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.


PR – “Making the Sell”
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.

Scene: a bar in Chelsea, New York City
Date: Spring, 1970
Event: A Seminary Class on Issues of Moral Theology in American Society
Guest: CEO of a major Madison Avenue PR Firm

Student Question: What is the strength of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the weakness of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the most vexing moral issue in the field of advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: Please explain.
CEO: Let me put it this way. Our firm refuses to advertise for the sale of cigarettes, because we know enough to know that they kill. They cause cancer. Someday that will become accepted public knowledge, and in that day we so not wish to find ourselves explaining to our children why we chose to convince people to kill themselves. That’s the deal. We have a moral responsibility to choose what to sell, because we can convince people to buy anything.

Student Question: You are saying that you can convince people to kill themselves.
CEO: Oh yes. We can make people want what is dangerous enough to kill them – probably even if they know it will. So we don’t advertise cigarettes.

Student Question: What else do you avoid selling?
CEO: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

Americans know they are being manipulated by advertising, and except for those who use it, most people claim to hate it. But they embrace it.

Americans claim that they are sick and tired of the way campaigns come down to raising money for TV, sound bites, and negative campaign spots. But watching them over and over is how they make up their mind.

Americans claim to hate the way candidates are “handled,” the way they rely on an invented persona instead of genuine individuality, the way they “stay on message” instead of opening up to offer honest and creative ideas, the way they say what is safe and contrived instead of stating personal beliefs. But these are the very campaign techniques that work to convince American votes.

We claim to hate the selling of our political leaders, yet we force our candidates into the “PR product-for-sell” roles because advertising sells. We just keep making the empty content of PR work, for buying commodities and for the democratic election of political leadership.

In so many ways, while lamenting our lack of agency due to the manipulative ability of PR to sell us, we choose to go along with the shaping of the political market and the marketing process. We not only go along, we rely on it.

No single group has been worse about all of this than the parts of the church that have entered into the process of elective politics. Ever since Reagan gave an important role to the moral majority, churches Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational Christians have bowed to PR marketing and jumped into “the game.” The result is that the church has been wounded and weakened, in sharp decline institutionally in membership and moral authority. It is time for this to cease.

Masses have turned to the candidacy of Donald Trump as a reaction against “the sell,” seeming to overlook how this, in so many ways, is the very climax of political salesmanship – using every technique, going from old standard theories like the “big lie” to new lessons learned with reality TV. He has been sufficiently discovered and cannot be elected, but we know there are creatures lurking in the background darkness, taking notes and learning.

On the other hand, surely there must be smart and well intentioned people who see new opportunities for the political process, new ways to offer themselves or to find and bring forward candidates in whom they can believe and offer them to an American public that is genuinely at rope’s end with “the sell.”

One of the leading “mad men” of the 60’s, a Madison Avenue PR giant who saw what was developing raised the issue: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

The question seems wildly radical and the negative answer seems unimaginable. But in fact the question remains an open one. Pray sisters and brothers of the church, pray and prayerfully decide to do something about it.

(Disclaimer: Your reporter was not present at the class, but the accuracy of what was communicated is certainly verifiable.)


Going Deeper

By: Joe Morris Doss

At the Threshold has noted previously that strategic decisions were made and acted upon by a determined and focused group of wealthy Americans as the Conservative Movement gained ascendancy. Most of these people were not active members of a Christian church, and even fewer had strong feelings for any one of the several faith communities. Yet, they invested heavily in the church. They did so for purely political purposes. Readers of modern historical material about activities such as are documented in Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Thy Kingdom Come (Randall Balmer) will not find this surprising.

One of the important strategic goals was to convince the public, through manipulation of the media, that Christianity is politically conservative by its very nature and limited in scope to private matters of personal moral behavior, individual “spirituality,” and otherworldly aspirations. For those reasons, it was asserted, Christians support liberal causes only as the church becomes captured by a secular agenda, e.g. the “gay agenda,” the “feminists agenda,” etc. In such a light, the proper public role of the church should be to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians and impose laws that they consider “God’s will” for human society.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote an April 30 op-ed in which the accepted assumptions that identify Christianity with conservative political positions are exemplified. Speaking at an evangelical seminary he had no compunction about addressing his audience as though he was speaking for all of Christianity. Thomas lamented the failures of Christian influence in American government, noting the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as an example of the secularization of society, and compared the situation of the present day church to that of the early church, “when it was the target of persecution.”

