The Poverty of Civilization
and the Apathy of Christian Anarchists
by Andy Lewis
THE POVERTY OF CIVILIZATION
“The world’s most primitive people (hunter-gatherers) have few possessions but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends, above all it’s a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the intention of civilization. And it has grown with civilization…to accept that gatherer hunters are affluent is therefore o recognize that the present human condition of people slaving to bridge the gap between unlimited wants and insufficient means is a tragedy of civilization (modern times).” ---Marshall Sahling, The Original Affluent Society.
Fear is central in the development and continuation of civilization scarcity and hierarchy dance fearfully through myths about the “nasty brutish and short” lives of gatherer-hunters, “nature red in tooth and claw.” This mythology is created to legitimize the poverty of civilization and impoverished life of slavery for the first city builders who could still remember the richness, the fullness of wild life outside the gates of the city. Civilization has always been the rule of a few elites over the many and as such it requires the use of coercive power and more than that it requires threats, fear.
Listen to the voices throughout history telling us what life is without the city, without civilization. War, sickness, starvation, rape, the rule of the strong over the weak, lawlessness, chaos, a life of necessity no culture, no creativity, nothing, no things, poverty, poverty…egalitarian, sharing, hunting, gathering, 65% work (talk about killing & Hadza as counter examples) but throughout his-story these myths, this fear mongering has not been enough to keep all the prisoners from escaping, especially when presented with the opportunity to join a band of “savages”. Women showed a particular propensity to go feral in the Colonial era of America. But sometimes these escapes were done en masse-“Gone to Croatan” Indeed John Smith himself, issued a law of demanding the execution of any white man who was captured in an Indian village. Presumably this was after Smith’s own experience with the hospitality of Powhatan Indians, he knew the richness of life away from the fearful reach of civilization, but as Patriarch of Jamestown he had a job to do.
Division of labor, domestication, surplus, armies to guard the surplus, slaves to build the city and its walls, to keep themselves in and attacking armies out. These are the foundations of civilization, the foundations of poverty. At its base this way of life betrays a deep rooted fear of death but just as much, perhaps more so it betrays a fear of life so much that the real poverty of civilization could be said to be not just a material one (though it is that for the majority of people) but perhaps even more so civilization is a spiritual poverty.
A poverty that will never be fully accepted no matter how many myths are told, no matter how many anti-depressants, technological saviors, and scientific advancements are created, no matter how much we are conditioned to hate life, fear death and cling to the only way of life we’ve ever known…our blood craves primal anarchy and our spirit craves an undomesticated liberator.
REWILDING THE CHRISTIAN FAITH P.1
“People always attain a better equilibrium, always feel best, and probably are best, in a primitive environment. This is no ideology of nature, nor some b rand of naturalism, but only a simple observation corresponding with the revealed fact that God wanted humans in that situation.” (Jacques Ellul, p. 173 Molc)
We would do well in this present age to remember the biblical theme of Jubilee and what theologian Ched Myers refers to as Sabbath Economics. Myers says “Torrah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit… the theology of Sabbath Economics and its ethic of regular and systemic wealth and power redistribution-most clearly summed up in the Jubilee release of slaves, deconstruction of debt and return of foreclosed land is neither utopian nor abstract. It arose out of the concrete Hebrew experience of slavery in Egypt, and so is both corrective and preventative.” (Myers, Sabbath economics, p. 6 &13)
But what was being corrected and prevented?
In short, the corrective and preventative basis for Sabbath economics is about remembering the old ways of life before Egyptian captivity for the purpose of building storehouses (civilization). A sort fo reminder that they are not to take on the characteristics of that way of life, civilized, surplus, scarcity, as Myers puts it “the instructions of Exodus 16 could be said to descrive be economic culture modern anthropologists call “generalized reciprocity”, a subsistence culture of cooperation and sharing that characterized all hunter-gatherer societies from antiquity up to the present.” (Myers, p.14)
So God imparts these instructions (which form the basis of public life) to remind a people held captive by civilization not to conform to those ways! In civilization they cannot fully practice the life of Gathering and Hunting but they can keep the ethics of that way of lie.
This is an ethics of Abundance, egalitarianism and sharing as opposed to the civilized ethics of scarcity and hoarding.
But this call to remember the old ways was not for the purpose of ferishizing the old ways, the old days…just when the people are becoming complacent, accepting of their situation, the undomesticated Liberator God leads his people out of civilization to the wilderness where they go feral, they rewild, return to the way of life they knew before captivity.
But this is not an easy transition, some of the people long for the security of civilization saying “why has God brought us out here to starve, I wish I was back at home”. Surely this will resonate with our attempts to re-wild. But God provides… the people say “what is this” meaning of manna.
