This essay is a response to Professor Alexander W. Craig’s “Christianity and Egoism.”
Craig’s essay makes the argument that egoism and Christianity are compatible: He examines some seemingly anti-egoistic messages from the Gospels, contrasts them with the context of divine love as a profoundly egoistic belief, and finally argues that these views taken within the transcendent nature of salvation allow for a fulfillment of the ego, through its own denial. While the reversal of expectations may appear strange to egoists, it is the bread and butter of the teachings within the Gospels.
I seek in this essay not to oppose Craig’s argumentation, but to push it further. The reversal of expectations so common to Christian teaching is in fact why individualist anarchists (including egoists) so often fail to see the stateless messages within Christian teaching. The story of a king of the Jews coming to reinstate a nation for Israelites surely appears on its face (in our expectations) to be one that is decidedly not anarchistic. But the message of Christ (and the salvific power of “self-denial” which Craig correctly points out) is one that reverses the expectations of how that nation comes to be, and what sort of kingdom it is.
To fully accept the messages of Christian teaching is to understand that moral teaching (what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “moral law”) is superior to state law.1 The anarchist parallels are easily drawn—Stirner erases the spooks of state law and church law, leaving only the ego; Bakunin acknowledges only the just authority of the bootmaker, that authority which takes power only by his assent.2,3 “The blessed and only ruler … the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, NABRE) supersedes all earthly states, and thus, Thomas Aquinas rightly claimed that laws are subordinate to natural limitations and Augustine of Hippo argued that “a law that is not just does not seem to me to be a law” .4,5
But while state laws may be limited by higher natural laws, and state authority may be subordinate to divine authority in Christian teaching, does that mean that Christ’s message is one against the state? Once again here, we ought to examine the “reversal” that is the Christian message: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it,” (Luke 17:33) and likewise, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NABRE; similar to Mark 10:31, NABRE, and Matthew 19:30, NABRE). When we examine Jesus’s life as presented in the Gospels, it does not appear as kingly glory, but of glorifying the poor and the meek; it is one of saving sinners through salvific love.
The “Ministry of Mercy” which Jesus undertakes as a public religious teacher is direct action against the state and religious authorities of the day. When people take direct action in their own communities they show their personal power and also deny the power of the state to monopolize those responsibilities. Jesus, by spreading a message of radical acceptance and love, swings open the doors of society to exalt those marginalized by the prevailing society—He turns the morality of the authorities on its head. Thus, when Jewish authorities condemn Jesus’s disciples for picking grain on a religious day of rest He responds, “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men” (Matthew 12:6-7, NABRE). Is this not the justification for every direct action? The law must be ignored when it clashes with what is right.
In fact, the passion and execution of Jesus, and the martyrdom of the Apostles and Saints, is analogous to the struggle against impossible odds that typifies a workers’ conflict or anarchist revolutionary action. Two such “anarchist martyrs” are John Brown and Alexander Berkman. Ironically, both men and their direct actions would appear to fit the pejorative term of a “Jesus Complex” in that they may have misunderstood the people they sought to help and somewhat spectacularly failed to achieve their initial aims. In fact, their actions after their failures fit the mold of the Christian message quite well (or as Craig writes “we will lose the things we think are our own but are merely the things we have picked up contrary to our nature”): Through their failure their expected role is reversed—instead of saviors they become victims, both jailed and humiliated. But, like with Jesus, it is this failure that is their success; the martyr’s fire redeems them.
After the Roman state executed Jesus, the early Christians illegally practiced their faith and were treated with suspicion, if not hostility. In this hidden, communalistic setting, the early Christian communities survived partly in secret, but where their views clashed with the state, they did not deny them. In their illegal existence, the Apostles continued the anti-state spirit, the Acts of the Apostles contains story after story of this illicit resistance. When ordered by religious authorities to stop teaching, they say: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, NABRE). Likewise, Paul writes in a letter “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20, NABRE). Thus, it is not surprising that the Medieval Christian pacifist Peter Chelcicky was able to write, as if presaging anarchist rebuttals of the communist transitional state, “For there can be no power without cruelty. If power forgives, it prepares its own destruction, because none will fear it when they see that it uses love and not the force before which one trembles.”6
The radicalism of Christian teaching is not in arguing for power in the hands of Christians but rather in its (quite anarchistic) denial of power as a worthwhile means. If Christian philosophy evolved out of this position of weakness—an illegal tradition shared by members persecuted for their faith, a faith which celebrated a religious king crowned in thorns who lead an unarmed direct action campaign against twin hierarchies of Jewish and Roman authority to ultimately be executed—then its strength is in embracing this position of weakness and turning the power struggle on its head.
