Why would a Christian not go to church? This was the case with Ammon Hennacy, an American Christian that lived in the twentieth century until his death in 1970. Ammon was an anarchist, pacifist and war resister who refused to pay taxes because they helped to build the war machine. He was imprisoned for his trouble. He lived simply, according to the ideal of voluntary poverty, and was a friend of the Catholic Worker Movement and its key founder, Dorothy Day. Both Dorothy and Ammon were dismayed by the church for its failure to follow the teachings of the gospel and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. It was unacceptable, they argued, for the Christian church to pick and choose which aspects of the gospel they would adhere to. The Church, they complained, steadfastly followed the gospel teaching on issues such as adultery (for which there was to be no excuse) but always found a reason to excuse war and violence. For Ammon, this was the legacy of Paul who had corrupted Jesus’ teachings,which emphasised refusal of hierarchy and authority, by pledging obedience to the state (see especially, Romans 13). It was also the legacy of Augustine whose ‘City of God’ theology buttressed Paul’s message by suggesting that the earthly city was inherently sinful and disorderly – thereby necessitating strong state authority and state violence to return society to order.
Ammon and Dorothy were frequently at pains to stress that Jesus’ teachings pointed in exactly the opposite direction, i.e. they emphasised the inherent goodness of human beings and suggested that people corrupted by systems should be won over by love not force. Gandhi became one of the finest practical exponents of this philosophy in the twentieth century. Tolstoy was perhaps its finest intellectual exponent. For his part, Ammon was influenced by all three (Jesus, Gandhi and Tolstoy) and lived his life in an equally exemplary manner, albeit without the publicity that they attracted. What he added to their example, though, was an unambiguous philosophical and practical exposition of non-Church Christianity. He provided us with a reasoned and exemplary account of why church is not an option for some Christians – especially Christian Anarchists like himself who emphasise the anarchist Jesus. His non-church Christianity has certainly resonated with me for most of my life and – having tried the ‘Church thing’ over the last 5 years – does so now more than ever. Below I explore why Ammon’s non-Church Christianity is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and why it makes perfect sense in my experience too.
Jesus’ Idea of ‘Church’
One of the most obvious characteristics of Jesus is his refusal of institutional authority. He regularly berated the religious authority of the Sadducees and Pharisees whilst pointing to the corrupting influence of hierarchy and institutional power. A key feature of institutions is buildings which he also questioned. Now, as Prior (1993) points out, the architectural largesse of buildings allows institutions to display their power. A further feature of institutional power is the rules of access to buildings which regulate who is allowed in and who is not welcome. Moreover buildings are ‘investments’. Thus institutional behaviour is also driven by what is in the interests of the ‘property portfolio’. Yet very little that Jesus did gives the impression that he saw the Church as an institution or that he valorised its buildings. Quite the opposite.
Jesus may have preached in the synagogues and temple, but a more prominent feature of Jesus’ ministry is that it was integrated into his everyday life and activities rather than reserved for a specific time and place. Accordingly, it took place in public spaces that were open to all – in people’s houses, on Mountainsides, at lake sides and so on; wherever he happened or chose to be. Significantly, and unlike the institutional church, this meant that he preached openly to all and not simply to those that were already ‘believers’ and members of the synagogue. His message was for Jews and Gentiles alike. And when he prayed, he did so alone and in lonely places (Luke 5:15). There was nothing necessary about a building.
If Jesus’ experience of the synagogues and Temple taught him anything. it highlighted the corrupting influence of institutional life. So he never sought to join the religious elite of the priestly class, the Sadducees. Rather than valorising religious institutions and their leaders, Jesus was outraged at their behaviour. He ejected the money lenders and traders that they had allowed into the Temple. He was so dismayed by the Temple, in fact, that he then proclaimed that he would pull it down and rebuild it in three days – in the form of the risen Christ. Crucially, then, he replaced the Temple building with his own body (Mark 14: 58) which he opened up in a radical act of sharing with “the many” at the Last Supper (Mark 14:23).
Jesus’ democratic act of participation in his body represents a significant change of emphasis. The focus is no longer on the synagogue or temple building but on the fact that spiritual participation in Christ brings the Kingdom of God within all of us (Luke 17: 20-21) in the form of love (Matthew 22: 37-40). As The Waterboys song proclaims, then, Jesus introduces us into a the idea of a Church that is “everywhere and no place, a church not made with hands, not contained by man”.
If there is any further doubt about this then we need simply to remind ourselves of what John 4 recalls Jesus saying to the Samaritan woman about worship: A time was coming when worship would not take place in Jerusalem, where the temple was located, but through the power of the spirit in our hearts. His point was that God did not live in temples made with human hands; he was within everybody and therefore everywhere (Acts 17). Fundamentally, God was democratic.
All of this has has profound consequences for the way in which Jesus encourages us to understand the ‘church’ which, incidentally, means ‘assembly’ not an institution or a building. Jesus made clear to his disciples that their social movement would eschew the idea of greatness and leadership in favour of an informal model of social organisation based on radical servanthood: Each was to serve the other members of the group (Luke 22: 24-27) and others in society (Mark 9:35; 1 Peter 4:10; John 15:12-13). Thus Jesus intentions for the church can be found in his clear instruction that the mutualist spirit and principle of egalitarianism should govern the community of disciples (Acts 2:43-47; Acts 4: 32-35).