As myers puts it, “The people’s first lesson outside of Egypt, then, is an economic one. I believe it represents a parable about the primal value of the most basic human competence-hunting and gathering-the cooperative egalitarian lifeway that sustained humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the rise of agriculture, cities and eventually imperial economics based on slavery.” (p. 11)
“Manna illustrates dependence on the divine-“economy of grace”, not human labor or technology.”(p.13)
Myers goes on to say “This primal lesson was so fundamental that the people were instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the covenant.” (p. 13) (Ex. 16:32 see Heb. 9:4)
Indeed this lesson is so fundamental that Jesus enacts a wilderness feeding clearly pointing to the importance of remembering these gatherer-hunter ethics but even more than remembering them, doing them, living out these miraculous old ways in the wilderness.
There is a biblical theme calling us out of civilization to the wilderness to be transformed, baptized by rewilders like John the Baptist, we’re told to talk with the birds! (Job) Ellul again “No other religion has so severely condemned the origins of civilization and man’s civilizing acts-not to mention its specific attitude toward the city-as does the Judeo-Christian.” (P. 162 MOTC)
But this theme is not just a call out of civilization to rewild…ours is a call to bring down civilization. The call of the ram’s horn at Jericho destroying idols under cover of night like Gideon. Ellul puts it plainly “we will be looked upon as adversaries of public welfare or as enemies of the human race” (p26 MOTC)
Myers says “it is to be expected that whenever God’s spirit is poured out on people, their traditions and institutions will be disrupted and disturbed. God’s intervention is always subversive, because YHWH is not a domesticated deity, baptizing our traditions and institutions, but the one who seeks to liberate us from our enslaved condition, to heal us from our wounds and addictions.” (Myers, p. 50)
John Zerzan defines domestication as “The attempt to bring free dimensions under control for self serving purposes.”
Christians have attempted to domesticate God and each other for far too long. Let us remember the old ways calling us out of domesticated slavery and into the wild freedom of God the Liberator.
PRAY FOR THE CITY PT. 1
“Jonah’s task is ours permanently, we must unceasingly proclaim God’s curse and judgment on the city but…we must also pray to God that it will not happen, that he have pity, we must do this even at the cost of looking ridiculous and being embarrassed.” (MOTC p. 77)
“The Ninevite is involved, like it or not, in Nineveh’s destiny and that gives us light on our own situation.”(MOTC p. 67)
“This situation (Jonah & Nineveh) is particularly related to that of our civilization. No one does evil, everyone wishes for the best, but evil is still committed. This is what makes it impossible to pin down responsibility.” (MOTC, p. 67)
OK so yes, there is also a biblical theme of mercy on the city, notice I did not call it a pro-civilization theme because it is not. Nonetheless there is an obvious place for the city and civilization in the Christian faith but how can this be? Is it a case of (Royal consciousness e.g. Walter Bruggemen?)
Renan says “The YGWGistic author has a kind of hate for civilization…every forward step in what we would call progress is for him a crime, followed by immediate punishment. The punishment of civilization is found in the labors and divisions of humanity. The search for wordly, secular, monumental and artistic culture at Babel is the crime par-excellence” (Renan-Historie d’Israel II)
There is a thought that Israel underwent a change of heart after the kings and prolonged contact with civilization and that accounts for older books having this anti-civ theme while newer books have a more accepting view. But as Ellul points out the book of Jonah dates from the same era as the anti-civ books.
So here we have tension. What are we to do? As Ellul says, “In this city (civilization) we are captives. As Israel in Babylon so to the church is in captivity. And we know that this is the essential goal of cities, to make everyone captive. And as with every prisoner, escape seems to be the ideal goal. Get out. Destroy the prison, or at least get outside its walls…but God si not logical in what he tells us…far from asking us to destroy Babylon he asks us to preserve it alive.” (MOTC p. 73)
“We are not asked first to preach and convert Babylon, (the city, civilization), but rather to pray. Involved in a battle on a spiritual plane,…our task is to defend this counter creation before God.” (MOTC p75) So why should I pray for the city? Ellul continues…this really pains me to pray for the city…”God did not adopt an original means to reveal himself. No, he expressed his revelation in the forms and modes invented by (people) for their own affairs. And this is also the meaning of God’s decision to take over mans’ invention of the city. God does not reject this world of revolt and death, he does not annihilate it in the abyss of fire. Rather he adopts it. He takes charge of it. And the immense vanity that man put into it…thus and only thus, does our work take on meaning. Both significance and direction. No longer is it all vanity among vanities. No longer is it a permanent return to nothingness. Civilizations pass and go under, leaving behind a few ruins buried by vines, and the stones lose their grip and fall in silence. But nothing is forgotten.” (MOTC, p. 176)
So God takes the city, civilization, heart of vanity, nothingness and redeems it fully in the New Jerusalem. And we are simply to pray, for it is first and foremost a spiritual relationship between us and the city.
