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Avant-God, Spiritual Anarchism, The Peasant and the King

Introduction to Spiritual Anarchism

Not Two will be doing a short series of posts about pertinent themes in the upcoming books, starting with Anarchism as it pertains to spirituality. It plays a major part in “The Peasant and the King,” though the A word isn’t mentioned once.

As an intro, here is a spoken word piece by the great folk musician and labor agitator Utah Phillips, set to music by Ani diFranco, about the Catholic anarchist Ammon Hennacy, who was a mentor to Phillips and a much admired hero of mine.

“Force is the weapon of the weak.” — Ammon Hennacy

Anarchism vs. Anarchy

This section will present a very personal viewpoint of the subject of Anarchism. Ask ten other anarchists to define the philosophy, and hopefully you’ll get at least 8 or 9 very different answers. An authoritative definition of anarchism is an oxymoron.

The first task is to clear up the important distinction between the philosophy of anarchism and the first thing most people think of when they see the A-word, which is anarchy. Scenes from Somalia and the American Wild West of yesteryear or the “Mad Max” movies fill the popular imagination with the idea that anarchy is a frightening, terrible state. This has nothing at all to do with anarchism.

The common thread through all aspects of anarchism is a bottom-up approach to empowering the individual to live by self-control. Ammon Hennacy’s oft-cited ideal of an anarchist as “someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave” is a reflection of this emphasis on self-governance. Contrary to the cliche of an unleashed beast doing and taking whatever it impulsively desires, the true product of anarchism is a highly principled individual who is led primarily by conscience.

If you took all the inmates of a maximum-security prison and dropped them on an island without supervision or external controls, you would, at least initially, have the popular concept of anarchy, and you would have the opposite of anarchism.

Part of the difficulty in realizing the difference is that we are trained to think in terms of top-down dynamics, whereas anarchism is in all ways a bottom-up approach to life. There’s no better way to illustrate the difference than to draw the distinction made in anarchist thought between power and authority.

A top-down mentality uses the words interchangeably, but anarchism flips the script, saying “we love power, we hate authority.” Power is the individual’s potential to live and love and work and create, and to voluntarily offer their power to collective efforts to meet collective needs. Authority is what puts some people in power to control others and to use other people’s power toward their own ends. Even when those ends are desirable to meet collective needs, authority accomplishes them through coercion and the threat of force.

This automatically triggers the question to anarchist philosophy: if a collective need must be met through threat of force, how necessary is it to a well-lived life? Is it possible that we as individuals have given up too much of our power to meet artificial needs imposed in top-down manner by an outwardly republican but subtly authoritarian society? What would life be like if we reclaimed that power and lived for what is most important to us as the smallest units of being —as individuals, families, and communities?

But that better life doesn’t get accomplished through creating a vacuum of authority over disempowered people —that’s how you achieve the worst caricature of anarchy. As much as some anarchists would love to “smash the state,” this cannot be the primary point of focus; this is a top-down mentality that is an odds with its own ideals. The emphasis must be on creating empowered individuals and communities who can then choose to see state control as unnecessary, redundant, and in many cases even an oppressive force contrary to true power.

Flipping this script is the greatest challenge to being able to make practical use of anarchist ideals, but once you do, everything falls perfectly into place. Anarchism is a systematic approach to facilitating individual empowerment.

Political and Spiritual

Having established the philosophical foundation for all anarchist thought —empowerment of the individual to live by volition and self-control— we can look at two complementary trajectories by which this one principle can be put into action. I call them the political and the spiritual.

Political anarchism could also be called “external” or “extroverted.” It consists of direct action that works to further the core anarchist principle in the outer world— protection and empowerment of marginalized people; the fight for economic justice and leveling and for the freedom to build community-based alternatives to top-down authority structures; the breaking down of all barriers to self-expression and freethought; just to name a few of the many. For those who know true anarchists as opposed to punkish posers, these will likely be the first things that come to mind because they are the most common and visible.

Spiritual anarchism (“internal” or “introverted”) is liberation work aimed in the other direction, toward the interior world. The aim is to empower the true self to overthrow its own head of state—the ego—and thus live a more fruitful and fearless life in direct contact with its base of existence.

