We have lost two human rights heroes so far this year – John Lewis in July and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. Our nation was enriched by their long and distinguished service, and we are greatly impoverished by their absence.
Three former presidents attended Lewis’ memorial service in Atlanta. One former president did not attend because of his age and concern about travel during a pandemic. The sitting president did not attend because he was still miffed that Lewis didn’t attend his inauguration nearly four years ago. If Trump had shown up, it would have been the height of hypocrisy because he represents just about everything that Lewis opposed.
In his eulogy for Lewis, former President Barack Obama said a remarkable thing. He said of Lewis’ life: “It vindicated … that faith, that most American of ideas, that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.
“What a radical idea! What a revolutionary notion – this idea that any of us, ordinary people … can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just – we can do better.’ ”
Did you catch the biblical reference there? It was from the King James Version, where Ephesians 6:12 says: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Modern translations speak of rulers and authorities, rather than powers and principalities. However you refer to them, we need to understand what they are so that we can identify them, publicly denounce them for what they are, and stand against them.
What we are talking about here is commonly called “spiritual warfare,” but it is far more than what’s commonly talked about. In many churches, spiritual warfare is strictly an individual thing. It’s you against the demons. You’ve got to fight those demons or they’ll entice you to perform sinful and degrading acts – smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, sex, rock and roll, not to mention the farthest reaches of moral squalor – the toleration of homosexuality and liberal politics.
Spiritual warfare does involve your personal battle against personal sin, but it is far more than that, and far more is at stake than your individual morality. We’re talking here about cosmic forces that are larger than any individual. These are invisible forces that shape all our lives.
We have several names for them: The Establishment. The Man. The Boss. The System. The status quo. The Powers That Be.
You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Well, you can try. Soon you’ll discover that though individuals of flesh and blood may be the ones who tell you “No,” they’re not the real problem. The real problem is the system, and it’s far bigger than any individual or group of individuals in it. It’s the system you can’t fight.
Ever try to dispute a claim with your insurance company? Ever try to argue with your bank? Internet provider? The water company? The police department? Social Security or Medicare?
Powers and principalities are systems and institutions and cultural norms and thought patterns. They are everywhere, and they influence every aspect of our lives. They are not necessarily evil. In fact, they were created to be, and can continue to be, forces for good. But they have a life of their own, and when they turn bad, bad things happen to people who get in their way.
Just about everything I know about powers and principalities I learned from Walter Wink, a United Methodist theologian who began his studies with statements by the Apostle Paul in Colossians and Ephesians. (See Colossians 1:16, 2:15, Ephesians 1:21-22.)
The first thing to know, Wink says, is the powers were created by God, and like all of God’s creation, they are intended for good. But like human beings, they got corrupted, and now many of them act as forces of evil. Still, like humans, they can be redeemed. This means that Christ died to redeem not only sinful individuals but also the institutions that sinfully enslave individuals and societies.
Societies, governments, corporations, economic systems – these are all powers and principalities. Their God-given purpose is the serve the common welfare. But they have become spiritually diseased. They have become demonic. Their effect is evil.
Racism is one of the powers. It is a form of domination and subordination that serves the welfare of only some, not all. It’s a perversion of God’s provision for human society. It’s an impersonal force, but like all powers, it can be incarnated in human beings. It was incarnated in Alabama in the 1960s in Bull Connor and George Wallace. It’s incarnated today a little more subtly in Donald Trump and his campaign to “Make America White Again.”
So many people today still think, “Well, I’m not racist,” so that settles the problem. But it doesn’t. Because the problem is bigger than any individual. The problem is systemic. The problem is perpetuated by white people who may not be racist but have no idea how to defeat a system that holds them prisoner as surely as it imprisons black people.
Racism is far from the only evil power. The powers include most forms of nationalism because nationalism is a perversion of patriotism. It turns the healthy love of your own country into the hatred of other countries. White nationalism and Christian nationalism are two familiar forms of this sickness – turning love for your own into hatred of others simply because they are different.
