The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

For my Science Fiction Literature class at UCF, we were assigned a book to read every two weeks.  Most of the books were interesting in one way or another, but none of them could hold a candle to The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin.  An excellent book which I highly recommend, even to those who do not normally read science fiction.  I was hooked from the opening paragraphs.

There was a wall.  It did not look important.  It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared.  An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.  Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary.  But the idea was real.  It was important.  For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced.  What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres.  On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory.  The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long.  It was in fact a quarantine.  The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe.  It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

Of course, as I was reading this, I was immediately reminded of the walls that have been constructed in the name of Jesus Christ, even though Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was very clear about there NOT being walls.  Paul instructed the Corinthians,

I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.  I bring this up because …you’re fighting among yourselves! … You’re all picking sides, going around saying, “I’m on Paul’s side,” or “I’m for Apollos,” or “Peter is my man,” or “I’m in the Messiah group.”  …God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words.  …This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,

I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? …Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”?

What Walls Represent

Paul saw them building walls, organizing themselves into little groups (foreshadowing today’s denominations), not coming together because of some common purpose or goal, but to exclude one another, with one group seeing themselves as greater than another group.  They were mimicking the behavior of the religious elite.  They went from being outcast themselves to being the ones outcasting others.  The oppressed becomes the oppressor.

One reason that the Good News was so appealing back in the beginning (before Justinian and the good ole boys started killing people, hiring their own special Bible translators, and making deals with political warlords) was that it took the responsibility of salvation and placed it squarely on the shoulders of Jesus Christ.  People were told “you have been reconciled” now “be reconciled”!  In other words, God has got this salvation thing covered.  You don’t need to worry about that.  Now live in the freedom of knowing this is true.  Live like someone who knows they are reconciled to God!  This news was for everyone – not just the Jews.  All nations.  All people.  And this same Good News is breaking free from the dark, oppressive dungeons of the institutional church.  The simple child-like faith Jesus talked about is being given to the non-churched, un-churched, and de-churched.  It is being given to homosexuals, adulterous spouses, scientists, rock stars, porn stars, porn addicts, little kids, senior citizens, bisexuals, cross-dressers, anger management counseling drop-outs, drug addicts, enablers, mathematicians, construction workers, teenagers, child molesters, dog walkers, murderers, creative writers, dentists, whores, movie stars, al-Qaeda, janitors, professional athletes, everyone.

In Le Guin’s story, there are descriptions given for what either side of the wall represents.  Those who are contained within the walls see them as a barrier to keep them safe from outside influence. The Anarresti people viewed themselves as living outside the rest of the universe, on their own little plot of land, where everyone cooperated for the common good.  But those who were outside those same walls saw the walls as a prison for everyone inside.

God, Please Don’t Make Me Go to Church

When I lived in rebellion against God, I viewed Christians as prisoners and their churches as prisons.  Then, when God had His way with me, I believed, and things happened that I did not expect to happen.  He told me something I totally didn’t want to hear, that is, to go to church.  It took a full year for me to do what God wanted me to do, because there was not one bone in my body that wanted to have anything to do with going to church.  Not only did I not like Christians (even though I reluctantly WAS one), but their music sucked, their clothes and rules and Christianese language made me want to barf.  But I did go, because God has His way of being convincing.  To my delight, I met some very nice people, made some friends, got involved, and somehow, even though I was totally out of my element, I found a way to get comfortable doing the church thing.  This lasted for about a decade.


When I became involved in what I now call the “religious elite” of the church, but what I then called the “inner circle” of the church, I was especially impressed with the spiritual maturity of those around me.  They helped walk me through a very difficult time in my life, taught me to believe God no matter what, and encouraged me to walk in the gifts He had given me.  But along with all of these wonderful things, I also realized that even spiritually mature Christians have their hands tied in many ways by the institutional practices of the church.  For example, not too long after celebrating the birth of their second son, a church family learned the baby had leukemia.  At the time, I was involved with a few talented musicians, and we decided that we should have a benefit concert for the baby and his family, to help cover some of the medical costs involved with his treatment.  When I approached the leadership with my idea, they told me that I could not plan this event, because then every time anyone has a serious illness, they too will expect a benefit concert, and then the whole thing will get out of hand.  I’m like, SERIOUSLY?!?  I told them that the concert would take place with or without their help, and that I would begin calling local churches to see if perhaps one of them would rent the space to us at minimal cost considering the nature of the event.  The next day I got a call (surprise surprise), they changed their minds.  We could do the benefit concert after all.