Let’s make two important points very clear. First, this has nothing to do with religion, which is generally a top-down approach to spirituality. There is also a strong heritage of anarchism that takes root in the spiritual practices of many religious people, particularly among Christians. We’ll explore this more in a later post, but I would posit that unprogrammed Quakerism is the most successful and widespread manifestation of the principle of anarchism, so naturally combining elements of the political and spiritual that it’s easy to forget there is a religious organization behind it. But there is no need for spiritual anarchism to associate with any formal religion, and in most cases it would be a hindrance.

Second, do not confuse “overthrowing the ego” with the self-ghosting of some mystics whereby “everything is illusion” and all trace of self disappears. Again, there is some potential for overlap with this belief system, but there’s more than one way to skin a self. The phrase “true self” was chosen carefully for its impartiality. For some, this will mean the physical organism; for others, a more self-actualized person free from the bindings of social roles and programming; for others still, something more sublime like the soul or greater Self. The true self could be God. It is whatever you are once you’ve stripped away the artifice of what you think you are. Those who think their understanding of the true self is the only correct one clearly haven’t done it yet.

The end goal of spiritual anarchism is the same as with its political complement: empowerment of the individual/true self to live and move and have its being with its own sense of volition and self-control. Force or coercion, either by external or internal authority, suggests a top-down approach that’s antithetical to the anarchist principle. The spiritual anarchist finds their God/Nature/Ground of Being within, and works to bring it out.

It is possible to be fully immersed in either practice of anarchism without giving any thought or energy to the other, though as with most things, balance is healthier, and I would make the case that political anarchism is bound to stay very limited in success and scope unless it embraces the spiritual practices that curb the excesses of ego. Personally I’ve always been a political anarchist sympathizer, but not much of an activist, perhaps only because I’m a rather extreme introvert; the spiritual aspect comes much more naturally to me. We can certainly use more people who are well-versed in both, but since the spiritual side is far less recognized, it doesn’t hurt that some of us are wired to specialize in it.

Conscience: the Anarchist Voice of God

“And what is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

— Plato [Symposium], and the epigraph to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

To recap, political anarchism is not about dope, guns, and fucking in the streets. Outward signs of unrestrained pandemonium that often coincide with anarchy are a clear sign that the state of social order we mean by anarchism is not present. Pandemonium is not indicative of an empowered public, but rather of an immature, authority-dependent mobocracy, made of enfants terribles whose apron strings were cut too soon, like a house full of 12-year olds living on their own.

Political anarchism involves owned responsibility and voluntary cooperation. It involves government by ad hoc committees, formed in the recognition that there are collective needs that require group efforts, but without solidifying into the non-human, authoritarian corporate personhood we call “the state.” Anarchism asserts that, for all its messiness and inevitable travails, human life is best lived in a state of freedom and self-control, without the artifice of an authoritarian “head” above all that is human-scale and real.

To achieve this state, though, political anarchism must evolve. It cannot be imposed on an unprepared public by a band of revolutionaries. Romantic as the idea is, people cannot be rescued from their dependence on authority and set free like a domesticated dairy cow in the wilderness. We must do the unsexy grunt work of empowering them first. People must voluntarily unlearn the need to be governed by others.

Oddly enough, the best way for the individual human to become both ungovernable and without the need to be governed is by overthrowing their own internal “head of state”—the ego. As without, so within. 

That’s where spiritual anarchism comes into play. 

Likewise, spiritual anarchism is not a willy-nilly spirituality of “anything goes,” nor does it endorse the smashing of other people’s temples and idols. These are signs of someone whose artifice of ego is still running the show, and is manipulable by the whims of the culture architects who define the roles that make up the ego.

Instead of committees and cooperatives, internally-oriented anarchism focuses on contemplation: discernment of the real from falsehood. A spiritual anarchist thus learns to parse what is ego-driven from what is essential to the health and vitality of the true self, not by being told so by an authority figure, but through meticulous, direct observation of the self. This is the grunt work that makes internal self-empowerment possible and enables the spiritual anarchist to walk away from authoritarian religion.

To paraphrase Ammon Hennacy, a spiritual anarchist is someone who doesn’t need God, the ultimate celestial cop, to make him behave.

