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A little anarchy might be good for us

Terry Stokes, author of the upcoming ‘Jesus and the Abolitionists: How Anarchist Christianity Empowers the People,’ is the guest on the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Terry Stokes (Photo courtesy of Terry Stokes)

LOUISVILLE — Terry Stokes, who wrote the upcoming book “Jesus and the Abolitionists: How Anarchist Christianity Empowers the People,” said during a recent “A Matter of Faith” podcast that he wrote the book to help people “look at anarchy and grab insights and inspiration for how to reshape our theology and our practice within our communities and our society.”

Stokes’ nearly hour-long conversation with podcast hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong can be heard here.

Stokes explained anarchy as a philosophy as well as “a lifestyle or a movement.” He offered two definitions: the absence of rulership and what he called “a more poetic definition,” the “art of relating freely as equals.”

“As I got more into anarchism, the question of could our lives in community be improved without rulership was the entry point into all my constructive work between my spiritual background [Stokes earned a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2020] and this new political philosophy I was getting into,” he said. “Are human beings inherently good? Inherently bad? Are they inherently neutral?”

Growing up “in the conservative milieu, there was a lot of talk about original sin and depravity,” Stokes recalled. “That started to get dismantled when I was in seminary, but it wasn’t until another philosophical voice came in from the outside, through anarchism, that I was able to reconsider that question.”

If we believe human beings are inherently bad, “a logical next step is some or all humans need to be coerced in order to do right and live in harmony with the people around them,” he said. But if we believe humans are inherently good, or at least inherently neutral, “the first step after saying that was to go back through Scripture and see if there is a way I could go through the narrative, the scheme of the text, and see if that was an interpretation I could arrive at or hold with integrity.”

In his book, Stokes explores how making a commitment to an anarchist view influences how we read the Bible. “Scripture often seems to present the idea that rulership is good, and humans often do need to be coerced, that violence is sometimes justified and, in an important way, God is a ruler, or at least someone who can be thought of positively and constructively as a ruler,” he said. “If we are letting go of God as a ruler, does that cohere with the witness of scriptural texts and tradition? What does that leave us with? The book ends up being an attempt at creating a systematic theology where these threads being unraveled are woven back together again in a way that makes sense across these different areas of theology.”

Stokes makes a distinction between rulership and leadership. “A lot of anarchists would say everyone is a leader,” he said. “In any movement, you will have people who have expertise in a particular area. When those people speak up in the assembly, there naturally will be some extra weight that people give to their insights.”

Catoe pointed out that “with anarchy, there is that connection that there is a lot of violence and chaos — all those depictions in movies that without a ruler, the world is just going to collapse or come to a dead halt and things will get kind of wild.”

“I wonder how we get away from that idea that anarchy equals chaos and violence?” Catoe asked Stokes.

“The most fundamental part underlying the fear of what will happen if we abolish rulership is this question: Does that make me vulnerable to this person who’s going to mistreat me?” Stokes replied, “because there’s nothing in place to restrain them or there’s no looming threat of punishment in response to them doing so.”

What “a lot of anarchists would say,” Stokes said, “is, ‘Do you need to be coerced to do the right thing in most of your life?’” For example, do we need to be told to wait for someone to cross the street before driving our car through the intersection?

“If you really think about it, we do most of the things we do not because we’re being coerced or out of fear of punishment, but because we have a sense of solidarity with other human beings,” Stokes said. “So many of us in the U.S. have been trained and socialized to think that security, punishment and profit are the motives behind pretty much all we do. But when you take a look at your life, that’s really not the case.”

“A lot of what anarchism is, is formalizing and making explicit a lot of the thigs we already believe and do implicitly — in this case, formalizing the idea there is a solidarity or compassion motive, or even a generosity motive — behind so much of what we do, even though we don’t really think of it that way,” Stokes said.

This shift in understanding “helped me to have a much more open mind to abolishing rulership and abolishing prisons and trying to make decisions by consensus,” Stokes said.

“For me, as someone who has a calling to vocational ministry and was serving in that role when I encountered anarchism and began to work that into my spirituality, my hope became personally and communally to be in a place where the spiritual authority I have can be practiced in a way that is free of dominion and coercion,” Stokes said. “It’s not a permanent position I have earned, but something I am doing for a particular time and context. I want to be replaceable. I don’t want everything to hinge on me.”

“We have the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers,’” Stokes said of the Reformed tradition. “So much of Jesus’ ministry is centered on empowering people around him to do he very things he’s doing … One thing that I mention in the book that I think is very cool about Jesus is he’s really trying to make himself obsolete, in a way. He’s trying to set up a movement that will continue just as strong after he’s removed from the picture.”

Stokes said he’s “always appreciated the early church, from the time of Jesus to the institutionalization of the church in Rome, as a period when you see a radical, ragtag group of people who are just going after it and transforming the communities they live in — bringing in people who would not have had opportunities to be leaders, constantly butting up against the status quo and political structures.”

As recently as 50 years ago, the church “was at the center of American culture and did not have to go to people. The people were coming to them,” he said. Stokes has experience working “with people who are experimenting with starting churches in bars and libraries, trying to meet people where they are. I think anarchic Christianity is potentially one of those things. The idea of going to a small group founded on radical Christianity or socialist or anarchist Christianity — that’s intriguing to me. I’d stop by.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Doong asked about the abolitionist movement mentioned in the book’s title. “I think of anarchy as underneath an umbrella of abolition,” Stokes said. He said he and the people who helped publish the book “felt that leading with that larger or wider umbrella would be a way to, even in the space of a few seconds, create a little more receptiveness to the word ‘anarchy.’”

“I wanted to place anarchism within the tradition of abolitionism,” Stokes said. “That’s where I see anarchism adding lots of value to these conversations — not necessarily changing people’s minds but offering a different way to think about those questions.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

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