Church Controversy over Community Christmas Dinner

Another example is when the new Senior Pastor wanted to have a community Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, Sunday, instead of having a church service.  This caused all kinds of grief among traditional people who just could not fathom the idea that there would be no Christmas service on Christmas Day.  No Sunday service.  God forbid!  The pastor went ahead with the community dinner anyhow, and it marked the beginning of the end of unity in that place.  There were those who wanted to do things the way they had always done things, to feel safe and secure, and there were those who wanted to take risks and be free to break whatever traditions needed to be broken in order to follow God’s direction.  Eventually the church split.  I went along with the latter group.  Many people accused me of following the Pastor, told me I was making a big mistake, etc., but I knew this was what God wanted me to do at that time.  I thought that in doing so, I would find myself among people who were becoming the glorious church described in scripture – the church in which I had always longed to be a part, but in over a decade, I had never seen or heard of such a church.  I had always “settled” with the idea that I could not single-handedly invent such a place.  I thought that perhaps God would do it for us, by letting us start from scratch, being careful to do things His way and not screw it up.

Egoizing and Profiteering

In Le Guin’s story, the reason the Anarresti had a wall to keep the universe out, was that they recognized how greed and power made life miserable for so many.  They were an anarchist society who had left their homeworld, Urras, to make a new life for themselves.  A few hundred years passed from the initial break, and they were settled into a whole new way of life where people did not possess property and shared equally in work.  There were no laws, only social expectations and voluntary conformity.  The main character of the story is Shevek, a physicist whose theories were radically different than traditional Anarresti physics.  He wasn’t prevented from exploring his ideas outright, because Anaresti society was all about freedom, but he was ignored and shunned and unable to obtain the resources he needed to pursue the theory further, with others who might understand the significance.  The people close to him accused him of “egoizing” and “profiteering.” Yet, he knew that this theory was much bigger and more important than they realized; it could potentially benefit not only the lives of his own people, but of Urras, other worlds, and even the entire civilized universe.  His situation on Ararres, supposedly a free world, became to Shevek a jail from which he would need to escape in order to put his theory into the hands of those who would see it in all its glory.

What the Church is NOT

Oh, how I identified with the character in his flaws, his passions, and his frustrations.  I, too, found myself in a situation where I realized that the reason God made me go to church all those years ago, the reason God put me in a position where I would see a church start from scratch with such high hopes and still end up just like every other church, was that He was teaching me what the church is NOT.  He let me see the best and the worst of the system, and showed me that the best of it was His Spirit at work through individual people, while the worst of it was this “idea” of church and all the trappings involved in sustaining and promoting it.  The church is not a building, a set of regularly scheduled gatherings, a list of core beliefs, a pastor-leader-layperson structure.  The church is His people, whenever and wherever they happen to be.  He showed me that I did not need to wish for the perfect church, because He had already created it.  I didn’t need to go find it, because it had been there all along – I didn’t need to go to church, because I am the church.  I found myself understanding for the first time Who God is, what God does, and who we are in Him, only to be surrounded by people who did not want to hear this exciting news, who accused me of egoizing and profiteering, prevented me from discussing freely, comparing notes, and sharing these observations with others.

Anarchy is OK

Noam Chomsky observes that “the modern democratic state has moved away from the big stick to embrace the “big lie,” (Gay, xii) much like Anarres trades one form of oppression, that is capitalism, for another form, that is, the carefully crafted illusion of freedom.  I never really understood the word “anarchy” until I read this story and wrote a paper about it.  Anarchy gets a bad rap, because it is often accompanied by violence.  Anarchy in itself, without the violence, can actually be very beneficial.  I believe that Jesus was an anarchist.  And He isn’t done anarchy-ing yet.  He’s going to keep this thing He started going until the entire universe is subjected to Himself.  Le Guin seems to write a pro-anarchy story, but she also demonstrates that corruption is not ever completely inescapable because it is intrinsic.  This is where Jesus will succeed in His anarchy.  He set into motion a plan of salvation that conquers the intrinsic corruption in each of us.  In the story, Baby Shevek, barely able to speak, claims the sunlight that shines through a nursery window as his own, saying, “Mine sun !” and crowding a nearby baby into the shade (Le Guin, 27).  This stands in contradiction to basic anarchist tenets that say, “Left to their own devices, human beings will seek to live honest lives in harmony and cooperation with those around them” (Gay, xiii).  But Jesus is able to recreate each of us with the will to share and consider the needs of others as more important than our own.  Really, the one thing that is the inevitable cause of anarchist failure is that in overthrowing the authority of man, it is inevitably followed by a failure of every individual to personally submit to God’s authority.