Our capitalist economic system has become a perverted power. Look at the stock market. Stocks were intended to be a way of investing in an enterprise. You helped capitalize – that is, raise money for – a company that provided certain goods and services. If the company performed well, it made a profit, and as an investor, you got a share of it.
These days, the primary purpose of a stock is to produce value or income for stockholders. Providing valuable goods and services is a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all. Greed has overcome the pursuit of virtue. When the top 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the wealth, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our society works. The system is broken.
Another of the powers is authoritarianism. The powers always get their way through violence or the threat of violence. Sometimes it’s simple gangsterism, but it’s usually through institutionalized violence. One form was the legal system known as Jim Crow that enslaved black people for more than a century after they were legally emancipated.
Another form: drug laws designed to incarcerate black men at a higher rate than others. Another form: police violence and a criminal justice system that looks the other way – as we are understanding more thoroughly in the case of Breonna Taylor’s killing – “lawful but awful,” as one observer says.
You may note that authoritarianism is favored only by those in power, and only when they are in power. When they are out of power, they favor something else – whatever is to their advantage, since seeking advantage over others is what they really want.
Many of the “isms” are forms of oppression, because they give one set of people power over another. Think of sexism, heterosexism (also called homophobia), ageism, and classism.
Journalist Isabel Wilkerson has raised a stir in her new book titled Caste. She contends that America lives under a caste system that ranks people by race. Upper caste people are white. Lower caste people are non-white. Wilkerson says caste creates a ladder of humanity, sorting people in a scheme of hierarchy that they cannot escape. If she’s right, caste is another of the powers.
Caste is mostly unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged and so internalized that you don’t even know it’s there. Wilkerson says it’s like the studs and joists in your house. You can’t see them, but they hold the structure together. They are invisible but powerful forces. That’s how all the powers work – invisibly and powerfully.
What Wilkerson calls caste may just be another form of classism. However you think of it, you need to be aware of its influence. Sometimes it uses race to enforce its rules. Sometimes it uses sex or age or gender preference. Sometimes it follows rules that are inscrutable. You may never know why certain things happen in your life – why you didn’t get that job, for example, or why you did get it.
It’s nothing personal, understand. The powers don’t care who they crush as long as the crushing benefits them. The powers do care about whom they elevate. The powers love to become incarnated in humans, especially authoritarian leaders and, of course, dictators. When the powers are embodied in flesh and blood, the fight gets nasty as well as personal.
In case you think I’m spinning just another elaborate conspiracy theory, let me tell you that conspiracy theories and other similar cultural currents also are powers. They may have a tiny kernel of truth in them, but they become perverted into evil forces.
Take the Illuminati, for example. They were a real secret society involved in the French Revolution in 1789, but they soon acquired a reputation far surpassing reality. Talk of them today is fantasy.
One way the powers get away with everything is by tricking us into thinking that we as individuals are responsible for their sins. Blame the victim, in other words. If we think that we are personally responsible for all this evil, we can become overwhelmed by the immensity of it and overcome by our inability to do anything about it.
That is precisely what the powers want. They want us to feel overwhelmed. They want us to think there is nothing we can do to fight them and there is no way to defeat them. But we can stand against them, and we can defeat them.
That’s what we’ll focus on next week, when we talk about putting on the full armor of God.
You’ll need armor because confronting the powers will get you into trouble. John Lewis called it “good trouble.” It’s the kind of trouble Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always getting into with her fiery dissents to Supreme Court decisions. It’s the kind of trouble Jesus got into confronting the powers in his day. It’s the kind of trouble most genuine American heroes get into.
Obama was right. “What a revolutionary notion” this is – “this idea that any of us, ordinary people … can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just – we can do better.’ ”
The odds against us are great. But we never stand alone. We are like young David confronting the giant Goliath with his five smooth stones and the confidence that the Lord is on his side.
As Paul told the church at Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
With that conviction, we can stand strong against the powers that be.
The message was delivered October 11, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Ephesians 6:10-12.