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Shawn Ford
Religion 150
Term Paper
Spring 1995

Note: This paper was written as the final paper for Religion 150: Introduction to the World's Major Religions, instructed by Richard Swingle, at Kapiolani Community College. This is the first article that I wrote in college. Although an amateurish attempt at college-level research, I feel that the ideas raised are valid and deserve more work and thought. Hopefully someone will pick up these ideas and develop them further. The instructor's comments have been provided in red.

Jesus Christ the Anarchist

I will be writing my term paper on the idea that Jesus Christ taught a message that seems to be consistent with philosophical ideas developed over the past century and a half that have come to be referred to as anarchism. I will contend that Jesus led a purely anarchistic life with the added dimension of a higher being: that of God. And I will show how it is that I have reached this conclusion by defining modern anarchism and by giving examples as to how Jesus led this anarchistic lifestyle. I will back up my statement with the help of some well-known anarchist writers.

I will begin by defining anarchism as defined by Webster’s Dictionary: [best source for a technical definition?] “Anarchism- n. a) absence of government; b) a Utopian society having no government and made up of individuals who enjoy complete freedom.” [too simple!] As with many politico-philosophical ideas, it is hard to define anarchism in just a few short sentences. An anarchist named Emma Goldman came very close to the modern view [what is it?] when, nearly 50 years ago, she defined it as, “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by manmade (my emphasis) law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary” (Ehrlich et al. 29).

Anarchists long for a government-less society whose people have considerable amounts of freedom [what is this?]. However, this is the end result of a social process based on mutual aid, love, and respect. As Nicolas Walter put it in his 1969 essay About Anarchism, “Anarchism is an ideal type which demands at the same time total freedom and total equality” (Ehrlich et al. 43). Years earlier Michael Bakunin said basically the same thing in his Revolutionary Catechism of 1866: “The freedom of each is therefore realizable only in the equality of all. The realization of freedom through equality, in principle and in fact, is justice” (Damico 22) [is equality and justice the same?]. Bakunin linked freedom not only with equality and justice, but also with love: “…love for humanity is linked with human fulfillment in freedom. It is not only the duty of respect for others that makes freedom possible, but it is also something over and above, which is love” (Damico 22).

I will go a step further in my definition of anarchism by noting the two types of anarchism: that of the individualist and that of the revolutionaries [is Jesus both?]. Individualists, also known as egoists, are more concerned with their own freedom and their own fate in life than the rest of society’s. The revolutionaries’ concern, according to Linda Damico in The Anarchist Dimension of Liberation Theology, “…is freedom for the individual, but it is not freedom for the isolated individual. It (freedom) is possible only when the freedom of every individual is embraced” (21). In his essay Modern Science and Anarchism, Peter Kropotkin believes the same when he says that the individual is free “in proportion as all others around him become free” (Damico 21). Bakunin was adamant on this very position in God and the State when he “recognized that freedom is bound to society and can only exist in a social situation” (Damico 20). This paper will be concerned with revolutionary anarchism, also referred to as social (or communal) anarchism. Revolutionary should not be construed in this context as violence, but rather a popular movement that effects a radical change. Social anarchism carries with it the hope that eventually enough people will know, understand, and practice anarchist philosophy so that society itself will be transformed into a network of free federations comprised of free individuals.

Now that I have defined the type of anarchist I believe Jesus Christ was [have you? big jump!], Let us look at his message to see if there are any grounds to this assertion. For the purpose of this paper, I will divide his message into five parts: morals, equality, elevating the poor and oppressed, being an example to society, and his attitudes towards earthly hierarchy. I will be using text as taken directly from the Holy Bible.

Jesus stressed the idea of living a morally pure life. The book of Matthew is full of his examples, the most important of them being Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” From this statement we can easily [maybe not as easy as you think!] understand his views on forgiveness, judgment, and murder.

On murder Jesus said two things that made his point: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’…” (Matthew 5:21); and “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword…” (Matthew 26:52) [murder? self-defense?]. It appears that Jesus does not approve at all of this most violent act.