In my paper, I had this idea in mind when I wrote,

The exception to the left-to-their-own-devices anarchists would be spiritually minded, theistic anarchists such as Anabaptists who “believed that God directly guided their behavior and religious practices, and they would not submit to any religious authority” (Gay, xi-xii).  Of course, they were met with heavy opposition, which they escaped by migrating to North America.  Anabaptist ideology, carried to its logical conclusion, would fail to account for the “free-rider dilemma,” the “additional overgrazing created by one more animal” effect, which leads to the “ruin of all,” or the “prisoner dilemma,” which is a more sophisticated version of the free rider (Starr, 34-40), because not everyone submits to God’s authority.

God’s Pet Peeve: Suppression of the Truth

If the containment of knowledge can be considered oppression, then Shevek learns at an early age that oppression is given a place on Anarres.  As a “lanky eight-year-old” Shevek demonstrates remarkable reasoning skills, but his instructor accuses him of “egoizing,” saying “his presence is disruptive to the group” (Le Guin, 28-30).   The opportunity to share information must be considered “in regards to how entities adapt to their changing environments in their attempts to cope and to prosper” (Starr, 141).  Some people just can’t cope with the idea of change.  This is especially true in the institutional church.  Instead of taking into consideration that disruption of the norm is sometimes a good and necessary part of living an abundant, dynamic life, they become frightened of the unknown and unfamiliar.  They lash out using any resource available to them, be it asserting themselves through position, using power to dig potholes and set up road blocks, employing fear to demonize you in the eyes of others, or emotional weapons like name-calling and ostracizing.

The oppression Shevek experiences as an eight-year-old proves to be more than an isolated incident.  Readers learn that the PDC is really a hierarchical structure run by power wielding elites via another character named Bedap.   Although Shevek finds it hard to believe, Bedap explains how one of their childhood friends, Tirin, challenges the status quo on Anarres by writing a satirical play, and then suddenly he is repeatedly assigned road crew work.  When Tirin protests that there must be some error, he is at first ignored and then sent to an asylum (Le Guin 169-170).  Bedap does not allow Shevek to be “duped into perpetuating the status quo” (Gay, xiii), but forces Shevek to examine his own motivations, saying, “If you can dismiss Tirin from your conscience as a work-quitter, I don’t think I have anything else to say to you” (Le Guin ,171).  Shevek realizes that he craves Bedap’s “freedom of mind” (Le Guin, 173).


When I read this portion of the book, I thought of how great it would have been if one person in my church would have stopped and said, “Wait a minute.  We’ve known Alice for over a decade, and she doesn’t just go running off believing crazy stuff.  She thinks things through, questions, and asks God to teach her.  If this is how she is going to be treated, then (fill in the blank with whatever the appropriate response is).”  But I also realize that this is not what God had in mind for me at the time.  What He had in mind was to be left with no one willing to defend me, because it wasn’t about me at all.  It was about Him.  And it still is.  Earlier I said that the religious elite have their hands tied, but what I didn’t say is that this happens voluntarily.  For example, one person privately told me how upset she was about everything, but when I told her that she can stand against spiritual oppression, her response was, “If I say anything or do anything then I am setting myself up against the God ordained authority in this church…”  So you see that those chains are made of fear.  Fear of challenging authority, even though God’s authority usurps all other authority.  Since when is doing the right thing wrong?  And this is no isolated incident.  It is happening all around the country; all around the world there are stories similar to mine.  God is so merciful, He is still reaching out to those stubborn, stiff-necked people today.  Recently, Rob Bell released a book called Love Wins, which makes (nearly) identical claims to those that resulted in my difficulties.  I know that there are many people in my former church and churches everywhere who read his books.  I wonder if they will crave Bell’s “freedom of mind” and allow themselves to become convinced of the truth or if they will continue to allow themselves to be “duped into perpetuating the status quo.”  I wonder when/if God will bring up another gadfly like me in their midst.

