Ancient Paths: The Way Forward

This is what the LORD says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.

Jeremiah 6:16

I just returned from the Gathering Around the Unhewn Stone, an event that took place this last weekend in Philadelphia. The purpose of the gathering was to explore the connections between Anarcho-Primitivism and Christianity. Ched Myers was the main speaker, leading us all through a crash course in biblical primitivism. There is so much I could write about, but I know that in this space I can only scratch the surface. Many secular and religious scholars alike are beginning to read the Hebrew-Christian bible from an archeological/historical perspective. Instead of reading the stories as metaphors or “lessons of old,” many are starting to take them more seriously and view them as factual. The Paradise of Eden is then understood not as fable of moral decline, but as a historical recollection of a time when human animals lived in balance with the earth. As ecological disaster ripens, it becomes fascinating to read these stories through this lens. As we look at it more closely, the bible begins to read like a manual of Anarcho-Primitivism. Of course that term wasn’t around back then, but the principles are so similar that it is incredible. For those unfamiliar, Anarcho-Primitivism is a form of anarchism that takes it’s critique of society all the way back to origins, citing civilization as the culprit of our current crisis. This brand of thinking values indigenous cultures and earth-based people groups as teachers and elders who hold wisdom long forgotten (or violently silenced). Our hunter-gatherer ancestors laid out for us a way of being that is truly sustainable. It was the norm forever, until the rise of agriculture, which changed the landscape of things and paved the way for civilization. As the towers rose and power centralized, most people got the short end of the stick. This is the context in which the Hebrew-Christian tradition developed. “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic”. Numbers 11:5.

The origins story of Genesis 1-11 is less about where we came from and more about where we went wrong… historically. Our primordial state of constant communion with Creator and creation was taken away as we ‘fell’ into civilization. Eating from the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ represents our thirst for power, our longing to be like god and to be the creator and manufacturer of our own destinies. This thirst of ours was wet as we began domesticating plants and animals, using them for our purposes instead of trusting that God (or the earth) would provide. Yet our thirst was not satisfied, so we built towers to the heavens, symbols of all we could accomplish. Yet even as we thought we could reach past the heavens, God was still looking down on us… “Come, let us make a city and a tower, that the top may reach to heaven; and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands. 5 Yet the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building.” The curse for our greed was that we would have to work the land (agriculture) and that women would have pain in childbirth (the number of children women had, as well as the pain entailed, severely increased after humans became sedentary).

This cosmic tale of the fall reads like a tragedy, and as the curtain closes in Genesis 11 and reopens in Genesis 12, the elders of our faith appear on stage and receive the call that spurs on the Hebrew-Christian tradition: Abraham and family are told to leave the city and go into the wilderness. Later in the tale, as Moses leads all of Abraham’s descendants out of the slavery of the city and into the wilderness, they receive from Creator what is to be the guiding principles of their tribe:

16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Each one is to gather as much as he needs. Take an omer (about 2 quarts) for each person you have in your tent.’ ”

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.

19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”

23 He said to them, “This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’ ”

-Exodus 16

These commandments are guidelines that hunter-gatherer tribes have followed forever. They represent a way of harmony and balance, a way that we have fallen far away from. Ched Myers calls this ‘Sabbath Economics’ and has written extensively on it.

Gather daily, (16)

don’t gather extra or store anything, (18)

make sure it circulates and doesn’t just sit and go to waste, (19)

limit your activity (sabbath). (23)

As we look for a way out of this mess we have created, we have to look this far back, all the way to our origins. This is the only way to develop a truly radical critique of society. Progress is a lie. I think we are all aware of that by now. Perhaps the first step is to reconnect with the land and with wildness, yet we can’t stop there. We have to rethink not only our way of being, but our way of organizing society. The Anarcho-Primitivist critique is a powerful alley in this process, and seems to be a fast growing movement among Christians. And it’s amazing to discover that the bible, of all things, has so much to teach us about this!

Here is a really good report back from the gathering by Nekeisha of Jesus Radicals. For more info on the intersection of Anarchism and Christianity, check out In The Land of the Living.

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11 Responses to “Ancient Paths: The Way Forward”

  1. ST Says:

    Rusty, thanks for posting. I read this piece so differently, sitting here in semi-rural Western Africa.

    “The Anarcho-Primitivist critique is a powerful ally in this process, and seems to be a fast growing movement among Christians.”

    I have many things to share about your piece (as I wonder/wander myself) but just suffice to say that I do not see this growing here. Instead it’s a mega Charismatic-Pentecostal movement, but the gifts of the spirit don’t extend/are not recognized as a type of spirit that would call people to question the development of Ghanaian civilization into “modern” society.

    It’s too bad because this is one of the many places on Earth that Christians could come to take part in a society that is relatively anarchic (police are irrelevant, you can do whatever you want, there are many affinity groups etc.) and where ancient wisdom resides.

    The Rastafarians (as an OT-leaning African-centric Christian group) here are the closest to anarcho-primitivists but they are chastized greatly; they are seen as deviants and made fun of for marajauna usage.

    Thanks again for this post. I’m still thinking about what all this means in the context here, and cross-contextually as we discuss something like this.

    I support this taking root in the West, and I’m on the lookout for African anarcho-primitivists

  2. folknotions Says:

    Hi Rusty,

    May I ask why this approach to biblical ethics is appealing to you? Thanks.

