From humble beginnings the Christian faith, and its collective expression the Church, spread rapidly through the Roman World. After experiencing several periods of persecution it was co-opted by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Since then the Church has had a chequered history globally, often working to maintain the status quo and usually siding with the ruling class. Historically the Church has been hierarchical, patriarchal and sexist. However, in Anarchism and Other Essays Emma Goldman refers positively to Tolstoy – an enthusiastic, idiosyncratic advocate of Jesus teachings and John Ball (maverick Priest who was a key figure in the Peasant’s Revolt). Some Christians go as far as to claim Christianity and anarchism are compatible. One of these is Dr Keith Hebden, Anglican vicar, activist and author, who agreed to an interview with Freedom…
Keith, you identify yourself as a Christian Anarchist. How do you reconcile anarchism with the New Testament – the core text of Christianity – which, especially in the case of Paul’s writings, is statist, hierarchical and sexist? Do you really see a similarity between the teachings of Jesus and anarchism?
I don’t know that identify myself as a Christian anarchist – although others have. I think ‘Christian’ probably covers it since following the Jesus of tradition, as people like Tolstoy understood his teachings, leads us to reject moralism, violence and authoritarianism. Not only does Jesus seem to reject these things but he offers both questions for analysing injustice and tools for changing things. I suppose I start where Tolstoy started with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. The verse that often reads “Do not resist evil” is better rendered “Do not resist evil with violence”. The implication here is that we should indeed always resist but we should do so in ways that have integrity of “means and ends”. My nonviolence comes first and my anarchism second in terms of how I got to where I am. If violence doesn’t bring about justice and Jesus argued for nonviolent resistance then the state, which is violent to the core, must be resisted and something else – compassionate human community – put in its place.
The dominant expression of Church since 325 CE has been reactionary, patriarchal and often on the side of the oppressor – the antithesis of anarchism. How as a Christian Anarchist do you see yourself in relation to that Church?
I’m a straight, white, cis-normative, middle class Anglican (Established Church) priest! I see myself as a thoroughly inconsistent and more than a little uncomfortable on a chronic basis. I’m interested in those places of contradiction and paradox, I suppose that’s what keeps me so interested in theology and the church at all. One of the reasons I’m interested in that space is because, like permaculturists, I notice that the most vigorous and healthy growth in the garden takes place on the borders between different environments. You might say the same thing about ideas. There are members of my church who are current or ex-military; this is hugely difficulty for me but it’s also hugely difficult for them. Because of this I live in constant dialogue with “the other” but so do they and this leads to all kinds of insights that a “purer” way of being might not allow for.
As for the Church of England itself, it is in a state of flux that’s quite exciting. No longer the right hand of the state it now has privileges and pomp but a decreasing amount of “power of” others. This means that the church is moving, involuntarily, to the borders of society and so rediscovering a “God of the margins” and of revolt. There have been, broadly, two reactions to this: claw back power and privilege or embrace and chase the new and healthier vocations of the Church to be prophetic instead of just pathetic.
Has Christian Anarchism a long history? How has it been viewed historically? Have Christian Anarchists been “shot by both sides”?
Tolstoy might be said to be the first Christian anarchist although his was of a particular kind and he shied away from the word anarchism because of its connotations of violence. His Christian anarchism had a huge impact on Gandhi. But there have always been those in the Church who’ve been persected by Church and state because they take up broadly anarchic positions. While not exhaustive, I’d recommend Alex Christoyanoupolos’s book Christian Anarchism for a good history of this and Dave Andrew’s classic Christi-Anarchy for a look at both how the church got compromised and what Christian anarchism could look like.
Last year you were involved in an anti-drone direct action and arrested (3). Could you elaborate on what happened and how it concluded? Does Christian Anarchism emphasise anti-militarism?
Myself and five others (some Christian some not) cut through the fence at RAF Waddington where the RAF are piloting the drones in Afghanistan from. Having made our way in, two of us planted up a peace garden while the other four went off in twos around the base putting up posters and giving out information, but primarily hoping to find the pilots themselves. We were, of course, arrested. We were held “incommunicado” until late that night and not released until 4pm the following day. Meanwhile some of our homes were raided and all our computers, cameras, memory sticks, and some posters and notebooks taken. We weren’t charged until after 2am and when we got to court the next day the charges were down-graded from “conspiracy” to “criminal damage” – they were obviously in a flap and made lots of mistakes in their handling of us.
When we finally had our day in court, amidst much national and regional, print, TV and radio exposure. We were supported by around 50 anti-drones protestors and – to a large extent – by our judge! The judge called us “dutiful people with a legitimate target” said that he was “ruled by the law not by common sense” and, after giving us all a full day to make our case, found us guilty “with a heavy heart” and ordered us each to pay £15 compensation to the RAF plus costs. I hope others now take on direct action at RAF Waddington because if we wait for a just government we’ll be waiting for ever.
You are based in Mansfield where you are a Pastor and the “Seeking Justice” Adviser (1). What does that entail?
It’s a brand new job they made up so I’ve got a fair amount of autonomy. We’re setting up a chapter of Citizens UK in the district and town and I’m working with a group of villages on a Transition initiative. I’m exploring ways of demonstrating the intrinsically political nature of faith and spirituality through public actions, workshops and other media. Being a parish priest for the other half of my job roots me back in the reality – mostly joyful reality – of every day pastoral concern. I think the jobs balance each other out. For example, when my house was raided by the police I had a lot of listening and unpacking of the action to do with people for whom the idea of direct action was completely alien – it was as exciting as the action and far more nerve racking.
What do you think is the most important lesson Christianity can learn from anarchism, and vice versa?
I think anarchism explains Christianity. So I guess the most important lesson anarchism can teach Christianity is how to do Christianity more authentically. And having been at endless meetings at collectives, social centres or squats over the years I think the main thing that Christianity can offer anarchism is a richness of language that goes beyond the materialism – in the proper sense of that word – of imagining a better world. I don’t see a need to “become” an anarchist or even to call myself a Christian, most of the time. These labels are just abstractions meant to tell us where we can and cannot travel intellectually. So it’s better just to take the journey and enjoy the company of whoever’s by your side at the time.
Bibliography. 1. http://www.circle-books.com/authors/revd-dr-keith-hebden 2. Goldman, E. (2005) ‘Anarchism and other Essays’ Filiquiarian Publishing, LLC. 3. ‘Anti-drone protesters’ lenient sentence is ‘invitation’ to activists’. H. Williamson, 11-10-13, The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/the-northerner/2013/oct/11/anti-drones-protesters-raf-waddington