John Brown’s and Alexander Berkman’s violent struggles failed. If their work (abolition and labor struggle, respectively) was ever redeemed, it was in their martyrdoms (for Brown, an execution; for Berkman, 14 years between entering prison and leaving the “workhouse”). Craig concludes his piece by articulating that the egoist can find in Christianity the transcendent salvation through ego death that allows one to “’share in the divine nature.’” Likewise, Brown and Berkman, by “losing their life” fulfilled their aims, but doing so required letting go of the egoistic belief that they could be saviors in the negative “Jesus Complex” sense.
Then, it would be fitting, mirroring Craig’s piece, that I also address how those who are already against the state might gain from an understanding of Christian teaching. Someone who clings to saying “no gods no masters” may find some ironic support in the Bible: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15, NABRE). Thus, even those who do not accept the law or use it as a measure, are more “lawfully just” if they show it through their actions. The ego death which Craig calls egoists to seek, I would argue can be found through the mission of praxis that is mirrored in Jesus’s Ministry of Mercy (or if you prefer, Brown’s and Berkman’s arrests).
Direct action is the practice of anarchy; it replaces the state and proves it obsolete. But from the perspective of personal and philosophical transformation, it is the crucible in which theory is forged into reality and the “Jesus Complex” becomes the discipline of Christian social teaching. It may not be curing lepers or raising the dead, but social direct action turns the capitalist order on its head by placing the first, last and the last, first; it refuses the valuation of work that exalts capital first and foremost; and, it creates the structures and competencies that ensure the state cannot monopolize social capital. In practicing against the state, we experience the ego-death that Craig suggests would benefit egoists. The practical considerations, which at times require compromises with theory, embody the meaning of Jesus’s message, as He “did not come to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28, NABRE and Mark 10:45, NABRE). Likewise, anarchist practice requires putting aside the egoistic belief of what we may have conceptualized as the best way to further social struggle and instead putting that service above ourselves (or our selfish desires and expectations).
Stirner’s egoism and Christian teaching are compatible, even complementary. For Stirner, the removal of spooks such as state law or morality and the sober appraisal of social relations and economic realities are the crux of his conclusion: All things are subordinate to the Unique. The Christian placement of state authority below the divine and state law as subordinate to natural or spiritual laws likewise pushes its adherents to reject the state, at least wherein it conflicts with their religious discipline. This is the same rejection as the egoist rejection of state authority, and of anarchist critiques of “unjust” hierarchies. Christianity not only calls one to ego-death and service, but also requires rejecting the state’s claims to authority and placing one’s own person in the service of ending the state.
But does Stirner’s egoism really allow for ego-death? He dismissed both the Christian ideal of a sacrificial life of service to an ideal spirit and the liberal ideal of modeling one’s life after some archetypal perfect man. Stirner asserts that a man is just a man (and need not subjugate himself to something more) but, even being just one man (of many men), he is also himself, an individual (a Unique). Egoism’s call to recognize the Unique is not a refusal to accept that those ideals are attainable, in theory. An egoistic liberal humanist can live in line with their own belief of the perfect human and still reject the spook of subjugating their uniqueness to that perceived perfect. An egoistic communist can commune with others while rejecting the subjugation of their own person (or the persons of their union of egoists) to that collective. The egoist Christian can live in accordance with an idealized spirit, while retaining a claim to the Unique; the ideal, in fact, flows from their Unique. Egoism does not prescribe a path, so much as reject that an ideal (i.e., morality, equality, spirituality) can claim precedence over the individual’s authority to invest the ideal with its meaning. For the egoist, it is from the ego that all other things derive.
