Intro to Spiritual Anarchism, part 5: 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.”

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. 

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.

Introduction to Spiritual Anarchism

Part 1: Anarchism vs Anarchy

Part 2: Political and Spiritual

Part 3: Conscience, the Anarchist Voice of God

Part 4: Pacifism, Not Passive-ism

Part 5: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Possible, Another World is Within You

You may also read the whole series as a composite article at Not Two

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