But what takes the place of the Heavenly Head of State that replaced or subdued the unrefined natural self? 

(And to be very clear, it did so fruitfully and according to need. This is a subject for an entirely different inquiry, but I propose that Homo sapiens would not have survived the self-domestication process that made civilizations possible without the binding-up influence of organized religion and our ability to submit the individual will to a greater collective one. That doesn’t mean that this will always be the best solution for our evolutionary challenges though, and I’d say we are long past the time when it was.)

This passage from The Peasant and the King introduces the answer:

“As a peasant [human], you tend to experience your thoughts after they arrive [in the semantic brain], where they are draped in lexical imagery and encased in semantic meaning. But the thought itself is an upwelling from pure consciousness. It originates in the King [which can best be translated here as Brahman or Tao]. Words are your interpretation of the footprints left behind where the King has tread.

“Had you not fallen into the spell of Duo [duality], you would know this more clearly than your own name. You would perceive your thoughts with your sentience, feel them with your sapience, and yes, even think them with your cognizance before conceptualizing them as words. You would think in images and emotions and ideational structures more clearly than in words, and you would do this as simply as you move and breathe. 

“Humanity is not unfamiliar with thought as it precedes the formation of words— you simply categorize it as something other than thought, and trace it to mysterious realms of which you have no clear concept. Thoughts about right behavior and judgment are relegated to ‘conscience,’ while novel ideas or arrangements of form are called ‘intuition.’ Artists and scientists speak of inspiration and insight. The religious flock to those who speak of premonition and prophecy, while the self-propelled spiritualists among you tell of occult messages, visions, communion with angels, or channeling of any number of astral helpers and ‘higher selves.’ These are all different concepts you have for the same experience of receiving pre-conceptual thought [from universal Mind, the omniscient progenitor of all mental activity]. None of this is abnormal or paranormal or out of line with the basic experience of thought traced back to its source. Nor will all such thought be expressed in words: visual images, music, and mathematical formulas are among many other manifestations of thought that appear as non-verbal mental activity. The wise among you remain open to all that rises up within them.”

To this list of concepts we have developed to explain pre-conceptual thought, we could add “the still, small voice of God.” The figurehead behind that voice is a symbol and nothing more, but the voice is real, and it is yours. Not the speaking voice of your person; it comes from something more truly you than that. 

This singular voice, given many names as it performs different functions, is that of consciousness itself, or the universal Mind if you’re thrown by that use of “consciousness.” It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why (but not this, that, or the other), but there is reason to see the interior functions historically attributed to God and other divine personages as fruits of non-dual awareness of the “highest Self” common to all beings and things. 

Likewise, there is reason to see every contemplative aspect of each religion, spirituality, mindfulness practice, or mystical self-improvement racket taught by humanity as a codified system for learning to tap this universal source of wisdom and guidance —to find it, to listen to it, to trust it, and to live by it. 

A personal relationship with Jesus Christ, for instance, is an elaborate and often highly ritualized enactment of the same interior connection depicted between the mortal Arjuna and the universal being of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, which is not essentially different than the very full nothingness that guides the Zen master without the trappings of exterior concepts and personification, which is none other than the “high power” evoked by “friends of Bill W.” at AA meetings everywhere. What differs drastically in these contemplative milieus are the cultural contexts and conceptualizations of the root source of guidance; what never changes is the root source itself. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and the voice of innermost Self in any other form would sound as savory to the inner ear.

Because God is most often cited as the source of moral standards for human behavior, let’s focus on this function of the voice of God as it is commonly known (but horribly understood) in both religious and secular contexts: conscience.

Spiritual anarchism stakes out two fundamental positions regarding conscience, one to address encroachments on it from without, and the other from within.

Outwardly, it asserts that no authority stands between an individual and conscience. It is important to remember that conscience is a property of the universal Self, not of individuals, though individuals must discern and decipher its voice in order to utilize it. The contemplative arts are what teach the skills of discernment, and just as with any art there are varying degrees of attainment and proficiency among artists. But ultimately, anarchism says, the skill to teach someone else how to access conscience does not also make one an arbiter of what conscience says to anyone else. You may have mastered the art of portrait drawing, but you cannot draw a more authentic representation of my imaginary friend than my stick figure drawing of her, though you may endeavor to teach me how to draw better. Likewise, the most learned religious scholar or priest may teach a neophyte all he knows about the practices that engender attention and surrender to conscience, but he cannot authentically tell her what conscience is saying to her. As soon as she gives him the power to do so, she is disempowered and an authoritarian hierarchy of access is established, which anarchism rejects.

