Powers govern you, and they are not who you think—Part One

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Last week I proceeded to share on Facebook a link to my blog “Theology of Resistance,” as I do every week or so. As with many writers, Facebook is how I reach my readers—that diverse, wonderful, readerly, thoughtful, far-flung tribe of people with the same quirky interests I have. Thanks to social media, I can find them and they can find me.

Until, of course, they can’t. This time, I could not share a link from my site because—as it turns out—my site had been blocked from Facebook (as well as Instagram, which is owned by Facebook), and a few months of posts were removed from my Facebook page. This has got to be a mistake, I thought. My ideas may rankle some with religio-political views different from mine, but my site is decidedly non-offensive. It is respectful, thoughtful, fair-minded, peaceful, calm. A little nerdy and intellectual—not particularly radical.

And yet it was blocked. After some research, including reading stories of people similarly blocked, and after chat sessions with my blog company to insure my site was safe and hadn’t been hacked, I learned the most likely scenario was this: A number of individuals who dislike my ideas had reported the site as malicious or abusive using a Facebook form. Together, these reports triggered an automatic blocking. And because no human was involved in this automatic process, it could not be undone or reversed. In fact, as far as I can discern there exists no way for me to contact Facebook about the issue, except by filling out an online Facebook form that comes with a disclaimer stating the forms aren’t usually read. From my research I learned some Facebook users had had sites permanently blocked, or blocked for several months—without recourse or explanation. I do not know if my site will ever be unblocked.

Somehow, I ran afoul of an algorithm. The whole experience shed light on how dependent I’d become on Facebook to reach my far-flung audience. Facebook has become the platform-builder for many artists and writers. How was I going to work around the block?  The experience also sent me back to work I’d done fifteen years earlier; it got me thinking about “the powers.”

“The powers” is a theological concept coming from references in the Pauline epistles to “the principalities” and “powers.” The concept is an intriguing one I had not delved into for years. But I think social media warrants theological reflection using the perspective of the powers, as you will see. In fact at this time, in our daily lives, few of the powers wield more direct influence.

First, a list. The “Pauline-school” passages referencing powers and principalities are Romans 8:38-39,1 Corinthians 2:8, 15:24-26; Ephesians 1:20-22, 2:1-2, 3:10, 6:12; Colossians 1:16-17, 1:20, 2:14b-15. All of the passages but one imply the powers and principalities run counter to the intentions of the Divine. Yet Colossians 1:16 says the powers (the general term I will use for “principalities” and “powers”) are among the “visible and invisible” things God created. Simply put, the powers come out of and are part of creation, but fail to move in the direction of wholeness, God’s intention for creation. In some of these passages, the powers are implicated in Jesus’ death (Rome is among the “principalities and powers”). And importantly, the powers are associated with misguided human institutions and laws, but are also spiritual forces.

The Pauline references to “the powers” illuminate certain aspects of our life and experience in a unique way. They show that although the powers are manifested in human actions and institutions and revealed through corrupt human society, they are also—somehow—spiritual.  The composite picture painted in the passages has several facets. As stated, the powers comprise “visible and invisible” elements. They are the spiritual underpinnings of earthly powers (kingdoms or “dominions” are listed with “powers and principalities”), along with those visible powers themselves—powers in this world that dominate human affairs. Other passages state that the powers are enemies of the Divine (1 Cor 15:24-25, Eph 1:20-21), yet they are also the ones to whom we must “witness” about the “wisdom of God.”

Significantly, then, the powers and principalities are not merely spiritual forces, nor merely human. They are both.  We face wholeness-averse, non-human powers that find expression in the human lives they dominate through structures bearing upon our everyday lives. These dominating forces include institutions like Religion, a power with which Paul frequently wrestled, and Mammon (money), a power Jesus warned against in the bluntest terms, and the power of the State, the power that crucified Jesus. Paul could characterize the Law as an idol, and Jesus could characterize Mammon as a rival god, recognizing the spiritual implications of these institutions. Yet the legal system and the monetary system are, of course, not strictly spiritual entities. The fact is, both systems are administered by human beings and impinge upon such matters as what to eat and what to drink, as well as who gets to eat and drink. Pretty flesh-and-blood matters.

So herein lies the profundity of the theology of the powers: Paul and Jesus recognized that institutions (state, religion, money, law, etc.) are more than the sum of their human components and human intentions. At the core, they have a spiritual component, imbued with forces or powers that dominate humanity for their own sake. This New Testament perspective on the world we live in has interesting consequences and insights. These institutions are no longer governed by the collection of human beings who run them. They come to have their own autonomy. In fact, the humans in these institutions come to be overrun by the very institutions they are supposedly governing. Think of multinational corporations and social media companies that maintain a forward momentum that human actors, even large collectives of human actors, are powerless to stop.

Some may dismiss the New Testament teaching on the powers as merely a reflection of an antiquated worldview, one that sees earth, heaven, and hell as separate tiers in the universe, and that blames natural phenomena such as illnesses on malevolent or mischievous spirits from beyond, enjoying forays into the “middle tier” in which we live. Surely this ancient view of the universe doesn’t resonate with most of us in the twenty-first century who recognize scientific explanations for things once explained as spirit possession. Nonetheless, the New Testament teaching on the powers can also provide support for an integrated worldview—the view that creation has both an interiority and an exteriority, both a spiritual and a physical manifestation. This interiority and exteriority are not separate, but intertwined. Walter Wink, in his seminal book on the powers (see his Engaging the Powers), explains how ancients “projected” the spiritual forces out onto distant realms. Our job is to withdraw those projections and recognize the way such forces actually reside within our own institutions.

