutionalized terror.

We Christian anarchists sometimes exude an unhealthy cynicism. As anarchists our cynicism is justified. But as Christians we are also creatures of hope. Living in the creative tension of those two equally legitimate dispositions shapes our political discipleship. Anarchism need not be seen as merely political. As practiced by Christians, anarchism can become an essential spiritual practice that not only directs our engagement with the world, but also powerfully forms and develops our own spiritual maturity. How is this so?

The practice of anarchism calls us to the critique of false absolutes. The first commandment is a fundamental Christian anarchist principle: no other gods. But of course other gods are always arising, always being promoted, always holding forth, always shanghaiing new slaves to injustice. We remain constantly aware that even our own Christian anarchist hearts are prone to the worship of false idols and the false worship of the one true God. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us of our own potential for self-deception.

The practice of anarchism, more than any other political philosophy, forces us to take responsibility for our own actions. Moses declared “Choose you this day whom YOU will serve.” There is no getting around that necessity. The existential reality of choice is not reserved for a few twentieth-century French philosophers. “Repent” is a prerequisite for the “kingdom” that the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church preached about. It is a recognition, an invitation, and a command to keep turning and moving into the right direction – moving into the freedom of God. Because self-deception is a constant trap repentance is a constant necessity. Indeed, repentance becomes the escape hatch to renewed freedom as we leave the seeming determinism of an ill-chosen present and move into the undetermined, still open, and therefore hope-filled future of God. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us that there is always something we can do.

The practice of anarchism is a call into recognizable communities, where alliances and coalitions are formed around shared commitments, in-depth dialogue and conversation, and corporate decision-making that keeps our ambitions and projects small, real, and therefore more effective. Anarchism has no room for personal grandiosity or totalizing metanarratives. It is if anything a politics of finitude, but not therefore a politics without vision or even (dare we say it?) ambition. Because it is the most open-ended perspective on politics it is also the most open to hope. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us that wherever two or three are gathered God is there as well. And wherever God is there is no telling what might happen!

I will admit that I carry very little expectation that Egypt will become the embodiment of anything that we as Christian anarchists would celebrate. My guess is that the majority of those in Tahrir Square are not only wanting a democratic government, but also a share of the materialistic excess they see elsewhere. Look at India sixty-five years after the Gandhian revolution and you see how little impact Gandhi’s agrarian, anarchist vision has had in the face of global capitalism’s relentless march. Those who question the lasting significance of such a “revolution” have a point.

My point is that that is not the only point. Something else seems to be starting in the Middle East and since I am both a creature of hope and a scavenger for hope I am picking up things that may eventually be cast aside.

We simply don’t know what is possible. It is far too easy for us to adopt an easy cynicism that disparages the longing of others, or absolves us from direct action. Far too easy. It is my prayer that what is taking place in Tunisia and Egypt (and soon perhaps in Algeria and Yemen) will be used by God to stir our hearts and minds and renew our spirits. As long as there is a God there is hope, and as long as there is hope there is something for us to do.

Poet David Whyte concludes his poem “Start Close In” with these words:

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step you don’t want to take.

Anarchism as spiritual practice calls us to see our political practice not only as the practice of our discipleship, but the avenue for God’s work in our souls. Start close in. Take a small step. Be humble and focused. Who knows what might happen?

Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy

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