Inwardly, spiritual anarchism asserts that the empowered individual must also reject the subjective authority of the ego in order to retain the power to follow conscience. The ego entices the individual to place their interests above all others, but conscience does not play such games of favoritism. It places the individual’s interests within all others, and observes a homeostatic principle of ecology rather than egocentricity. With the aid of conscience (as with all intuitive mental functions), we can think in holistic ethical systems, not just fragmented segments as the ego does.

We tend to think of ego as an expression of individuality, but this doesn’t hold water when you look closer at what actually constitutes the ego: a mishmash of social roles defined by various collectives. The ego is a self-marking tool of a finite social unit of being, not an individual with access to infinite insight and wisdom. It is a container of limited knowledge and specialization, not “an aperture through which the whole cosmos looks out.” (Alan Watts) Therefore the ego is a blind guide and a rather unqualified monarch. In a very real sense, a spiritual anarchist is an ego who endeavors to depose herself from the throne of selfhood and put her true self in its rightful place, for the ultimate purpose of its abdication. The Peasant and the King is an allegorical walk-through and outward depiction of this mostly interior process.

Most of Western society is stuck in the phase of liberating the self from the cloak of collectively defined ego, because we recognize the fictional nature of collectives but we lack the metaphysical insight to take it to the next step. The self is then seen as a self-propagated and self-propelled ego, an atomized unit of being devoid of any proper grounding beyond a natural imperative to survive at all costs, a phase I call hyperindividualism. This is a difficult part of the process to manage because it seems to be the opposite of what we need as spiritual beings. It seems to set the stage for the ego to run amok and have its final pyrrhic triumph in destroying the society that created it, so there is an instinct to retreat back into identification with collectives. But intuition knows we can only go forward, that the illness is the cure, and that hyperindividualism creates the crucible we need to pivot forward into what spiritual anarchism proffers as our deliverance:  the crowning of the true self that knows it is not separate from anyone or anything in existence. 

Most specifically, we must recognize at this point that the challenges of climate change cannot be adequately addressed by collectives acting in clumsy, fragmented spurts of egocentric action. Nothing short of humanity seeing from the holistic perspective of the entire biosphere is going to keep this world hospitable to complex life forms. Ideally, then, nature would encourage intuitive capacity as an adaptive trait. But it is questionable whether we can afford to wait for natural selection to create adequate numbers of capable humans. We may need to accelerate the process by encouraging more individuals to recognize their own sovereignty and pursue their own deposition. 

Pacifism, Not Passive-ism

So what is the practical value of all this anyway? Where is the rubber-meets-the-road point at which spiritual anarchism becomes a useful vehicle? Or what is the point of bringing the political concept of anarchism into one’s spirituality? Why not just find a practice to develop the interior life, be a decent person,  and call it good?

That depends on how willing one is to see political anarchism as a practical and useful tool for improving human life. There are many eloquent spokespersons for the benefits of life without coercion and social hierarchy, and I won’t try to duplicate what they say in my limited space here. They also tend to preach to either the choir or the deaf, with the vast majority of the audience being the latter. Anarchism as a whole is almost universally dismissed, even among would-be anarchists, as impossible and impractical. I’ve been there myself, because looking at the state of the world at present, it is, undeniably.

But a lot of things we take for granted now were once impractical and seemed impossible, and it’s a good thing we never stopped thinking and dreaming about them. For how many centuries did we attempt to master controlled flight, for example, before it became possible? How often did our winged contraptions fail to get off the ground before someone noticed that slight curvature of the wings was needed to create the physical effect of lift? Now we fly many thousands of times every day as though it were second nature.

Spiritual anarchism is the curvature in the wings of its political counterpart. If that bird is ever going to take off, it needs to be conscious of what gives it lift, and cultivate that trait in as many people as possible.

