Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Ring Must Be Destroyed

by Andrew Hoffmann

My wife and I recently watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  One of the central themes of the films/books, of course, is political power-symbolized by the ring of power.  According to Tolkien’s fictional world, the ring of power cannot be wielded for “good” even if a “good” character were to wield it. This fits in well with Tolkien’s professed philosophical anarchism. (1)

  Despite the overwhelming success of all things Tolkien, this central theme is all but completely ignored by Christians and non-Christians alike.  Instead, most Christian media pundits push the idea that it is our sacred Christian duty to participate in politics and vote Republican.  They are striving to grab hold of and use the “ring of power” rather than working quietly to destroy it.  The Christian media establishment is clearly at odds with Tolkien’s view of the world; so whose views are sounder from a biblical perspective? 

       Another professing Christian academic, Jacques Ellul, makes the argument in Anarchy and Christianity that it is the Christian statists who are out of line with scripture.  “Christianity means a rejection of power and a fight against it” (Ellul 13).  Ellul dismisses the idea that one political party might earn the allegiance of Christians.  “No matter whether one votes for the left or the right, the situation is the same” (14).  Perhaps, then, Christians could form their own party?  “To organize a party is necessarily to adopt a hierarchical structure and to wish to have a share in the exercise of power” (14). 

  The problem is not simply that an evil party or evil people are the ones wielding political power, the root of the problem is the political power itself.  Ellul writes, “We must never forget to what degree the holding of political power corrupts” (14).  Ellul points to the examples of Saul, David, and Solomon for examples of the effects of political power on those who hold it. (48-50)  God’s representative was not the king.  God’s side was represented by prophets who spent most of their time chastising and reprimanding the kings.

The prophet was most often a severe critic of royal acts.  He claimed to come from God and carry a word from God.  The word was always in opposition to royal power. … The prophets were a counterforce as we might put it today.  This counterforce did not represent the people -- it represented God. (51)

While surely there was no shortage of pseudo prophets around to predict good things for the kings and their kingdoms, the words of these false prophets are not recorded in scripture.  It is only the “gloom and doomers” who made the editorial cut, and not coincidentally, were proven right. 

  The church does not need power brokers; the church needs prophets.  Ellul argues that it is not the duty of Christians to control the corrupt world system.  Instead, we are to follow the example of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus does not advocate revolt or material conflict with these kings and great ones. … Let them be.  Set up a marginal society which will not be interested in such things, in which there will be no power, authority, or hierarchy.  Do not do things as they are usually done in society, which you cannot change.  Create another society on another foundation. (62)

Ellul is not talking about setting up a commune out in the middle of nowhere.  He is referring to the concept of being “in the world, but not of the world.”  The wrestling over the levers of political power is, and always has been, of this world.  We are called to be defined by our love for one another, not righteous lawmaking.  By resisting the desire for the ring of power, we are able to experience the freedom that only Jesus Christ can give. 



 (Ellul 13)  All references to Anarchy and Christianity are taken from the edition published by William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1988.

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     Comments welcome.  Andrew Hoffman can also be reached at


  1. Robert,
    You're stealing my thunder! jk. I was about to post on Tolkien today or tomorrow. How random. On a different topic, though, so maybe I'll go ahead....

  2. And Ben is commenting on Jacques Ellul on FaceBook . . .

  3. Be careful how you word your opinions... my friend had his house raided by the Secret service the FBI and the CID, they took all of his weapons and computers because he expressed a similar view point in a little bit more direct way. Now he is under investigation and his job is in jeopardy.

  4. Always without desire we must be found,
    If its deep mystery we would sound;
    But if desire always within us be,
    Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

    Lao Tse - Tao te Ching

  5. "Tolkien's professed philosophical anarchism." Hmm. Where does he profess that? Tolkien supported Franco against the Communists in Spain, and hoped that America would defeat Stalin. That doesn't sound to me like he didn't approve of using politics and power.
    "One of the central themes of the films/books, of course,is political power symbolized by the ring." Of course? Where, again, does Tolkien himself explain the ring in this way? He doesn't. Didn't King Aragorn reject the ring, but still become King? I assume that a King wields at least a little political power.... Perhaps we can make symbols mean anything. The desire for absolute power does corrupt (actually, it flows from a previously existing corruption in the person desiring it), but this is a different matter.
    While I don't agree with the rest of Mr. Hoffman's thesis anyway, I would like to see some research and proof of Tolkien's positions before using Tolkien to bolster his opinions. Not trying to be argumentative here, just a bit annoyed.