A Rule to Break

If “willingness depends on choice and perception” (Starr, 15), then Shevek’s willingness to leave Anarris is dependent, indeed.  What other choice does he have, being dependent upon hostile and uncooperative others to communicate in his behalf?  His perception, for the longest time, is that the rule of the majority is not a rule but a necessity to ensure order and what is best for all.  When he realizes that it is a rule after all, then he also realizes it is a rule he is willing to break (Le Guin, 359).  He chooses to only give his theory to those who will not use it to wield illegitimate power over others.  In my case, as is becoming more and more common among believers who see Him in His Glory, I recognized that this idea of “unity” and “not causing division” is simply a tool in the hands of those who fear what God is doing in this generation.  They speak of “not causing division” while they do and say the most divisive things behind closed doors.  They warn of false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing to cause fear in the minds of those who have not been fully informed (who will never be fully informed, if these leaders have their way).  My perception, for the longest time, what that I should not and could not question the “authority” in the church, that it was a rule for my own safety and the safety of others, to keep us from being lead astray in false doctrine.  But then I realized it was no rule, it was a chain, and I was wrapped up tight in the doctrine of fear.  This kind of authority not only can be challenged, but it should be challenged.

Internet Anarchism

The Internet might be compared to Shevek’s theory which results in “a device that will permit communication without any time interval between two points in space” (Le Guin, 344).  This device makes “a league of worlds possible.”  An interesting appendix to the Encyclopedia of Political Anarchy is “Internet Anarchism”, a “quintessential example of a large scale anarchist organization,” according to Dana Ward, who teaches a course called “Anarchy and the Internet” at Pitzer College in Claremont, California (Gay, 221).  The Internet has no controlling hierarchy.  At this point the only disadvantage is that the poor of the world, who do not have Internet access are likely not well represented.  But it is a step in the right direction.  In the story, Shevek is instrumental in efforts to ensure that people acquire the freedom to communicate and resolve problems, to keep walls from being built and tear down walls that already exist.

I believe that God is using the internet to do the same thing.  The deep philosophical, moral, and spiritual discussion I’ve had online would never have taken place in a church.  It seems that I have come full circle in the faith.  Earlier I said that when I lived in rebellion against God, I viewed Christians as prisoners and their churches as prisons.  I now see that this assessment was not too far off base.  Today, I believe that many (the majority) of Christians are people who live in happily-blissfully ignorant slavery that is for all intents and purposes one of the most clever illusions of freedom I have ever seen.  They are free in ways that not-yet-believers are still imprisoned, but restricted and oppressed in ways that not-yet-believers are not.  Really, they are free in every way, but they behave as if and believe as if they are not.  I can say this with confidence, because I lived in that world for over a decade.  I am very familiar with how the “freedom in Christ” thing translates into real life.    God had His way with me, though, as He will with everyone.  I believed He is Who He says He is and He will do what He says He will do, and this is freedom.  He has promised in the strongest language possible,

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.

Hard Lessons, Great Rewards

God told me to trumpet this Good News from the rooftop.  And just as it took a full year for me to do what God wanted me to do, because there was not one bone in my body that wanted to have anything to do with going to church, it also took almost a year for me to do what God wanted me to do in sharing the real Good News.  But I did open my mouth, because God has His way of being convincing, and I haven’t shut up since.  To my delight, He has given me real freedom – cut me loose from spiritual oppression and wowed me with His wonders that are at work all around, in ways I never could see before, inside the walls.  Why did He take almost fifteen years to walk me through all of this?  I have no idea.  But I am so, so glad He did.  If any of this sounds familiar to you, then you will probably enjoy the book.  I’ll place it in my top five fiction novels.