The principle of anarchist aerodynamics at work here is simple: the need to be governed arises from a disconnect in the self-other relationship that is our most fundamental interaction with our environment.

Most people feel that they can trust themselves to behave in a way that is beneficial to their own interests and at least neutral to others. Fair enough. But by and large, we do not extend that trust to others, perhaps for good reason historically because humanity has lived in a purgatory-like mental space between instinct and intuition for most of the era of civilization. We are very erratic, individualistic critters who have mostly lost the sixth sense to perceive danger without yet finding the insight that there is nothing to fear. 

But each self is also part of everyone else’s “other.” So we submit to authoritative control over our own lives in order to have a sense of security from others. But we chafe at that control because we certainly don’t need the government to monitor and run our lives —they are the reason we need social hierarchy and its cascading levels of authority. Civilization thus becomes a competition to move up the hierarchy into increasing levels of autonomy for the self and authority over others, with a self-perpetuating cycle of increasing institutional use of force and coercion as a result. 

Political anarchism correctly points out the folly of this vicious cycle in which no one is truly free and says “another world is possible.” But to the unregenerate muggles of this world, anarchy means unleashing  the chaos of “other” into their sense of security, and that will not do. Security becomes an increasingly privatized commodity in the mind of the hyperindividualistic human who has lost all sense of common ground with “other.” The “Don’t Tread On Me” sentiment of contemporary right-wing politics can be summed up in this Orwellian manner: everyone should be free, and everyone else should live in a police state.

The only thing that can reverse this cursed state of mutually assured distrust is a shift in the essential nature of the self-other relationship, from the deception of perceived disconnect to its true inherent Oneness.. We cannot expect an atomized individual self to relent on its need to desire freedom and control the other, paradoxical as those needs may be, as long as the other feels like an imminent threat to the only life it knows. Spiritual anarchism needs to defuse the threat first. 

Pacifism –another word that doesn’t mean what you think it means, or at least shouldn’t — is the key. 

Google defines pacifism as “the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.” It’s a fine definition if you are only interested in looking at the surface of what a pacifist is. But what are “peaceful means” of settling conflict? Is peace nothing more than the absence of physical violence? If so, does this mean pacifism is nothing more than conflict avoidance? How does one arrive at the state of mind and heart in which peaceful means that could result in death are preferable to fighting for one’s life? The definition gets mushier with each question.

I suggest we use this definition that is at once broader in application and more specific in source: Pacifism is any systematic method of cultivating inner peace and expressing it into the outer world. Since we don’t want to use the word to define itself, “inner peace” is the lack of existential tension between self and other. Another common term for that is “love.”

Let’s be clear about what this definition implies: it is pacifism, not passive-ism. It requires deliberate and principled action, rising from the wellspring of conscience and uninhibited by the fear that the true self is something that can die. Any fair reading of the Bhagavad-Gita will admit that Krishna is teaching Arjuna inner peace so that he can take it into battle. Whether that is literally the battlefield of Kurukshetra as the narrative portrays or a metaphor for an internal war, it is clear that pacifism does not make us into inert, apolitical neuters or navel-gazers. To the contrary, the true pacifist is one who has actively deposed the ego and thus faces death like an actor faces the closing of the curtain onstage.  True pacifists needn’t ask anyone how to treat others –they know, as Ramana Maharshi did, that there are no others.

In the YouTube clip that introduced this series, Utah Phillips recalls conversations about pacifism with his mentor, the Catholic anarchist Ammon Hennacy. This passage illustrates the connection between Hennacy’s pacifist and anarchist principles. It was his response to Phillips, then a young Korean War veteran struggling with PTSD and violent behavior, saying he would “try pacifism:”

“That’s not enough…You were born a white man in mid-20th century industrial America, and you came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege: racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. If you want to be a pacifist it’s not just about giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that.”

Fair point, George. But that’s passive-ism, not pacifism.

Giving up all forms of privilege essentially means living in a society without stratification, in which all people are considered free and empowered to use their apportioned abilities without the yoke of authority holding some up and others down. If that seems like an impossible state for an individual to achieve alone, it is; this describes political anarchy as achieved by a corporate body. But that body is made up of individuals who have undergone the spiritual process of deposing the ego. They have surrendered the errant notion that the definitions that comprise the ego define the true self. The weapons of privilege are rendered useless in the hands of those who see the self in others. 