In no way does Wink downplay the realness of the spiritual. We don’t downplay “spirits” by projecting them into another realm apart from our own; rather we confront the reality of the spiritual impinging on our lives. And neither does he see our world and its people as possessed by ubiquitous demons—a worldview popular among many fundamentalists.  Rather, Wink says human systems and powers have an “interiority” that is spiritual. According to the Pauline writings, the spirituality of these earthly institutions is not neutral. The sole motivation of the institutions is self-preservation, not the wholeness of creation. We observe this when we see the out-of-control oppressiveness, intransigence, waste, and destructiveness of the world’s systems and institutions. Such systems are not corrupt because they are comprised of individuals who have been possessed by demons. Nor are they corrupt because they are controlled by evil folks who want to destroy people and the planet, even if the leadership of such institutions are at times motivated by vengeance, greed, and selfishness. Ultimately, the institutions are corrupt because at their core is a spiritual interiority dedicated to its own preservation rather than the wholeness of creation.

All human institutions are shaped by human ingenuity and brilliant ideas. In the earliest stages of development, they are even under the control of human beings. However, as they advance, the systems become greater than humanity’s ability to control them. They take on a life of their own. Jacques Ellul, a French thinker who wrote extensively about the powers in the decades following World War II, explains it well. It is interesting to ponder how his words apply to social media, something Ellul could not have imagined. He writes:

“… a social factor like religion, political power, technology, or propaganda will still be the work of man in its earliest forms, so that at its commencement it can still be modified by man.  Man is its master and the arbiter of its destiny.  But as this factor solidifies in its means and methods, as it extends its sphere of application, as it invests itself with spiritual meaning, man progressively loses his possibilities of intervention and modification.  A reversal takes place.  Man no longer organizes the object.  The object has its own life and develops like a true organism according to its own necessity.  The more it obeys this law of its own development the more it forces itself on man and becomes a necessity for him.  … It should be noted, however, that this could happen only because there was not merely an inner mechanism but because man consented to go along with it.  Man is not stripped of his mastery apart from or contrary to himself.”1

The “inner mechanism” Ellul mentions denotes the spirituality of an institution. But, as Ellul states, earthly institutions come to have this kind of spiritual power because humanity, at some point, allows it.  We allow these created institutions to take the form of gods, and to determine our existence. It is essentially the myth of the Fall enacted over and over again, with created powers usurping the place of Creator. Like Adam, the mythological, quintessential human, we allow ourselves to be seduced by our own will to control. And once the reversal takes place, the powers forever rival God for our allegiance. As William Stringfellow explains, in the post-Fall world the powers have gained oppressive control over the human beings they were intended to serve:

“Pretending autonomy from God, these creatures [the principalities and powers] are autonomous from human control.  In reality they dominate human beings. Relying upon the biblical description, I have come to think of the relationship of the principalities and persons as if the Fall means that there has been not only a loss of dominion by human beings over the rest of Creation but, more precisely than that, an inversion or a reversal of dominion.  So, now, those very realities of Creation—traditions, institutions, nations—over which humans are said in the Genesis Creation story to receive dominion and the very creatures which are called thus into the service and enhancement of human life in society exercise, in the era of the Fall, dominion over human beings (Gen 1:26).”2

It is apparent at times that human systems, whether they be governmental regimes or economic systems or religious institutions or social media platforms, indeed take on lives of their own, completely apart from the human beings making decisions within them. Things are done a certain way because that is just the way the system works, and every actor within the system is constrained to act according to the system’s preordained patterns, regardless of whether they agree with them. The system comes first, and human actions follow along its course. People working within the system might want things to be done differently, might want to make decisions that radically diverge from the norm, but find it is impossible to do so. Elected politicians find it is impossible to act according to their consciences and still get reelected. Aspiring politicians find it impossible to follow their consciences and get elected in the first place. Religious leaders find it impossible to speak the truth people most need to hear without being replaced by someone who instead says what people want to hear. Business people find it impossible to make consistently ethical business choices and remain viable. Medical professionals find it impossible to “do no harm” and retain their practices within the medical establishment.

In Part Two of this essay, we will look at specific examples of these realities in everyday lives.

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1  Jacques, Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom, 1976, 40-41.

2  William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word, 1994, 208-209.

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3 thoughts on “Powers govern you, and they are not who you think—Part One

  1. This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay! New subscriber (already left FB). “Ultimately, the institutions are corrupt because at their core is a spiritual interiority dedicated to its own preservation rather than the wholeness of creation.” I believe to reclaim the wholeness of creation we need to start opting-out of the corrupt institutions en masse.

    I recently heard a woman on YT that similarly describes our corrupt institutions by equating it with narcissism. I thought it made a lot of sense, maybe you’d be interested to listen. (‘Narcissism and the systems it breeds’ Diane Langberg

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