And if all things begin at the ego, why not, Stirner suggests, end there? This parallels my argument above to Christians: If the state is legitimate only when it serves spiritually just ends, then what need is there for the state? Throw out the superfluous and just leave the essential.
Stirner’s argumentation, however, asks us to be more exacting even than that. He asks us why we concern ourselves with essences or ideals at all. Why would we first imagine a life to live, and then live it? Any sheep or dog (or even a flower) “realizes itself in living.”7
But this is how we come to ego-death from within egoism itself. Craig’s call for egoists to search for transcendence is this same “living” of the Unique. Stirner warns against the search for an ideal because no such ideal could be anchored in our own acceptance of it. When we egoistically understand that the Ego is a basic reference point for all other things (there is no objective ideal you can choose to measure against your life, because, it is you who are doing the measuring and the choosing of the measure), we know that creating an ideal is unnecessary. Spooks obscure the reality of the ego.
Ego-death, in Stirner’s egoism, is not so much a path to transcend the ego, but rather to fulfill it. To do otherwise would be to deny the Unique, and farcically, require a self-deception through creating a spook. Egoistic self-denial is “the negation of what we imagine we desire.”8 By removing self-deception (Stirner’s “spooks”), we are able to simply live as the egoistic Unique.
The Christian idea of agape love (from the Greek translation, as opposed to other Greek biblical love-words like eros or philos) mirrors this egoistic idea of the fulfilled Unique.9 Agape love is unconditional (even irrational) love that describes both the Christian idea of how God loves people (and persons), as well as what Christians are taught to show to everyone, including strangers and enemies. While the unfulfilled Unique (a person living encumbered by spooks), may quite rationally practice eros and philos, their spooks (self-deceptions like rationality, spirituality, or legality) prevent them from practicing agape love. They are unable to love something unconditionally, and thus unable to, as the sheep or dog, realize their own life through living. They are unable to take up their life by throwing it away; blinded by the spook of idealizing an ego, they cannot experience the ego-death within egoism.
Stirner criticizes a life preoccupied with self-preservation. He condemns reason as a false guiding principle. Agape love requires a willingness to put oneself at risk, to take up the cross and be forgiving, to be irrationally self-sacrificial. Fulfilling the Unique requires ego-death by putting to death the ideal of the ego and instead living as the ego. Brown and Berkman practiced agape love through their self-sacrifice; they did not just take on the risk inherent to acting illegally, but also acted beyond reason. Their actions failed in a rational sense; they did not “solve” slavery or the labor struggle. But their actions put to death the “ego” (what we might call false ego, spooked ego, or even vulgar ego) that would argue they could bring about those ends, or if not, must settle for more reasonable means. Instead, they accepted the loss of control (or rather, the illusion of control) that comes from subjecting oneself to reason, and through that ego-death were able to live as themselves.
Transcending the ego through ego-death allows egoists to fulfill their Uniqueness. Jesus’s life and death show a willingness to exert His Unique, in the earthly ministry, beside a readiness to throw down His life, and even to relinquish control, eventually praying for deliverance rather than relief. Ego-death is the call within Stirner’s egoism to transcend a vulgar idealized “ego” which is less than being the Unique, and instead, live as oneself and as one’s ego.
- King Jr, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963.
- Stirner, M. (2019). The ego and his own. Good Press.
- Bakunin, M. A. (1970). God and the State. Courier Corporation.
- Kretzmann, N. (1988). Lex Iniusta Non est Lex-Laws on Trial in Aquinas’ Court of Conscience. Am. J. Juris., 33, 99.
- Augustine, S. (2010). Augustine: On the free choice of the will, on grace and free choice, and other writings. Cambridge University Press. Pg. 10.
- Chelcicky, P. (2011). On the Triple Division of Society. In Long, M. G. (Ed.). Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History. (pp. 68-70). Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
- (Stirner, M., 2019)
- Craig, A. (2022, March 22). Christianity and Egoism. Center for a Stateless Society. https://c4ss.org/content/56448
- Where eros love may be love of the divine, and philos love may be the mutual love of friendship, agape love is fully open or unconditional love.