When the early church was established then, it was a leaderless and egalitarian community whose boundaries were porous and fluid with newcomers being added all of the time (Acts 2: 47). Members of the community, and those who joined, relinquished all their possessions so that resources could be redistributed to where need was. When it was recognised that this redistribution was not happening effectively enough, Stephen was placed in charge of finances. However, his task was very different to that of the Church Commissioners that manage the ‘investment portfolio’ of the modern Church. There was no business speak in the early church which was built on the needs of people not the management of assets.
A Lost Church
There are big differences between Jesus’ idea of the church and what it has become. The church has become a powerful institution in modern society. Its buildings and the ceremonial dress of its hierarchy speak of its greatness when it should be humble. Its cosy relationship with the state is justified by the idea that a Christian voice is needed in public affairs in order to ensure justice but, as Stephen Shakespeare and Ray Gaston point out, its cosy relationship with the state paradoxically stops it from speaking out when it is most necessary. The radical voice and message of Jesus is therefore silenced – by the church. Moreover, when it does speak out, theologians such as John Milbank and William Cavanagh rightly point out that it does so on terms dictated by the state and often disappoints. For instance, it is profoundly disappointing to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury using ‘just war’ theory in the House of Lords to argue in favour of government bombing campaigns in the Middle East. But as John Howard Yoder argues in The Original Revolution, such is the nature of an institution that has lost its faith in Jesus’ message of nonviolence and thrown its lot in with state sponsored militarism – for its own ends. Jesus advocates no such form of power and compromise politics.
In contrast to the contemporary church which wants its ‘voice’ heard in political life (e.g. in parliament etc.) then, Jesus refused the temptations of power. Instead, he sought to circumvent the state, which he ignored. At no point, then, did he seek to influence the politics of the Roman Empire either by cosying up to it or by organising a protest movement. So although the Sermon on the Mount was a mass meeting, its purpose was not to capture power and throw out the elite. He was not a political leader that was going to change things for people. Nor was his purpose to build a counter hegemonic movement – based on a new set of ideas about how political and economic life could be governed by his ‘party’.
As Dorothy Day has suggested, Jesus delivered a ‘personalist’. rather than a political message, which asked people (not the state) to deliver justice from within the context of their own lives. In other words, he was telling people that the personal was political and that, rather than look for answers in political leaders, they needed to change themselves and the way they lived their lives. And he held many such mass meetings to communicate the same core message which was this: People were to refuse violence and learn to love in another in their everyday lives. Far from appealing to the state for justice then, Jesus’ prioritisation of love over all ruled out the state as the agent of change. As an institution built on power, hierarchy and violence, and an abstract entity that is incapable of loving, the state was utterly incapable of delivering the change that Jesus required.
Why go to Church?
So why would a Christian go to church or a Quaker meeting as I have done in the past? I have asked myself this question over and over again. My answer is that the church and my Quaker meeting make things too easy. This has certainly been my experience, anyway. For instance:
- A food bank will suffice to tackle hunger – a weekly routine of providing food charity to the poor and hungry from the church premises. Meanwhile for the rest of the week, church remains a nice middle class space that remains cut-off and and remote from the real world outside.
- Our overwhelmingly white, middle class demographic is not our fault. It’s just the way it is. A historical issue. Moreover, we are open to people coming in if they want to. But don’t mention using the building to offer hospitality for homeless people or asylum seekers because the ‘business plan’ won’t allow it.
I no longer go to church or Quakers because they do not challenge me. They make Christianity all too easy. A bit of charity here. A bit of outreach there. But heaven forbid we allow poverty and suffering to intrude directly into our sacred spaces and into our lives. This is not living in solidarity. It is living in comfort. It is imposing a boundary between the church or Quaker meeting and its outside. Yet there is no such boundary.
It seems to me that Jesus instructs the church to be an open and egalitarian community that is without boundaries. Since God is to be found inside people – and not a building – a church should be a house of hospitality where all are welcome to reside and where sharing takes place. It should be an exemplar of the new world that is being built inside the shell of a greedy capitalism that it will eventually replace – a place where possessions are shared and where the idea of ownership is questioned.
So the reason I no longer go to church is because it makes things too easy. By emphasising a bit of charity here and a bit of outreach there, it actually encourages me to sustain capitalism and its inequalities whilst abrogating me from having to change myself. It is an institution that is corrupting me from being what I could be and from being what Jesus asks. In fact, it is telling me I don’t need to be what Jesus asks. Moreover, it puts obstacles in my way when I try. And it is for this reason that I must now leave if I am to have any chance of being the change that Jesus asks me to be:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the Prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times have I wanted to put my arms around all your people …. but you would not let me. And so your Temple will be abandoned” (Luke 13: 34-35).
So here it is: I don’t need the church or a Quaker meeting when I have Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day, Gandhi and the like. They challenge me more than any church or Quaker meeting has ever challenged me. Moreover, I am finding that, in meditation, I can use their inspiration to deepen, extend and change myself. In a nutshell, I think I have a better chance of being who I need to be without the church or a Quaker meeting.