A FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE once helpfully asked me, “What is your organising principle?” In other words, what is the key idea which, when you pause to become conscious about it, is driving your overall story and commitments? The answer for me is ‘Holy Anarchy’, about which I have just written a book.

The term is one of many re-expressions of ‘the kingdom of God’. I am drawn to several of them – the kin-dom, the reign, the commonwealth, but John Caputo’s ‘sacred anarchy’ and Andrew Shanks’s ‘holy anarchy’ use the notion of ‘anarchy’ in the technical sense of a realm without domination, because God’s alternative kingdom is alternative precisely because of its subversion of prevailing patterns of domination. It is what we see in the ministry of Jesus, disrupting the dynamics of social norms and practices, and making possible a new form of community, embodied in and amongst the least, while extending across all sorts of barriers, cutting across more limited loyalties, as though captivated by an alternative horizon.

This new reality is rare, or elusive, or ‘close at hand’ without having a controlling presence, because it is so alternative, being evoked by a God whose power is not like that of other kingdoms, and representing a presence which is not about control but the flourishing of life. Without control, Holy Anarchy nevertheless illuminates the powers of domination and opens up different possibilities. It is like the power of an open palm, generously receptive to all the mess, ambiguity and pain of life, yet with a critical edge, exposing and subverting the prevailing structures.

So it is a realm which confronts Empire, revealing its insidious hold over us, as the structure which colonises not only our politics and economics but also our hearts and minds. Holy Anarchy confronts all the ways in which patterns of domination are manifest in our relationships – in race and class, gender and sexuality, dis/ability and age, and our exploitation of the Earth. In contrast with all such asymmetries of power, and cutting across them, Holy Anarchy represents the offer of a different kind of household of life, as this extract from my book shows:

It is as though there is a tension between different visions of the house. The imperial vision is nicely groomed, neat and tidy; everything has its place; the borders are defined, and the functions of each room are well known. There is little space for anything poetic, anything that might push ambiguously or subversively against such a vision, except that it fosters sentimentality in us, nostalgia for an edited time when we ‘all’ lived in safety: so it is only a poetry of cliché, purity and manicured beauty. It is a house in which certain people know how to live well, whereas many others would feel lost, ill-at-ease, alien.

Meanwhile there is another vision, of a house, or a household, which is less domesticated, more unruly; a wilder space where an unexpected coalition of people make their home, not easily, not without tension, and sometimes moving the walls, redesigning the architecture, reframing the space to make room for newcomers. It is a house or a home which does not define its borders too closely, because the tenants – or they may be the owners; no-one quite knows – recognise how interdependent they are on the wider environment, where roots and streams and clouds intermingle. It is a vision which is undomesticated, always pushing against its containment within more restrictive patterns of living, allowing room for the untame God to erupt through the cracks.

This vision leads to the reworking of the five marks of mission for anti-imperial purposes, and suggests that the marks of the church can be reshaped too. What this also reveals, is that the church is not alone in these tasks. When Christian faith is organised around Holy Anarchy, the church is reminded that it is not the goal of its vision, but is an agent, a community which bears witness to the powers of domination, exposing them both at large and within itself. It is a community which recognises and confesses its complicity with injustices, while appreciating what it may learn through solidarity with others – and working for an ever greater solidarity of solidarities. It is, in fact, the awkward body of Christ, graced and disfigured, testifying to the alternative horizon without containing it.

Underpinning this vision, there is a distinction between two approaches to truth – on the one hand, that which we grasp as though in a closed hand, edited but seemingly secure, and that which is represented by an open palm, attentive but at risk. The inclination towards the former is what keeps us divided and dominated. Whereas the latter makes solidarity amongst all-comers possible. Both kinds have a role, including within religion, but it is the priority of open-palmed truth (‘truth-in-process’) which is the basis of Holy Anarchy: empathetic openness to ever more experience, insight and agency. It is the readiness for new encounters, with the diversity and inequities of life, which defies structures of dominion, purity and closure, and fosters the doing of justice, loving-kindness and walking humbly with your God.

The resurrection embodies this unsettling movement of Holy Anarchy – not a neat resolution to all of our struggles, but a crack in the system, destabilising the world that we knew and reflecting the alternative horizon; inviting us to dance to strange new rhythms, no matter how awkwardly, how imperfectly, how inconsistently, but faithfully pursuing this new world which stands before us but is often unrecognised; a subversion of Empire, but one that can’t quite be put into words. “Holy Anarchy is close at hand! Turn around and trust yourselves to the good news!”


© Graham Adams is a Tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at the Luther King Centre for Mission and Ministry, Manchester, UK. Holy Anarchy: Embodying Community, Loving Strangeness is published by SCM Press.