A core principle of anarchism is that love can only exist between equals. Any hierarchy creates a disparity of empowerment. The interpersonal dynamic changes from voluntary association between equals to one that involves some degree of obligation, force, or coercion, and love, the natural state of one who is experiencing inner peace, is never achieved through these means. Love neither asserts nor responds to authority [1].     

A truly egalitarian society therefore can only be made up of people who have resolved the dichotomous self-other tension and found inner peace in its place. It is obvious that this would lead to the disappearance of all oppressive master classes of people and the weapons of privilege. What’s less obvious is the responsibility for the oppressed to assert their own empowerment, let go of all conditioned identities that define them as second-class and servile, and create inner peace in the midst of their oppressors. Class warfare can be won by no one, and must be surrendered by all.

This is not to deny that we exist to serve and elevate each other; it is to assert that service must come from love, which means it must be voluntary and mutual, or it is something disruptive to true peace. If service comes from authoritarian coercion instead of love, it is a disservice; it perpetuates a disparity of power that breeds further self-other existential tension. For the servant class in an unequal society, resistance to oppression is actually an act of love, aimed at dismantling a system that keeps us all in chains.

The ultimate exemplar of what you might call “active pacifism” is Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Christian gospels. I’m not going to make the argument that He was a political anarchist —I’m not interested in debating the meaning of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”— but He was undeniably a pacifist and active resistor of religious and state authority, Not in a way that reactionary political hacks will recognize, of course, because it was far too revolutionary.

I received a timely reminder of this yesterday in the form of the daily email from the Center for Action and Contemplation, established by the contemporary Catholic mystic Fr. Richard Rohr. In the email, Rohr cites the book “Jesus and Nonviolence” by his colleague Walter Wink. (If you bristle at all this deliberate use of Christian sources, you need not see Jesus as a supernatural being to appreciate this, in fact it’s better if you don’t. Consider him an archetype for the fully realized potential of inner peace to unveil the true self, or if you’re feeling whimsical, the reincarnation of Adam who finally got his shit figured out.)

“There are three general responses to evil: 1) passivity, 2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses.

“Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. 

“Jesus’ Third Way bears at its very heart the love of enemies. This is the hardest word to utter in a context of conflict because it can so easily be misunderstood as spinelessness. But it is precisely the message [Martin Luther King, Jr.] made central to his efforts in the polarized circumstances of the American South:”

“To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. [2] [3]” 

Like Hennacy and the Catholic Workers, Reverend King’s pacifism  was inspired by his religious convictions. But his philosophy of nonviolent resistance also came from a more modern lineage, via Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, to the eminent Transcendentalist writer and abolitionist agitator, Henry David Thoreau. In the opening lines of his seminal essay “Civil Disobedience,” an early clarion call for conscience over fealty to the law, Thoreau minced no words in establishing an evolutionary anarchist platform for his pacifist resistance:

“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’  and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” [italics mine]

But Thoreau’s ardent defense of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown and many critiques of capitalism show that he was no mere libertarian,  nor a private enterprise fetishist who wanted to strangle the government in the bathtub so the master class would be free to exploit at will. Thoreau seemed to understand that what makes a society prepared for a government which “governs not at all” is widespread attention to conscience, and social structures which reflect this attention rather than divisive stratification and forced passivity. It is better to have a citizenry of righteously unruly malcontents than obedient masses living in the quiet desperation of a shallow peace. 

Jesus of Nazareth —a guy famous for whipping capitalists and turning over the tables of bankers —and any other spiritual anarchists worth their salt would likely agree.

So that would be my answer to the initial question we explored in this section: Spiritual anarchism describes the point at which an individual’s inner peace can be expressed as active love, unforced by governments within and without. When enough people realize that peace within themselves, the possible world will become our reality.

The Kingdom of Heaven Is Possible, Another World is Within You

We all know that every movement needs a good slogan, and anarchism has a few. There are two that stand out to me as exemplary of their respective facets of the philosophy, which I took the liberty of intertwining to show how an integrated anarchism of spiritual insight and political action would present itself. Let’s look at the two components first.