Regarding judgment, Jesus stresses tolerance in Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This is consistent with anarchist beliefs of authority and freedom. Instead of judging your fellow human, Jesus advocates ‘turning the cheek’ and “…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” in Matthew 5.

He looks at compassion and forgiveness as essential qualities. When asked how many times one should forgive, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

Regarding equality, the first example of Jesus’ attitude is with his baptism by John the Baptist. To Jesus’ request that he be baptized, John replied, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). It seems that Jesus did not elevate himself above other humans but remained an equal to them. He made a habit of socializing with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, people definitely regarded as outcasts by the Pharisees.

However, to the Pharisees Jesus rebuked their double-standards, for when they questioned him about his disciples eating on the Sabbath, he pointed out to them “…in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent…” (Matthew 12:5). Jesus seems to have had little patience for these kinds of inequalities. In Matthew 17:24-6, he hints at unfairness in the temple tax. When the tax collector approaches him and his disciples upon entering the temple, Jesus asks Simon, “What do you think…From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes- from their own sons or from others?” (Matthew 17:25). The point being: of course they collect taxes from others and exempt their sons.

Jesus allowed himself to be anointed by a ‘sinful woman’ at the house of a Pharisee who had invited him to dinner, he washed his own disciples’ feet, and he even asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from her cup, all things considered taboo in his time. Jesus went about teaching that basically all people are equal; it is their moral life that should be the reason for any inequalities.

The Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-11 epitomize his feelings for the poor and oppressed:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

He had intense compassion for the people who came to hear him teach. Matthew 9:36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless without a shepherd.” He then told the crowd, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus told many parables regarding the fate of the poor but good at heart. In The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Matthew 18:9-14), Jesus rebuked those who regard themselves as righteous while passing judgment on others. When the Pharisee was in the temple praying, he extolled his virtues while criticizing the ‘sinner’ beside him. The tax collector acknowledged his sins before God and begged for forgiveness. Jesus said, “…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus had contempt for those who would flaunt their wealth and ignore the poor. In Luke 16: 19-31, he told a story of a rich man who passed by a beggar named Lazarus every day without ever helping him. When they both died, Lazarus found himself in heaven at Abraham’s side while the rich man went to hell.

Jesus taught his listeners that the best way to live their lives was to follow his examples [ok]. He did this not with force, but with compassion and understanding of their humanness. According to Huston Smith in The World’s Religions: “Instead of telling people what to do or what to believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so their behavior would change accordingly” (325). So, he went about teaching and living an exemplary life for the rest of society to follow. When Jesus fed the five thousand he was teaching, and then the four thousand, this could be looked at as a very good example as to how society should share with one another, especially with foodstuffs.

Regarding charity, Jesus taught that it is better to give in secret rather than “…announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…to be honored by men" (Matthew 8:2) [are these the sorts of things an anarchist does?]. This set the example of modesty, which is how Jesus treated every act of goodness that he did [what is the difference between an anarchist and a social activist?]. When he saw the old widow in the temple give her tithe of less than a penny, he praised her to his disciples saying, “…this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything- all she has to live on” (Mark 12:43-44). Clearly, Jesus seems to have discouraged wealth in favor of a more humble existence, for in Luke 12:15 he stated, “…a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

With regards to how we should treat our fellow humans, one of the most moving examples Jesus gave is The Parable of the Good Samaritan of Luke 11:25-37. To paraphrase the story, it is about a man who was on a journey to Jerusalem when he was beaten, robbed, and left by the road for dead. A priest and later a Levite, both walking down the same road, saw the man but ignored him. But then a Samaritan (who was prejudiced against as a different minority) saw him and felt pity for him. He bandaged the man’s wounds, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and left money for the innkeeper to care for him. This man was basically a regional outcast who took pity on a complete stranger, without regard for who he was or the expense of helping him. This is a supreme example of the anarchist belief of mutual aid [maybe!]. Calling his people the light of the world, Jesus said to “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds…” (Matthew 5:16).

