The Anarchy of Charity

The Anarchy of Charity March 29, 2021

I came across these three words (“anarchy of charity”) while re-reading David Bentley Hart’s seminal theological work, in the chapter on eschatology (Pg. 399). I immediately fell in love with those three words, even if I wasn’t completely sure why I felt that way, or what it was they conveyed. It was just a complete interruption to my reading. I was brought to a halt by their poetic power and what they stirred within me.

The context for their use surrounded the idea of justice. Hart can be very difficult to understand if one is not a professional (or at least, intelligent) philosopher or theologian. Thus, I could very well be misreading him, but the idea seems to be that without a future end, judgment, closure, or summing up, any justice in the current moment can become problematic. Further, that said judgment or closure has already happened, is happening, and is also yet to come.

For Christians, the end, or the eschaton, isn’t something only in the future, but is something that because of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, is now and comes to us again and again in every moment. Thus, he writes:

“To turn from the eschatological is to close off the present within economy, to move from the radical event of judgment to the rooted stability of institution, to become resigned to the limiting measures that ignore the call, and the threat, of the infinite; to forget that the eschatological verdict has been pronounced already, within history, and has raised up the crucified, is to resist the anarchy of charity.”

Again, perhaps I have misread Hart’s meaning here as to the entire context or have not done it justice. However, allow me to digress.  I want to focus on those three words, the “anarchy of charity.” In my mind, they speak in so many ways. As I paused to reflect upon those words, here is where those reflections took me.

First, several Bible passages came to mind:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22)

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

“…For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-4)

“And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there…” (Rev 21)

My thought was the difference between a culture or civilization defined by a plethora of laws and that of anarchy.  Anarchy seems scary to us and often, rightly so. It feels very unsafe and even violent. We picture the apocalypse, Mad Max, the Walking Dead, or even the American West of the 1800s, when what are now states were only territories.

The word, anarchy, is normally applied in the context of government, rule, or organization. It is the lack, thereof.  We might picture the cries of politicians for “law and order” transposed against a gathering, for instance, like Woodstock or Bohemian enclaves. I’m reminded of the 1953 film, “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando. It’s a story featuring a rebellious motorcycle gang. When Brando’s character is asked what he’s rebelling against, he responds, “Whaddaya got?”

Many of us are old enough to remember a time when people did not lock their doors at night and were comfortable leaving their keys in their cars.  Children could roam freely and much of the violence we hear about or experience now was fairly uncommon. I realize this may have been in more rural places than urban, but still, there was a difference. I understand no historical timeframe was ideal or without its own peculiar trouble, but I hope my point is taken.

We might want to consider two trajectories as to being governed. The trajectory of more laws, rules, procedures, guidelines, and enforced structure may be a sign of civilizational failure. I note this, not as an opponent of, “big government,” but merely as a suggestion it portends a deeper, much deeper, problem.

The other trajectory is risky. Rather than an ever-expanding web of laws and rules, it seeks a space where the “anarchy of charity,” is let loose to provide, not legislated or outwardly enforced boundaries, but ones only the conscience can provide. The edges that come from an inner character and integrity, a moral compass and governor. Yes, I know this is utopic and unrealistic.

We still live in a fallen world. There are indeed people in this world and life who may wish us, for whatever reason, harm. People who operate out of violence. I know we need a certain amount of law and order in this life. A broken world produces broken people, people who have been hurt. And people who are hurting, often hurt others. I get the need for law and boundaries.

I suppose my point is that when charity rises, the need for laws and enforced structures recedes. I believe this to be true for the individual as well. When we begin to operate more out of charity and less out of fear and rote obligation, we become truly free. No outside law or authority over us is needed.  We begin to operate less from a patchwork of outward do’s and don’ts, and more toward an inner law of love that seeks only our neighbor’s good, for no reason other than their wellbeing.

The kingdom brought by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the life of the church now, and the kingdom to come are economies defined by (or should be) the anarchy of charity. Whether or not we can ever truly have such in this life, I believe we should still work toward that goal, both individually and corporately.

It is why we pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  When the new Jerusalem comes down, it’s gates are always open and never locked. The anarchy of charity has no need for locked doors, gates, or walls.  May it be so.

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Image by jplenio


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