“Another world is possible”

Pretty straight forward: there is nothing inevitable about our current social, political, and economic systems. Crony capitalism and the nation-state are not intrinsic to human nature; they are fairly recent developments in the span of Homo sapiens’ existence, and there is nothing that suggests they mark the pinnacle of human social development. We as a society evolved into these paradigms that we as individuals have been taught from early childhood and thus they  seem second nature to us. But they are not, they are malleable artifacts of a society’s collective intellectual filter just like any other organizing philosophy, and paradigms will shift and change.

So far I have yet to trace the slogan to any definitive origin. The earliest attribution I’ve found was to the Direct Action Network, a loose affiliation of anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups that formed in the late 1990s in resistance to the World Trade Organization and the like. It was the title of a book, a film series, and a handful of related articles all dating to the 2000s, and it was the basis for an oft-repeated quote by writer-activist Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Clearly there is an established context for this statement: the contemporary movement of resistance against economic injustice and multinational corporate hegemony, which overlaps with anarchism but is not part and parcel of it. But a broader use, inclusive of the whole modern paradigm that anarchism seeks to change, is more than appropriate. A paradigm shift that embraces anarchism would harken not only a more cooperative, human-scale economic system, but an egalitarian social structure in which one can exist freely as one’s true self, without being defined by one’s nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. The cultural hegemony of straight white males from first world countries must die of its own irrelevancy in an anarchist society, and that seems even more other-worldly than the death of corporatism and capitalism. 

“The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You”

This line is derived from a similar phrase attributed to Jesus in Luke 17:20-21:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

This version of the phrase was appropriated by the renowned Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy —famous for writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, less famous as a self-propelled Christian anarchist and staunch opponent of the czar and the Russian Orthodox Church— as the title of his novel-length essay denouncing nationalism and war-mongering statism as antithetical to Christian pacifism. Here Tolstoy sums up his agreement with American Quakers who responded to a previous publication about his religious beliefs:

“Christ’s teaching, which came to be known to men, not by means of violence and the sword,” [the Quakers] say, “but by means of non-resistance to evil, gentleness, meekness, and peaceableness, can only be diffused through the world by the example of peace, harmony, and love among its followers. A Christian, according to the teaching of God himself, can act only peaceably toward all men, and therefore there can be no authority able to force the Christian to act in opposition to the teaching of God and to the principal virtue of the Christian in his relation with his neighbors. The law of state necessity…can force only those to change the law of God who, for the sake of earthly gains, try to reconcile the irreconcilable; but for a Christian who sincerely believes that following Christ’s teaching will give him salvation, such considerations of state can have no force.”

Clocking in at well over 300 pages of expounding upon this basic pint, The Kingdom of God Is Within You left no room for ambiguity over Tolstoy’s view that the Eastern Orthodox Church was complicit in state-sponsored violence, in direct violation of its own Christian precepts, a view shared by American pacifists regarding Western mainstream Protestantism. Tolstoy also found a kindred spirit in Thoreau, and cited Civil Disobedience as a primary influence behind his work, further establishing the anarchist and pacifist connection present in the philosophy behind Kingdom of God.

The author of the gospel of Matthew seemed to prefer a different wording, translated from the original Greek as “the Kingdom of Heaven.” This phrase doesn’t appear in Mark or Luke, but is used 29 times in Matthew. It is not surprising to see different phrasing used in the gospels because each was written at a different time for a specific audience, but biblical scholars generally agree that the two phrases are equivalent. Wikipedia cites a description of  “the Kingdom of Heaven/God” as 

“a process, a course of events, whereby God begins to govern or to act as king or Lord; an action, therefore, by which God manifests his being-God in the world of men.”

Given what was covered earlier regarding conscience as the voice of God once the ecclesiastical symbol is seen through outwardly and the ego is deposed inwardly, there is every reason to give an anarchist endorsement to the “kingdom” or process of submitting to self-government by conscience as something that occurs “within you,” not a change imposed by outside authority. Every aspect of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew corroborates the notion that Christ is pointing toward an inward transformation and deposing of the ego to revitalize a religion that had calcified into mere obedience training. Mark one more tally for Jesus As Spiritual Anarchist.