That Christians seem to be losing ground in what has erroneously been called the “culture wars” may not be a bad thing. It might force them to re-think their primary calling, which is to a kingdom “not of this world.”

This Christian vision is narrow and shallow. If it is taken as the vision of the church there can be little wonder that we have lost the imagination of society.

In striking contrast, on the morning that I read this opinion I next picked up an excerpt from Belief in God in An Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. (All quotes and references are taken from Part 5.) The author is a world-renown physicist who is also a noted philosopher and theologian. As a student of the physical makeup of the universe Polkinghorne is not to be turned away from interest in creation – its physicality, its order, and its purposes. From the very beginning in the first century the church courageously opened its mind in search of the full truth being revealed to them in the Jesus story. It certainly refused to ignore God’s design and commitment to creation.

This is not the place or the occasion for a sufficiently in-depth theological exploration, but perhaps some rudimentary sketching will offer a hint for why I found the comparison of the two essays so arresting. Polkinghorne is aware not only that transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience, but that today we realize how mortality characterizes the whole universe itself.

“Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world.”

The author links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe and offers his studied hope that both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life.

“I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.”

Polkinghorne perceives a deep yearning, an intuition of hope within the human spirit, that is expressed by no less than the atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, in his cosmic fancy that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim.

“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII, s. 389, as quoted here.)

If we consider profound Christian hope and thus the role of the church in politics, we must reach into such deep and complex issues and, yes, we must consider even the “end things,” how it is all to turn out if God’s will is to be fulfilled. Only God can take from death the last word and if the human intuition of hope – that all will be well and that the world makes ultimate sense – depends on God. But, as frightening as it may be, God has made us agents of the divine will.

What Polkinghorne has to say as a profoundly modern Christian thinker sounds to me like solid Pauline scripture, surprised not that the whole world is in the process, groaning in travail though it may be, of coming to the new birth in which there shall be justice and peace – shalom – but that each of us is loved by God as though every one of us is a whole cosmos. This is a  Christian vision that can charge the people of the earth with energy and a passion for justice.


This is a first in a series of posts about Christian hymns in relation to poverty and human suffering.

By Joe Morris Doss

Christians sing what we claim to believe, and our song is offered as prayer and praise. This makes it a call to action for the church. The act of singing, in any context, is an action that joins and reintegrates thought and feeling. Things mean differently because we sing them and we mean them differently because we sing them repeatedly over time. These axioms are as true for a community as they are for individuals. Christian song shapes and forms us as Christians and as a church.

In light of the effect of singing on Christian belief, prayer, and action, the question regarding why the church sings little about poverty is important, deep and reaching. Indeed, the question must come to grips with the way our paucity of singing about it has shaped the church – how we think, feel, believe and act in the face of poverty.

Basically, we ignore poverty as one of the great problems of human society and limit ourselves to offerings of succor to individuals or specified groups.

Of course, we could turn the question-and-answer around to say that we don’t sing about poverty because we don’t believe it is a moral failure of our society – and thus of the church. If poverty is something that happens to particular individuals, the church’s role is to offer help to the poor to whom our members can reach out at a personal level – often part of a programmatic ministry that congregations term “outreach.” Most likely, the interplay between the effect of failing to sing about the reality and the limited Christian response to poverty is a dialectical dynamic of cause and effect.

Wait a minute! The most famous of all Christian songs is aimed straight at what God would have us do about human society and especially about poverty. The annunciation “Song of Mary” proclaims the reason for the coming of the Christ in no uncertain terms. Mary’s song declares that the nature of God and the will of God for human society have become apparent, and in her song she paints the picture.

First the creator of heaven and earth has chosen the “lowly” – not of the “high-born” possessing wealth, power, privilege, or social standing: “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Then,


His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our forebears,
to Abraham and to his children forever.