BTW – here’s my top five fiction as of right now:

1. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (Orson Scott Card)

2. Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)

3. Enchantment (Orson Scott Card)

4. The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin)

5. Xenocide (Orson Scott Card)


Works Cited

Gay, K. (1999) Encyclopedia of Political Anarchy. Santa Barbara, California, ABC-CLIO

Le Guin, U.K. (1974) The Dispossessed. NY, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc

Starr, H. (1997) Anarchy, Order, and Integration. University of Michigan Press

  • Mary Vanderplas May 3, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Wow – interesting. I agree with your critique of the institutional church. There is no question that the church often enslaves, and distorts/obstructs the gospel – by an emphasis on rigid adherence to rules and traditions, by a fear of all things new, by hierarchical structures that dominate and suppress free expression of ideas, by practices geared toward self-preservation, by a competitive and conflictive spirit that refuses to entertain other claims to truth, etc. At the same time, though, I don’t think the things you identify are confined to the institution. Individuals, too, can fall prey to “the religious impulse,” which leads to dominance, exclusivity, intolerance, and a host of other negative attitudes and behaviors that oppress others and do violence to the gospel message. So while I can understand the drive to “escape the prison” by leaving the church, I see the solution in terms of individuals and communities of faith renouncing the temptation of religion and instead adopting a posture of faith (defined as awe and trust in the One who cannot be contained or controlled), a posture that produces behaviors and attitudes that foster dialogue, free expression, and unity amid diversity.

    I don’t disagree that “The church is His people, whenever and wherever they happen to be.” What I question, though, is a view of the church as a collection of individuals in whom the Spirit is working. New Testament images of the church, particularly the image of the human body, suggest an organic unity of interdependent members. So I have trouble with the statement, “I am the church.” I don’t disagree either that in some sense God has already created the perfect church. From the perspective of eternity, God’s work of perfecting what God in Christ redeemed has already been accomplished. From a human, temporal perspective, however, there are still flaws in God’s people, whether they belong to the institutional church or they choose to live their faith outside the structure of the institution.

    Regarding Jesus’ attitude toward government, he didn’t espouse anarchism, or any particular political theory; and he taught submission to civic authority, even the (oppressive) rule of a foreign government. In the realm of religion, he himself observed the traditions and laws of Judaism, except when those traditions and laws conflicted with the will of God. While he didn’t appear to be against the idea of human authority, the fact that he reserved some of his harshest criticism for the religious elite suggests that he recognized the dangers that attend positions of power in the religious community. But even though Jesus didn’t espouse anarchism, I agree that he was an anarchist in an important sense. He came not to establish a new religion, but to bring an end to religion, to set us free from bondage to religious laws. Your discussion of Jesus’ work of “anarchy-ing” I found especially insightful – and lovely. And I agree that what sabotages every effort to establish a society that is truly free and just is a failure on the part of individuals to submit to God’s authority, indeed the inability to do so – something requiring a transformation of the heart that only God can accomplish.

    I appreciated hearing (from the perspective of your identification with the character in the novel) your story of deliverance from bondage within an oppressive ecclesiastical system to a life of joyous freedom. I feel sad, though, about your experience and consequent disillusionment. As much as I agree with your assessment, I still would hope that the prison that is the institutional church might be made new and its hierarchies and misuses of authority might be abolished – so that it can be used for God’s glory.

    • admin May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      I held to that hope for a while. It is the understandable position, when one has invested so much time and effort into something, to want to see it succeed. But I think that this is what Jesus was talking about when He said you don’t put new wine into old wineskins. I don’t give up on the people, nor do I think that all their efforts are pointless. God works all things together for good for them. Perhaps the purpose of the institutional church is like the purpose of the law – to serve as a ministry of death and condemnation to show us what the church is not. But if you don’t see it this way, I understand.

      • Mary Vanderplas May 5, 2011 at 5:43 am

        I’ve thought more about your comments about the church (i.e., what it is and what it is not). Your assertion that God has already created the perfect church makes sense. Paul’s statement, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” is likely a statement of what God has done, independent of anything we do. God has brought into being this reality, the church; and whether we even know it or not, we are bound to one another. The issue for us, then, is whether we are going to act like it or not, whether we are going to live as those who are one, as you emphasize, by tearing down existing walls and by refusing to erect new ones. But whether we act like it or not, whether we see ourselves as part of it or not, the church exists nonetheless; and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. I agree that there is something freeing in this, in knowing that it isn’t up to us to try to create or find the perfect church because God has already done it. For me, it frees me to accept the flaws in the institutional church while at the same time trying to work for change so that it more faithfully reflects what the church is. For you, I know, it is freedom to serve God outside of the institutional structure, which you see as largely inimical to God’s purposes. But I agree with you that the body of Christ, the church, is reality and that we have only to live like it.

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