  6. Isaac:

    Perhaps Mr. Hoffman is relying on this version of letter he is supposed to have written to his son.

    There is some interesting discussion at that site.

    There is also an article here:

    While popular schools of political thought like to claim kinship with other popular thinkers and celebrities (and their claims are often unjustified), I think that "philosophical anarchists" probably have a more demonstrable kinship with Tolkien than do "conservatives," "libertarians," or even those in the Catholic faith who prefer a muscular state.

  7. Well, Robert (et al),
    I stand corrected. Technically, I sit corrected. Regardless, as a person who disapproves of making comments based in unresearched assumptions, I seem to have been guilty of that very charge. Mea culpa. To quote a notable Tolkien character, "Now, don't be hasty."
    I'm still a bit surprised, and after reading a fuller version of the letter on another site, find myself very confused, for it seems to contain certain inconsistencies. I'll have to do more research on JRRT's political views. I apologize to all for my inaccurate, naive, and slightly belligerent comment.
    Concerning the rest, however, I would like to make a distinction.
    I think there's a big, in fact, enormous difference between wanting less government, and feeling that it's wrong to be involved in government. This was my real issue with the original post. I now want to tread carefully, lest I misunderstood this (perhaps I should do some research!), but it seemed to me that Mr. Hoffman was insisting that Christians stay out of government and politics. Now, I am a Catholic who does not "prefer a muscular state". In fact, I would love to see Government's realm of influence greatly restricted. I suppose I would like to see something like Distributism. Unfortunately, in our fallen world, almost anything can be corrupted, and society cannot exist without government. Anarchy and Totalitarian governments at opposite extremes have very little in the way of fixed laws. It is actually the governments that strive to offer the greatest freedom to their people that require the most detailed and carefully balanced laws. Why? Because human nature is screwy, inside and outside politics. Anyway, I think there is nothing wrong with Christians trying to help their world through and in politics and government (technically, even voting involves us all in that); we simply should not desire power for the sake of lording it over others. Power should be desired only in order to be able to exercise greater influence for good. Let the political candidate who wishes to gain the greatest office realize that winning will make him the servant of all. If more politicians ran with that attitude not only would things be going a bit better, but there would be a heck of a lot less politicians running for office. :-) Yes, power corrupts. So does poverty. There's Grace to help those in either state remain uncorrupted. In Eden we see uncorrupted power. Tend the Garden. Keep it. Adam and Eve set over Creation. Now it means politics, laws, and governments. Constraint instead of freedom. Sad, but something we have to now deal with in consequence of the Fall.

  8. Isaac,

    I especially like your point, "Power corrupts. So does poverty." Well said.

    I agree that Distributism is an attractive economic possibility, and perhaps within reach of committed individuals who have a strong sense of community, such as a church and/or neighborhood.

  9. I am sorry to be joining the conversation late on this one, but thanks for your input. I did quite a bit of research on Tolkien as part of an elective class in college. I believe the first time I came across his professed anarchism was in Shipley's biography of him, but I am going from memory. I do think it is a fair claim, though, because I was aware of it well before my own political leanings turned in that direction. Tolkien also explicitly stated that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory for WWII, because if it was then Gondor would have seized the Ring of Power to obliterate Mordor. The ring as a symbol for political power is fairly well accepted, at least as an acceptable and often explored path of critique.
    I also want to clarify that I am not necessarily making the case against Christians being involved in politics. When you go to the store and buy something, you are involved in politics. When you open a bank account, you are involved in politics, etc. I am arguing that the goal of involvement in politics should be to see political power reduced, rather than to seize hold of the power and use it for "good." I am presenting the argument that I believe is consistent with both Tolkien and Ellul, which is that political power is an evil in itself and cannot, in the long run, accomplish anything good.