The Common Good
August 1994

Jacques Ellul: A Hopeful Pessimist

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | August 1994

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Jacques Ellul died on May 19. The Washington Post noted his passing in a few scant paragraphs. It went unnoticed here in Detroit. Sojourners could readily devote an issue to him—and did just that in June 1977, acknowledging a debt to his thought and witness. He tutored many of us in theology and social history.

Personally, I was introduced to Ellul’s writing as a seminarian through Dan Berrigan, who was then reading the signs of the time with the Book of Revelation in one hand and Jacques Ellul’s Presence of the Kingdom (1948) in the other. Presence was Ellul’s postwar manifesto—and nearly five decades later it still rings true with an uncanny discerning prescience.

Removed as a professor of law by the Vichy government in 1940, he spent World War II in the French Resistance, spiriting Jews to safety. His postwar take on the times? Hitler won the war. The Nazi spirit triumphed. The atom bomb was emblem of the necessary "fact," the apotheosis of technique—of means overwhelming and supplanting ends.

In this terrible dance of means which have been unleashed, no one knows where we are going, the end has been left behind. Humanity has set out at tremendous speed—to go nowhere....Everything that "succeeds," everything that is effective, everything in itself "efficient," is justified.

There and then Ellul foresaw that technique was being freed of value judgments, that human beings would relinquish their "choice" and lose control of the means, that technics would extend into every sphere and discipline of human life. He anticipated the incipient totalitarianism of technocracy. In this he proved prophetic in all the senses of that word.

Here, too, was the seed of his more widely read sociological studies such as The Technological Society (1964 in English—first in a series) and Political Illusion (1967 in English). Ellul wrote some 43 books in all. A striking fact of his work was that he tended to publish on parallel tracks: Historical or sociological work would be matched with biblical study.

With regard to the titles above, for example, The Meaning of the City (a topical survey from Genesis to Revelation radically pessimistic about human works and radically hopeful about God’s grace in history) was the theological counterpoint to the technological study, and The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (a reading of 2 Kings) illuminated the other.

Ellul clearly desired the scathing sociological works to stand on their own as analysis, but he also wanted Christian readers to live with the dialectical tension of the two tracks. For many secular academics, his biblical theology was utterly unknown or dismissed as little more than some quirky hobby. Here in Detroit, a circle of lucid if verbose anarchists are Ellul devotees, yet they were nonplused, dumbfounded would be more precise, to discover that he was a Christian, let alone that faith was the beginning and end of his work.

Ellul was himself an anarchist (also a Calvinist and a universalist—do you get a sense of dialectic here? of lively paradox?). He had roots in French personalism, though it seems only of late that he has found an active and sympathetic reading in the U.S. Catholic Worker movement.

Another attentive reader, close to my own heart, much influenced by Ellul, was William Stringfellow. Little wonder: Ellul’s work, though seldom using the language of the principalities, did as much as anyone to unmask the powers, exposing the mechanisms by which a given social reality—be it technology, money, the state, ideology, violence, propaganda—would take on a life of its own. And he could put his finger on the "logic of necessity" by which human beings would forego their freedom, conforming to the logic of the system.

In the sociological works, "necessity" was nearly a veiled synonym for "the Fall." Though excruciatingly realistic, this was also his critique of realism. The vocation of Christians, he thought, was to live by other logics, to be signs, which is to say countersigns, of freedom.

He was himself such a sign. He remains a witness of resurrection. And prompts our thanks to God: Amen and alleluia.

BILL WYLIE KELLERMANN, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor and the editor of the forthcoming A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994).

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