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
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, Bill Wylie
Kellerman is a United Methodist pastor and the editor of the forthcoming
A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow