Powers and Principalities

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Perhaps there has been no time since the medieval era in which people are more given to believe in “powers and principalities.” This is a biblical term, but we modern folk are not likely to use it in reference to angels, demons, and things that go bump in the night. Nevertheless the powers and principalities that are “out there” today are as feared and admired with a sense of awe, as circumvented by manipulative enchantments and charms, and as worshipped as objects of faith, hope, and love, as in any age of yore. These powers and principalities seem as invisible, as ineffable, and as uncontrollable as any otherworldly creatures that ever may have been presumed to come into the human realm. It seems impossible to get a handle on them, and yet it feels that they run our lives far more than decisions that are made, either by ourselves or by human beings we can hold accountable. Here is the point for our purposes: People, institutions, and whole populations, feel robed of agency by what is experienced as “powers and principalities.”

We should start with the biblical use of the term. William Stringfellow, a 20th century attorney and lay theologian offers a concise but clear summary of the classic Christian understanding: “…that dominion which human beings receive from God over the rest of creation…is lost to them in the fall and, as it were, reversed, so that now the principalities exercise dominion over human beings and claim in their own names and for themselves idolatrous worship from human beings. People do not create the principalities nor do they control them; on the contrary, people exist in this world in bondage to the principalities. No one escapes enduring the claims for allegiance and service of the principalities.” (Essential Writings, Orbis Books, Modern Spiritual Masters Series)

If that doesn’t sound like modern life, let us examine his point in terms of our more familiar experiences. Do we not share a feeling that there are certain forces and dynamics over which we have no dominion even while they are working to determine what is to come? Bright and good willed people can be found throwing up their hands and saying that it doesn’t matter who gets elected to office, that events are going to take over anyway. There is the historical determinism of influential thinkers like Karl Marx, who promised us that forces of history are leading to foregone conclusions for human society. Darwin’s theory of evolution, still mysterious and misunderstood by most of the masses, has taught us that certain processes of mutation and selection are the driving forces for forms of life, including human life, that are fashioned in a struggle out of which the fittest survive – and that evolution is still, and will always be, at work. Freud, Jung, and Adler helped us see how “powers and principalities” work from within “the mind” and will never be fully within a person’s self-control. Scientist like Einstein demonstrated the truth that everything is relative; quantum mechanics has forced recognition that “common sense” observation, like the long standing axiom that “a thing cannot be in the different place at the same time,” has to yield to the reality that we can rely on no more than probabilities, and mathematically trained metaphysicians like Whitehead have informed us that there really is not even such a thing as a “thing,” since all that exists is in a process of constant change, and everything is relational instead of “individual” or strictly particular.

How much these theories have reached home to create a sense of what are the “powers and principalities” for our era can be seen in very practical terms when we consider institutions. No wonder we have become so frustrated with institutions, be they great corporations, governmental agencies, ecclesiastical organizations, nations, unions, universities – you name it. Institutions are all about their own survival. They are not about us, or anything of value beyond themselves. Finally, everything else is secondary to the preservation and glorification of the institution, and anyone having some relationship or connection to it must commit herself or himself to the cause of the institution – which, again, always comes down to its survival. As the song goes, the worker simply “…gives their soul to the company store.” As far as the institution is concerned, anyone and everything can be sacrificed in that great cause. The rationale for the institution can be couched in terms of the good it can do  and often does, and everyone within it or called to serve it by participation, perhaps simply by being a customer, can be assured that the institution is good for them in important ways. But finally it is dehumanizing because the way it actually functions is not for us, or even about us; its life and its mission is all too much for the cause of the institution, in and of itself.

Ideologies can, and are likely to, be principalities. We may take the prevailing American myth of a holy nation, religiously “justified” and called to empire. Where there is such profound and sustained confusion over a nation’s character and mission genuine religion will know it as blasphemy and idolatry.

Deep-seated social realities over which we have little dominion, like racism, can be one of the powers and principalities. Racism is not simply a personal and social problem, but a problem with the Gospel.

Such “powers that be” are active characters in the drama of history and in each of our personal lives. We can try to deny them, or acknowledge them, or resist them, or – and this not only is the easiest but the normative path – yield to them and play along as though they give us purpose and a station in the universe.

But if you are a Christian, you have discovered good news to set you free to work in partnership with God for the good of the created order and its completion the age Jesus introduced and is to come. You have the model of Jesus, who withstood the powers of his day, not only identified in terms of an occupation by the Roman Empire, but in all that had been formed and turned loose to make for a future that did not become the kingdom in which God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven.” You have the example of the early church which, with all of its human flaws, understood and set forth a pattern of resistance to the “powers and principalities” they had to face – understanding, for example, (and it cost many of them their lives) that to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” meant that Caesar was not.

To be sure, your faith is not a claim that the “powers and principalities” no longer have dominion over you, but that with faith and understanding you can enjoy awareness and the larger picture of your personal role and value in the process of history. You can belong in the universe, even one corrupted and corrupting. You can have confidence that God will take your contribution and transform it into the divine creativity. You can have faith in the strong evidence within the created order that the greatest power and principality, in heaven and on earth as it were, is the phenomenal universal force of an unlimited lover.

What you and I need and yearn for is the supporting power of the community of faithful we term “church.”

Ah, that is why At the Threshold calls for reform. It is a call for the church to become what it claims to be: the community of those given the gift of discernment regarding the negative forces of the “powers and principalities” of our time, and the faith that we have been set free.


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