Jesus’ most anarchistic acts seem to have been leveled at the hierarchy [it may be that it is in this area that J. C. is most anarchistic?], especially the Pharisees who he had immense contempt for. Upon entering the temple area in Jerusalem, Jesus “…drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12). His justification was that the temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, but the Pharisees had desecrated it by allowing commerce to take place also. This was an incredible affront to the authority of the religious leaders. When they asked him by what authority he was doing the things he did, he simply avoided the question by turning it around on them.

Jesus warned his disciples to “Beware the teachers of the law” (Luke 20:46) for they act in unrighteous ways. He referred to the Pharisees as “A wicked and adulterous generation…” (Matthew 12:39) and “…blind guides…” (Matthew 15:14). He criticized them for their hypocrisy of eating on the Sabbath while not allowing others to do so, and for not healing people on the Sabbath, saying instead “…it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). As if to add insult to injury, Jesus accused the Pharisees of all sorts of vile acts and called them a number of embarrassing names in Seven Woes of Matthew 23:1-39, a passage that would make any anarchist proud. He even referred to King Herod as a ‘fox’. It is clear that Jesus did not think too highly of the authority figures of his day [esp. Romans, Sadducees, etc.?].

Given the previous examples, does it really appear that Jesus was an anarchist well before his time? I emphatically believe so. Jesus was promoting a revolutionary anarchist movement. According to Smith, “having concluded that Yhwh’s central attribute was compassion, Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to that compassion. So he parleyed with tax collectors, dined with outcasts and sinners, socialized with prostitutes, and healed on the Sabbath when compassion prompted doing so. This made him a social prophet [prophet? yes! anarchist? ??? can we make the same case for the Prophets as anarchists?], challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community” (322) [like the Prophets, J. C. is an agent of social change. but does that make him an anarchist?].

Does Jesus really promote anarchism? Damico states that, “European anarchists were among the first to recognize the anarchist dimension of the bible. Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Sorel, and Berkman, among the most important anarchists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, saw and were inspired by its radical message” (4). Tolstoy believed that “…if every individual followed the pacifist teachings of Christ all government authority would be undermined” (Damico 4) and “…Christ summed up the whole of the divine law in commandments which were ‘reasonable, beneficient, carry in themselves their own justification, and embrace the whole life of man’” (Damico 71). For Damico, she is most surprised with the recognition that Bakunin gave to Christ’s revolutionary message, for he considered himself an enemy of the Christian religion (4). Some may even argue that there is no place in anarchism for religion, for anarchists are generally not only non-religious, but they also tend to be atheists (Ehrlich et al. 50). But, it can also be stated clearly that in an anarchist model of a free society, its people would have the ultimate freedom to worship in their own way, as long as every individual enjoys the same freedom to worship or not, and as long as their worship does not infringe on another’s equal rights (Ehrlich et al. 54).

In closing, I would like to reiterate my assertion that Jesus Christ was an anarchist. I will end with another seemingly anarchistic message of Jesus from John 8:31-32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

[Your topic is most provocative, and like most provocative topics, it raises as many questions as it settles. In your paper you introduce the concept of freedom as one closely associated with anarchism, and rightly so. You consider freedom in terms of “freedom for…” and deal with the alternative poles of individual vs. society. But as far as Jesus is concerned (and perhaps equally importantly for anarchism) consider freedom in terms of “freedom to…” or “freedom from…” If we are free, what are we free from and what are we free to do? How would Jesus answer these questions? What do you think?]


Damico, L. H. (1987). The Anarchist Dimension of Liberation Theology. N. Y.: Peter Lang.

Ehrlich, H. J., Ehrlich, C., DeLeon, D., & Morris, G. (1979). Reinventing Anarchy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smith, H. (1991). The World’s Religions. N. Y.: Harper Collins.

Zondervan. (1988). The Holy Bible: new international version. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corp.

[Your bibliography is ok…but I think that your conclusion is a bit skewed by your dependence on the one source (Damico) so heavily. I think you have a very good topic here, maybe one that you would like to continue to pursue. In other words, I think you are really on to something here, and perhaps you would like to go beyond some of the parameters or (implied) conclusions that Damico suggests? As I said in the beginning, a worthy effort…what’s next?]

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contents (c) 2001 Shawn Ford/ Webb-Ed Press