The truth is that while this is our most famous songs, and certainly one of our most often uttered, the words regarding social justice are ignored or trivialized. The song is employed for a piety that is narrowly individualistic and targeted at a certain appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “God-bearer.”

Notice that it has usually been called “The Magnificat” – a title that focuses the entire song on Mary, instead of on the mission of her son on behalf of creation, human society, and kingdom. It is not used by Christians as a hymn but as a canticle within a liturgical context (e.g. the season of Advent) that defines it within the particular context and which does not point to its call to action within human society. When the words that address the grand issues are sung, they seem to be taken metaphorically in some unexamined and simplistically pietistic sense.

Wait another minute! There is an earlier song that stands among the most famous and telling within the Jewish, and, therefore, the Christian, tradition. Like Mary, the mother of Samuel raised her voice to sing in thanksgiving for the promise of an unexpected son. He became the last judge and the first prophet. The declarations of Hannah and Mary are obviously connected.

Hannah’s song defined the mission of Samuel, and Mary seemed to know that, in many ways subtle and blatant, Hannah’s was a song in preparation for her own. The Christian understanding of scripture recognizes that Samuel’s role and his mission was directly connected to, and in preparation for, that of Jesus. In this way it can be said that the Song of Hannah anticipates and is completed by the Song of Mary.

On just cursory examination, Hannah’s and Mary’s seem to be the same song – at least fundamentally. With this observation, it becomes apparent that the coming of the child to Mary is to complete the most profound hopes of the Jewish vision for shalom and for God’s action in history. Note the similarities and parallels between the visions regarding God’s plan for human society within the two songs:


Hannah: “My heart exults in the Lord!”
Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord”


Hannah: “My triumph song is lifted by my God.”
Mary: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”


Hannah: “My mouth is stretched over my enemies because I rejoice in my victory.”
Mary: “…my Savior …has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from this day all generations will call me blessed”


Hannah: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, nor any rock to be compared to our God.”
Mary: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”


Hannah: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is knowing and weighs all actions.”
Mary: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”


Hannah: “The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered”
Mary: “He has shown strength with his arm”


Hannah: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the weak are armored in strength….He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap to give them a seat with noblemen, bequeathing them a place of honor.”
Mary: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”


Hannah: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry now are well fed”
Mary: “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


Hannah: “…the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world. He guards the way of his faithful ones”
Mary: “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forebears, to Abraham and to his children forever.”


If we grasp the connection between these two songs we will better understand the failure of the church to sing them as demands for justice and, in particular, for overcoming the inequities and suffering caused by poverty. In their songs we hear the message of the prophets and of the Christ together: if there is no justice there is no God, but only idols of the illusory wealth, status, privilege and power people think will satisfy their humanity, but which leads only to sin.

Mary and Hannah sing praise for God’s favor to the humble and lowly. Unexpectedly, God has sided with the poor and the weak; unexpectedly God has overthrown the rich and hushed the proud; unexpectedly, protection and mercy is in store for the faithful who “fear” God, while the wicked will be cut off; unexpectedly, the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty.

In other words, Hannah and then Mary conclude, the world will be treated the way God treated Israel in the exodus experience and as God called it to be his servant community. In other words, Mary is saying, the prophets were right after all: the future shall accord with promises made to the first ancestors and there shall be justice at last.

Luke most intentionally begins his Gospel with a pattern of surprising reversals by God. As has been demonstrated in Hannah’s Song this is not a new pattern. It calls for a new order of society under God’s reign and that new order will be a reversal of the familiar pattern. This pattern of reversals which is established will continue through the cross and resurrection, a pattern of dying and rising which borders on tragedy and on comedy – a divine play transcending ordinary human wisdom and power.

Joe Morris Doss is the President of At the Threshold, an international and ecumenical organization fostering the transformation of the Christian Church. Bishop Doss served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. An attorney with a background in civil rights, he enjoys a national reputation in and out of the church, primarily as an advocate for justice, and in particular as a champion of minorities, women, and children.