Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Christian Anarchy

Out of all the concepts and charisms of the Catholic Worker movement, perhaps there is none more misunderstood than that of "Christian anarchy."

Saying the word "anarchy" in a conversation usually sets off a variety of triggers in the listeners. Whether people yay or nay it, one thing I have noticed is that there usually isn't a lot of follow-up conversation on the topic. People already have a set idea of what they think it means.

Many people coming to the Catholic Worker expect the value of anarchy to mean that there would be no structure, rules or authority at all. This simply isn't true. Christian anarchy is not what we commonly think of as political or social anarchy, which would be some kind of lawless, random condition where nobody has any rules or agreements with each other.

Christian anarchy is the furthest thing from simple rebelliousness or disdain for authority. Christian anarchy is the response from a person who has gotten to a point in their faith and social justice awareness where they are willing to make a deep commitment--the commitment is to Christ--and to take responsibility for the consequences of that commitment. The commitment is to put the commandments of Christ over the law of the Land. When those two sets of obligations are in conflict, a Christian anarchist may make the decision to break a law in order to give witness to their true allegiance to God. They also most likely do so knowing they may pay some hefty consequences, such as jail time, violence or even perhaps martyrdom. We should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's--but we should always be aware that much of what Caesar thinks is his is really none of his business, and some of it might really be the Lord's.

Those who ran the underground railroad a 150 years ago were true Christian anarchists. Through their faith and by examining their conscience, they decided that they could not support the laws of the land which bound people into slavery. They helped and supported runaway slaves in direct violation of the law. They took risks, and I would imagine that some paid some serious consequences. Many folks today see a parallel with supporting undocumented citizens against an unjust and unfair immigration system in America.

Keep in mind that a general frustration with authority can certainly be the seed of a true Christian anarchy. It is encouraging to see people who don't just accept authority without questioning it. And sometimes you need to thumb your nose at authority! However, that can get tiring, too. It is also wonderful to see people who are willing to put on a yoke--if it is the right yoke. A true rebel must have a cause, and a cause requires commitment.

People can be surprised to find that houses of hospitality often have many pages of rules and expectations for members. The goal of those rules is to find a way to avoid stepping on each others' toes. If we share the same space, we are bound to cause hurt feelings or worse if we are all approaching our life and our work with different assumptions or sets of criteria--so let's agree on what the criteria will be. Rules may be as reasonable as saying that if you use the hammer, put it back. That is not an attempt to oppress people who use hammers, it is more of a courtesy to the next person who wants to use it so they don't have to spend wasted hours looking for it, or so we don't have hammers laying around in random locations. Yet, it may crimp the style of people who don't like to put things back, but in the end is is better than crimping the style of folks who never can find a hammer when they need it.

To give a simple example, one person's desire to be messy may conflict with someone else's desire to be tidy, and left to a purely random anarchy the messy person would always win. Sometimes it is important to make decisions collectively because if all decisions were random acts of individuals we would not be left with a very fair system, we would simply aways tend toward the lowest common denominator. One person's right to smoke comes into direct conflict with someone else's right to breathe clean air. If one smoker lived in a home with ten non-smokers, anarchy would hold that the smoker could smoke and the rest would simply have to deal with it. Having no limits on individual behavior can end up limiting others. There's no way around that, because our lives are always inter-connected. With that in mind, the best we can do is find the fairest rules possible for everyone.

Good rules should function like traffic laws. They should make life easier, not harder. When I drive around a blind curve, I am reassured to know that if there are any cars coming in the opposite direction, they are most likely going to keep to their side of the road. It would be unfathomable if there were no traffic laws. Just imagine if every trip to the grocery store involved life or death consequences! Accidents do happen and mistakes can be made, but overall people do follow traffic laws and we are the better for it.

Sometimes that means there are silly instances such as stopping at a red light at 3 am on a dark country road when it is clear there is no one going to cross the intersection. Still, we stop, and it is better to do so than to start on a slippery slope of picking and choosing which law to follow and when--even though that's exactly what Christian anarchy is! How can this be? Christian anarchy should involve a time of prayerful discernment AND most importantly the opportunity to discuss a decision with the larger community before deciding to break a law. An individual may decide to act even if the larger community advises against it, if their conscience compels them to do so, but the important thing is that they go through a process of soliciting feedback before simply making a private decision in isolation. It can lead to unwise or even dangerous behavior if people simply act as if "they know best" without checking that assumption with others. Therefore, the paradox is that Christian anarchy must be lived out in community!