So there you have it, the whole of God’s desire for us in regards to cities and civilization. There was a time for the rejection of civilization…for everything there is a season but now is the time for prayer, in the midst of civilization in the belly of the beast. So we must be stalwart in our knowledge that the city is our destiny! Our faith, our desire to please God depend upon our spiritual vocation in the city.
But of course it is not so clear as that. There is a theme in the life of Jesus, and as a wise man in Debuque, Iowa once said “Jesus, always the model”. This theme, as I’ve already mentioned, harkens back to the anti-civilization themes, remembering the Gatherer-Hunter ethics of his ancestors. Nd doesn’t Jesus pronounce his own judgement on the city, doesn’t he go on a vision quest, something that most indigenous nature based people do, isn’t this experience in the wilderness what sets his ministry to the city, to civilization in motion? He’s baptized in the wilderness, crucified outside the gates, rejected by the city. And aren’t we called to follow that model?
Certainly any attitude of collusion or unquestioning acceptance of civilization for a Christian, is something akin to cheap Grace. To hold the view that the city is redeemed here and now or that it can be redeemed by our actions finds no resonance with Hebrew-Christian scripture. But nonetheless we are called to pray, to ask for God’s mercy on the hellish creation of civilization, we are called into bondage as it were, freed from the spiritual slavery of the city but bound nonetheless to this manifestation of human vanity. Or are we…
“The whole affair will boil down to this”…(MOTC p. 182)
THE APATHY OF CHRISTIAN ANARCHISTS
So if this is the time for the rejection of civilization, the time to leave the city it has specific relevance in regards to responsibility. At this moment when so many are working up to the ecological collapse and the possibility of the collapse of civilization itself we have the responsibility to rest the false hopes away from all who see “Green technology” as the answer, we have a responsibility to promote mature responses to the crisis at hand. With the imminence of collapse, what does it mean to love our neighbor, primitive skills, etc…
I always felt a kind of sickness when I looked out at the fields of soybeans and corn in Illinois, thinking about the wild prairie that used to be there but it wasn’t till I saw the windmills towering above the fields on the way here that I knew this is hell.
I am surprised at the apathy and even open hostility which these ideas have been greeted by Christian Anarchists. I find it troubling that such mundane leftist issues such as antimilitarism, withdrawl from political collusion and the culture of patriotism seem to take precedence at the expense of this dynamic calling to animate our faith outside the gapes of activism. And what are most radical Christian and Christian Anarchists if they are not firmly rooted in the leftist culture of activism.
I would not be able to maintain any interest in the Christian faith if these activist type expressions of “faith“were all that was entailed in the Liberator God.
To understand the roots of poverty is to open up our ears to hear the call to remember the Liberator God who is still calling us to remember the old ways, the lessons of sharing which are enacted and understood by the bewildered people of God in the wilderness. If we are to become the wild harbingers of the kingdom in love with the undomesticated God we would do well to abandon all allegiances to the leftist idols of technology, science, work, in short the building blocks of domestication, surplus, and civilization.
If we take that step out into the wilderness and trust that there will be manna then we put ourselves in the place where our faith can become filled with the Wholly Other. Ways of life will open up that have long been forgotten and we will have eyes to see a new way.
The topics of Christian Anarchists are so benign, things like patriotism, voting…if they’re trying to reach the mainstream church then yeah, those topics are relevant, even necessary but faith in Christ demands a radical look at origins. The emphasis on peace and justice by many Christian Anarchists has kept the discussions firmly on topics such as war, poverty, and reconciliation. Important topics to be sure, but the depth of analysis is a mile wide and an inch deep owing mostly to the leftist agendas which uphold such holy grails as cities, technology, science.
There seems to be a huge emphasis on community, living together, holding all things in common, healthy ways of living together…good, great, but once again, how deep can this discussion get when its not taking into account the models that Christians have for egalitarian life ways firmly rooted in sharing and Gatherer-Hunter and Sabbath Economics.
It seems that contemporary Christian Anarchists have latched onto the image of St. Francis who spoke with animals, the indigenous wisdom and re-wilding ethic that he exemplified is ignored just like the biblical model that he and Claire exemplify.
Our faith does not simply provide alternatives to corrupt economic systems, military and political systems, it stands in opposition to the whole project of civilization.