Anarchists at Work: Mutual Aid and Organized Religion

By Robert Murphy


Mutual aid is a form of resistance.

Mutual aid arrangements challenge dog-eat-dog economics and social Darwinism. Cooperation, coexistence, and personal engagement are important for many of today’s mutual aid activists. And, if you celebrate these values and virtues, maybe you're challenging the status quo. You could be involved with a Quaker or a Roman Catholic community in the United States. Maybe you live with Indigenous people in Nigeria or Guatemala. Maybe you’re a Jewish anarcho-syndicalist or an engaged Buddhist. Mutual aid is practiced in many places. Frequently, the good work is aided and abetted by people of faith.

Ask an economist for a definition, and you may be told that mutual aid arrangements are voluntary, participatory, and egalitarian arrangements for the exchange of goods, information, and services. Wikipedia notes that mutual aid projects "can be a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions."

With that thought in mind, I'll share some stories from the Southern region of the United States. Much of my community work has been in this region, where the old plantation aristocracy has been replaced by a new kind of oligarchy. The need for liberation continues in a new century.    

Think about the U.S. South during the 1950s.  Desegregation had been discussed for years in Alabama, but, as one veteran told me, “It was hard to move from the talking stage to the doing stage." Until the Montgomery bus boycott developed in 1955-56. The Montgomery effort succeeded, in large part, because of the community infrastructure provided by organized religion. Volunteers organized ride-sharing arrangements to take the boycotters to work and to essential services. When city officials tried to stop local insurance agencies from insuring the carpool vehicles, the boycotters arranged insurance policies with Lloyd's of London. Community groups, including religious groups, supported legal action. 

In 1956, the United States Supreme Court made its decision to desegregate the buses.  After that came a resurgence of the civil rights movement in hundreds of cities and towns. Some of the leaders were murdered, and some were silenced by other means, but the civil rights movement continues. It never ended. It’s still in progress.   

In response to voter suppression, multiple groups are fighting back, and the struggle takes place at several levels. There's a need for legal action, a need for grassroots organizing for voter registration, and a need for voter assistance on Election Day. This past November, some of the historically Black churches  brought voters to  polling places and provided drinking water and snacks. Volunteers shared umbrellas when it rained. 

Here's a second story about mutual aid. From 1999 to 2020, more than 841,000 people died in the United States because of drug overdoses.  Most of the deaths involved opioids. The opioid crisis began in the late twentieth century with changes in medical practice and the over-prescription of opioids. Pill mills appeared in Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, and in other states where scams and the modern equivalent of medicine shows are often tolerated by state and local government. In recent years, community groups, including religious groups, have demanded more restrictions  on the drug industry, and the organizers have  had some success. However, the opioid crisis continues, and thousands of families need culturally appropriate support.

In mosques and synagogues, in church buildings, and in other religious places, you’ll find peer-to-peer groups and coteries that are mutual aid associations. Many of these affinity groups have been inspired, in some way, by the model provided by Alcoholics Anonymous. "It's an anarchy that works” is a playful comment sometimes heard in the twelve-step programs. The participants greet each other with love and they share an understanding that there's a power greater than themselves. That's the starting place, and, beyond this point, you'll find different groups working in their different ways. The twelve-step groups won't rescue all of the people who are caught in the quicksand of addiction, but they have rescued many.

We live in an age of climate change and pandemics, and it's also  an age of fascism, "semi-fascism,"  and  predatory capitalism. Few speak of participatory democracy.When revolutionary practice develops in the United States,  it  will develop, in part, because of  mutual  aid activities,  and religious groups will be present.  Dean Spade, Rebecca Solnit, and other contemporary writers have noted that it's the outcasts and the outsiders who, frequently, know how to  build and sustain mutual aid activities. You can learn the mutual aid basics among some of the workers in the gig economy, among the homeless, in  the prisons, in the schools,  and in the nursing homes where people organize in self-defense teams.        

Organized religion encourages mutigenerational cooperation. In an era  in which different generations are often divided,  it's  important to understand this point. In the U.S. South, there are hundreds and hundreds of religious organizations, and even a small, crossroads town can support two or  three,  or even more. Mutual aid traditions are passed along from one generation to the next. If you're uncomfortable with one congregation,  move along to the next.  If you’re trying to connect this group to that group,  with an emphasis  on social justice campaigns,  give special attention to the pluralists who know how work with each other in a community of communities. 

I've been doing emergency services work for about thirty years. In the midst of disasters, I've seen  Methodists carrying boxes for Islamic Relief, and I've been with Unitarian Universalists  who were making sandwiches and coffee for the Salvation Army.   

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love. It's an old message for mutual aid advocates, and, heaven knows, it's needed in the twenty-first century. Mutual aid arrangements remind people that they're part of something that is larger than themselves. Some religious groups speak about honoring God's creation, while others mention the interdependent web of existence. Neighbors are asked to care for each other. In contrast to the leaders in totalitarian movements, the pluralists don't try to pull everybody into the same prayer tent or into the same political party. The “otherness” of “others” is respected.

Some libertarians argue for a society in which government is abolished, and much has been said, on both  the political Right and on the political Left,  about "the withering away of the state." The day may arrive, perhaps in a post-apocalyptic world. For the moment, elders like me are dependent on government services like Medicare. Mutual aid is not a panacea, and this is a point that needs to be acknowledged in mutual aid discussions. 

Still, the anarchists get it right when they call for the creation of mutual aid communities that are voluntary, participatory, and egalitarian. What's needed is "an anarchy that works." That's the basis for social progress. Without a bit of anarchy, individuals become alienated, confused, and manipulated by major corporations and by totalitarian governments. If you want to thrive and survive in today's world, join the resistance.                                                              


Robert Murphy, a Unitarian Universalist  community minister, is a DSA member and senior citizen activist in the U.S. South. He works with labor unions, community groups, and religious organizations and is active in community gardening programs and other mutual aid projects.

Imagine credit: Houston DSA