I chose “Kingdom of Heaven” as the more appropriate phrase to adopt because the common word use of God makes the Kingdom sound much more imperious. Heaven is often used in non-religious context as an ideal state of perfection, or at least something better than the world we inhabit now. It suggests a progression from the folly of the times to a higher state of being –sort of like the “another world” that anarchism tells us is possible.

So, by themselves, the two components of this would-be slogan are more compatible than they would seem at first to partisans of either facet of anarchism. Political anarchists, after all, tend to see spirituality as wooly-headed conformity to the “opiate of the masses,” while those who practice the various kinds of spiritual anarchism might be turned off by the well-documented perception of anarchy as lawlessness and free rein given to the ego. The point of intertwining them is to drive home that compatibility more than they can by standing alone.

The Kingdom of Heaven Is Possible

It isn’t a given. It isn’t a reward bestowed on those who follow the right rules or believe the right theological precepts or even those who (paradoxically) succeed at releasing all the right attachments. The potential to realize the transformation symbolized by the Kingdom of Heaven exists in every human life, but it isn’t inevitable, and it won’t happen through navel-gazing detachment from the affairs of the world. Contemplation and spiritual practice must be infused with the motivation to put its insights into conscientious action or it is useless, in this kingdom or any other.  

Another World Is Within You

Likewise, the focus of political anarchism is often too exclusively outward. The familiar caricature of the progressive social reformer who loves humanity but hates humans is common among anarchists who haven’t done the centering contemplative work that would let them inwardly “be the change” they want to see in the outer world. A world free of authoritarian control and oppression needs to be found and unleashed within us before we can model it for others. No anarchists in human history have lived to see their macro-level goals for a free, egalitarian society realized. But many have disarmed themselves and deposed the inner tyrant, enabling others to see that their own transformation is possible. This is how “another world” can be realized. It all comes from within you. 

Closing Thought

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” —Serenity prayer (originally written by  Reinhold Niebuhr)

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.” —Angela Davis

In reality, social stratification and political authority are with us to stay as long as civilization exists. The self-other divide is our most primal source of personal identity; it is reinforced by language and solidified with every social interaction we experience. With new humans entering the world and being taught their role in society all the time, the idea of a truly egalitarian culture of free individuals seems as plausible as emptying a lake with a pail while standing in a boat. 

In the spoken word song I used to introduce this article,  Utah Phillips makes a pertinent point about anarchy: it is an adjective, not a noun. “It describes the tension between moral economy and political authority,” he said.

Since the latter isn’t going away soon, the value of anarchism cannot be measured by attainment of an end goal, but rather,  by the ease it brings to the tension between what is right and what is real, between what is possible and what is happening. 

Utah Phillips and Ani diFranco

I would argue that the Serenity Prayer is anarchist because ultimately, what is being consulted for the power of discernment is one’s conscience, not an external authority. No individual person has the power to right every wrong or liberate all who are oppressed, so knowing where one’s limited time and energy should be spent goes a long way toward maximizing the efficacy of one’s actions. 

But the rewording of the prayer by civil rights leader Angela Davis is important too. There are some injustices too egregious for anyone with empathy to accept, and there are also some changes that only become possible when a critical mass of individuals bring conscientious action to bear. The courage to take the political action of changing what one cannot accept can derive from the same spiritual anarchist wellspring that gives us the serenity to accept the possible failure of that action. 

Whether one’s anarchism will be expressed primarily on an outward or an inward trajectory is a matter of temperament and nothing else; neither is right nor wrong except in the context of the individual, and both contribute to the transformation of our world into something resembling the Kingdom of Heaven. As within, so without.

FOOTNOTE

[1] Parenting might seem like an exception to this rule, but from a non-authoritarian perspective, it is no different. Parents may use the guise of authority over their children to guide them on the path to their own autonomy (as the King does to the peasant in my book), but the superlative parent knows this is a temporary role that is never the whole truth of the relationship; the child’s soul is always independent of the parent’s and equal within the true self. 

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Augsburg Fortress: 2003), 12, 13-14, 58-59, 60-61.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Christmas, 1957), written in the Montgomery jail during the bus boycott.

About Waldo Noesta

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