To live in a society that is purely random where people simply do as they do and expect that somehow it's all going to come together beautifully with no intentional coordination is unrealistic. The Holy Spirit sometimes enables a sort of "holy chaos" like that, but let me tell you from experience that that doesn't always happen. The larger Catholic intellectual tradition supports an organized society with rules and structure. In America, we are often saturated with a worldview that comes from the Founders through the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformations. They would have it that "the government that governs least is that which governs best" and "government is evil, but a necessary evil." They have the very valid point that there must be checks and balances on power and bureaucracy. However, the Catholic tradition has a more favorable view of government. Government is simply necessary. When it functions well, we are better off than without. Humans cannot live together without some open and acknowledged conversation about how we are to live and work together. As Aristotle says, "to be human is to be in community." There's no opting out of the difficult conversation of coordinating our lives with those around us. Instead of calling it an evil-but-necessary process, let's just call it a necessary process.

What makes Catholic Worker house rules different than many other organizations and businesses is this:

1. The rules are determined by the people who are most directly affected--the people who live there or work there. They are not imposed by a management team 3,000 miles away.
2. The rules are changeable. If circumstances change or if individuals have special needs or exceptions, we can always re-gather together to amend things.

If folks don't like the word "rules," there are other ways of looking at it. It is an agreement by people who live and work together to honor each others' needs and requests while also giving breadth to be who they need to be. Good rules should not be about control. They are actually about freedom--putting some structure in place so that people can be more. It is hard to move forward if we are always stepping on each others' toes or un-doing what each other has done. It would be impossible to drive to the grocery store if the roads were a total lawless state.

Many CW houses try to function by a near-total consensus model. Now, I think everyone should have an experience of true consensus in their lives. It can be a wonderful exercise to learn how to talk, how to listen and how to be sensitive to each other's needs while advocating for your own, how to hang in there until true resolution is reached. However, it also can be very tedious. It can be hard to function if house meetings start at 7 pm and continue until 3 am until consensus is reached. As Pat used to say, let's just delegate so we can get some sleep.

We must also remember too that delegation is also a form of respect and responsibility and can be perfectly appropriate for Christian anarchists. It is about honoring the fact that someone can simply take on a particular job and we can respect their ability to manage that sphere of influence. Catholic Worker houses should be careful not to overstep the Catholic value of subsidiarity--which means that no outside authority should come in to manage something that local people can do for themselves. Some decisions in CW houses do not need to be group decisions but can instead be delegated to individuals. We don't need consensus on whether the trash is taken out at night or in the morning. As long as the appointed people do it when it is necessary, let them figure out the nuts & bolts so the rest of us can do other things with our time. We should respect their ability to take care of it without babysitting--unless their action affects others, in which case those needs need to be heard.

At the Columbus Catholic Worker, we have reserved consensus for "important decisions." What determines an important decision? We don't have set criteria. If a decision seems important enough, if it affects others, then we chime in. If not, we don't need to.

Many use the concept of "anarchy" to thumb their nose at rules and responsibilities in general. In truth, Christian anarchy is the pinnacle of commitment and responsibility.

Can a commitment to Christian anarchy lead some to advocate for a more general political anarchy the way the word is most commonly understood? It can and does for some individuals and communities, but it does not have to. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin both advocated for a "strong Abbott" model of leadership in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality.

I have never really liked rules much. I have always been the first one to break them, especially if I sense that people are enforcing them just for the sake of control. But the older I get, the more I realize that part of being a healthy, holistic human being is setting the parameters for how we live and work with others. There is a time to break boundaries, but there is also a time to set them, too. That can and should be an exercise is respect--both for myself and for others. Let's always hope that our experience of community and structure is one about respect and compassion and not about oppression. By keeping the conversation always open, as we do in Catholic Worker communities, there is always hope for making a better and better community, and for correcting ourselves if we do get off track.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sounds like a lot of growth and development at CCW. good work.