One of the first times I heard someone talk about his anarchist convictions I thought, “Wow, that’s a pretty optimistic understanding of human nature.” Could things really be more peaceful, people get along better, and local communities be able to solve their own problems if we just get rid of government? Sounded far-fetched to me. Looking back, I realize my disbelief/suspicion resulted from two narratives others had implanted in me over many years.
The first was the narrative of the state. The moral of its story was that all hell would break loose if every town doesn’t have lots of cops with guns and if there is no big government with lots of laws and tanks. Even though I didn’t believe I as a Christian could use the violence of the state, I assumed it still needed to exist to keep chaos in check. The second was the narrative of the evangelical church. This story said that all people are wicked sinners. Even in the womb we are morally corrupt (which makes you wonder what God is doing when he ‘knits us together’ there; Psalm 139:13). Even the good stuff we try to do is nothing more than shitty rags (Isaiah 64:6). Unfortunately, becoming a Christian in this story does not change this condition. It just means God forgives you and you can go to heaven when you die. But you can expect to be just as wicked as before. Because if you weren’t, well it might just look like you were trying to earn your salvation. What ties each of these narratives together is the pressing sense that people need a violent Big Brother to keep us in line, both in the world and in the church.
I’m still not convinced that my friend is right about the world becoming a Utopia if we just shut down the government. I suspect we’ll still find different ways to hurt and oppress each other. But I’ve been learning to be much more optimistic about the possibility of renewal and transformation for both individuals and communities. This growing optimism is rooted in one of the last places I expected to find it: the Bible.
When you are bombarded with the overly negative anthropology of Calvinist evangelicalism, it becomes easy to assume that the Bible must be pretty pessimistic about humanity’s ability to be good in this world. But that’s not what I see in the scriptures. I find a tremendous amount of hope for individual and communal transformation in the teachings of Jesus, the example of the early church, the letters of Paul, and all those other writings in the New Testament. Not when we die and go to heaven. But here. Now. In these bodies.
For example, the early church, filled with the Spirit, engaged in radical economic sharing so that the promise of Deuteronomy 15:4 became a reality (Acts 2:44-45). These Christian communities were also places where ethnic, social, economic, and gender boundaries were painfully and joyously transgressed (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). In early Judaism the free reign of Satan and his demons in our world was blamed for war, violence, and other examples of human brokenness (Jubilees 5:1-2; 7:21-24; 10:1-14; 11:2-6). When Jesus “binds the strong man” (Mark 3:27) he liberates us from the power of these demonic forces, enabling us to be good. John tells us that we will know who belongs to Jesus by our love, which assumes that it is possible to be communities of radical love (1st John 3:10, 14). Paul continually rejoices in the present transformation that is being witnessed in the communities he writes to. Phrases like “such were some of you” (1Cor 6:11) reveal that he is writing to people who have learned how to be good. He also tells us that we do not have to be conformed to the world, but can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). James assumes that we can actually be doers of the word, not just hearers (James 1:22). Then there is Revelation, which assumes that there are faithful, resilient overcomers who continue to embody the radical Way of Jesus even as the beast grows in ferocity (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7).
What is this hope for transformation rooted in? I see it in the example and work of Jesus and the generous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has shown us how to be good, heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, love our enemies, love our friends, love our non-human co-creatures, welcome the stranger, and walk rightly with our God. In his life, death, and resurrection, he has overcome Satan. In the sending of the Holy Spirit, God has enabled us to walk in the Way of Jesus. The strength and power of God herself now resides within us, transforming our DNA.
In Ezekiel 36, we read of a promised transformation:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
God has put the Spirit within us, which means we can do things as simple and as radical as loving one another, sharing our possessions, laying down our weapons, and welcoming the stranger. It also means that we do not need a violent Big Brother to keep us in line.
I think we need to reject the political and religious narratives that tell us we have no real reason for hope in the present. We need to embrace an optimism of the Spirit, recognizing that while we may still remain flawed God has made it possible for us to be good. I think this is a truth that can provide us with the fuel and strength we need to continue struggling against the powers, even when they seem impossible to overcome. The empires of the world want us to be pessimistic, because pessimistic people trade the beast-threatening ethic of the Sermon on the Mount for something a little more ‘realistic.’ Pessimistic people allow authoritarian concentrations of power in their churches. Pessimistic people beg for a violent Big Brother to protect them from themselves.
We need to affirm that the transformation that God’s Spirit brings in individuals and communities is real, and that it offers us more security and hope than the sword and legislation of nation-states. Through God’s Spirit we can be good.