  3. Rusty Says:

    ST,
    I’m really interested in how these ideas may be accepted over there. Perhaps we can be in communication about it. I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of Christians thinking these things over here by any means, just a small fringe movement.
    blessings.

    folknotions,
    The christian story offers salvation for all of creation, and it waits in eager anticipation for us to “get it,” as it says in Romans. I have a deep spiritual connection to the earth, and realizing that the elders of our faith, including Jesus, hold that same sort of connection is really liberating to me, especially as more and more of the earth is destroyed each day to forward technological progress. So many think that the bible condones “domination,” yet it’s just the opposite: it demands that we be invloved in the work of restoration.
    Does that answer your question?
    In peace,
    Rusty

  4. TimN Says:

    Rusty,

    Thanks for this analysis and summary of the bible and the anti-civilization. I find that approaching passages about the Hebrew/Israelites from this lens to be really fascinating and enlightening.

    My one questions from this post would be about the Numbers passage in which the Hebrews yearn for leeks, onions, fish and melons. Isn’t this a case of them pining for civilization while they are in the wilderness? Of course, in verse 10 God gets “exceedingly angry” because they are ignoring all the horrible parts of being enslaved. The whole chapter is about God getting really ticked off and unless we think that God just REALLY doesn’t like whining, it makes most sense as a thorough rebuke of Egyptian civilization, the dominant “civilizing” force in the region for hundreds of years. There’s probably a lot more there really, but that’s enough for now.

    Also, for those of you interested in reading more about this conference, Ched Meyers wrote a report here:

    http://unhewnstone.blogspot.com/2009/10/brief-report-on-conference.html (Thanks, Ric)

  5. SteveK Says:

    Take care, Rusty! This is the kind of life that some homeless have been living for years– recycling or dumpster diving daily for needs and moving on as the city dwellers demand. These passages are really talking about the benefit of nomadic dwelling v. gathering behind walls. But our society is a society of Babel– the city has overtaken all of our concerns. And should there be a movement of nomads, the city dwellers would do all they can to oppress the nomad and the stranger, just as they have done the homeless.

    This is not to say that the city dwellers are all bad. The eschatalogical utopia in Revelation is dwelling in a city. But the ancient texts reflect the battle between the nomads and the city dwellers, and this battle continues on to this day.

  6. Rusty Says:

    Tim,
    Thanks for pointing that out about Numbers 11. I mistakenly took it out of context. They were complaining about Egypt being ‘better.’ Reminds me of an african proverb that Ched Myers shared at the conference: It’s easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people.

  7. RyanH Says:

    Hello, Rusty.

    I’d need to read more of the Anarcho-Primitivist ideas to get a better understanding of the argument. However, off the cuff I wonder why the wholesale condemnation of “civilization”? If one defines civilization as the social rules that a people follow when living together, I’d say that they’re pretty important. Indeed, hunter-gather societies have such social rules.

    Even if, as SteveK suggests, it’s about permanent vs. transient living (city dwellers vs. nomads), I still see the Scriptures praising both nomads and city dwellers. Wasn’t the “promised land” about not needed to wander?

    There are of course great evils in civilization, but I’m just not sure that civilization itself is evil.

  8. Rusty Says:

    Hey Ryan,

    After posting this, I began to realize how much more should have been said to have actually given a proper run-down of these ideas. In regards to Anarcho-Primitivism, civilization is a point in social development where several preceding factors (sedentary living, exportation of recourses, division of labor, specialization, etc) all come together to form a mass society in which there is hiearchy. The AP critique, and a lot of recent athropological work, points to agriculture as being the ‘big boom’ of development leading to civilization. There is a ton of good work out there regarding these topics… John Zerzan, Marshil Salhins, Jared Diamond, Chellis Glendening just to name a few). It can come off sounding like a complicated theortical framework, but the basis of these ideas lies in the discontent so many of us feel with how disconnected we are from the natural world. When you start learning about nature-based people groups and how healthy, peaceful, happy, and spiritually vibrant they are, you begin asking the hard questions… and then you start questioning progess.

  9. Avatar for real: Colonel Quaritch wins, Aka-Bo exterminated » Young Anabaptist Radicals Says:

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  10. ArchaicFuturist Says:

    Rusty–

    I haven’t looked at YAR for a long time. For reasons a little too complicated to explain in brief, I looked back tonight and immediately found this post. I don’t generally identify as Mennonite any more. My lone post here at YAR only partially represents my thinking these days. But I’ve long had sympathies with anti-civ schools of thought. Today I identify most often as an animist — that is, someone who tries to recognize the personhood of human and non-human beings. I don’t really know where or whether God fits into it all.

    But the woman who is wife to me and I have been very lonely over the past few years. We have visions of the kind of life we want to lead and the sorts of spirituality we aspire to, but with only our little family we feel quite isolated.

    We’re looking for folks who want to rekindle an intimate relationship with the land and all its denizens. While we’re descended from European immigrants, I’m hoping that our descendants become as deeply a part of the living communities here as indigenous peoples have been and are.

    But while our aspirations and current theological leanings tend to separate us from many Mennonites, we still find it difficult to make friends outside the Anabaptist community.

    So let’s just say that I’m intrigued by your post, and I’m interested in connecting with anti-civ and/or animist-leaning Menno and post-Menno folk.

    Thanks for your post.

  11. Rusty Says:

    ArchaicFuture,

    I’m glad you stumbled onto this post. Here is a website you may want to check out:

    http://www.inthelandoftheliving.org

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