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.


It’s a Two Party System
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.

Increasing numbers of Americans sense a lack of agency because of the two-party system. Many people seem to feel that this is a limitation on their choices, discounts their individuality, and in various ways “hems” them in. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. (Whatever happened to high school civics classes?) The American system of democracy does not cost individuals any less control or influence. The misunderstanding can, however, lead to an actual lack of agency when a citizen refuses the opportunity to be actively engaged in one of the two parties and participate fully in the political process.

As the song of the West declares it, ‘don’t fence me in,’ is an American theme, Americans are famously independent, offended by being corralled into groupings, and resistant to restricted options. They like the right of voting for anyone they choose, and they like to make up their own mind without having others, or a process, narrow the choices. The very term “Independent” carries a preferential connotation and they like the basic idea of “being my own person.” Increasingly, people are registered as Independents. But what are the realities that come of deciding to withdraw from the two-party system? Actually, the more independent or removed from party politics the citizen, the less effect is that citizen’s vote or general impact on decision-making.

The American system of democracy is considered a Presidential system, not a Parliamentary system. It is dependent upon having a two-party system. If the two-party system is not working properly, the democracy is not working properly. If a citizen steps outside of the two-party system she or he will be stepping outside of the democratic system except as a spoiler or for the purpose of making a “statement.” One can recall very well the undercutting effect the candidacy of a third party had in helping to elect Bill Clinton*, and then the liberal third party candidacy that took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida to allow the Supreme Court to declare the election of George W. Bush.

The only exception to this reality has been those rare but important moments in history when a newly formed party has been capable of replacing one of the two parties within the existing system. In such a case, the new party has replaced the defunct party; it did not join the other two to become a multi-party system. If Americans are not satisfied with the limited choices presented within the two-party system it will become necessary to change the constitution radically enough to establish a parliamentary system.

When the United States formed its democracy, the founding fathers had to invent the wheel. The model to which they had reference was monarchy. They did not want a king and they were going to make sure about limiting the power of their government’s leader, as well as making sure of checks and balances on all officials, bodies, and even branches of government. But it was assumed that governance was centered on a leader, which they limited to terms of office as a presider, or “President.” Very quickly, certain new insights, practices, and institutions became revealed as necessary. For example, it rather soon became apparent that the judicial branch had to be empowered to determine if the legislative decisions were constitutional.

One of the American democratic institutions that almost immediately appeared and became institutionalized, even though not considered, or even thought of, during the Constitutionals Convention, was the political party. Just as quickly as they appeared it was as two rival parties. The system seemed to emerge “naturally” out of differences defined by the personalities, different proclivities, and disagreements among the founding fathers.

Meanwhile, this more radical form of democracy begun in American soon began to spread among the community of nation-states that had been ruled by kings and lords. These rulers and ruling classes had been having their power checked (especially financing of policies, programs, wars, etc.) in the development of a Parliamentary system, in many cases for over a period of centuries.  Because Parliaments and the systems to constitute and run them were already established it was only necessary to adjust to that system rather than adopt the new American Presidential system.

The earliest parliaments had gradually become the fundamental agent of government instead of a monarch. Centered not in a presiding executive, but on a primary legislative leader, this variation of democracy became the prevailing model for most developing democracies. Votes in national elections are not cast directly for a leader, but for the local legislator to serve in Parliament. This becomes, in effect a vote for the leader of the party to which the legislator voted for belongs. Without going into further complexities, this direct system of voting for a legislator and indirect system of voting for the leader of government opens options to chose from and the number of parties that participate meaningfully in government.

Fortunately, to date the American system that is limited to two effective governing parties has worked well enough that it has been maintained despite the far greater popularity of the parliamentary multiparty system around the world. Perhaps Americans will “change our mind” if the gridlock recently experienced continues, with the majority of the legislature so often acting in majority opposition to the President and the executive branch. But until the whole system changes Americans have to realize that the limitations are real.

Message to America: it is romantically unrealistic to suppose that voting for a third party candidate is going to have any effect in the pending election other than to undercut one of the candidates nominated by the two parties, or to make a statement of some sort of protest.

*”…most analysts conclude that his (Ross Perot’s) presence (Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote) drew support away from incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush (who won 37.5%) and helped swing the election to Democratic Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas (43%).” (Wikipedia)


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.)


Group Think
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

All good people agree,
     And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
     And everyone else is They.

          Rudyard Kipling

We perceive a lack of personal agency when we feel certain about our point of view, find that decisions and actions taken on behalf of the whole contradict it or fail to satisfy it, and are imposed on us.

We may begin to address our frustration by considering why we feel so sure about the matter. Very likely, the reason will have little to do with reason or information; instead it usually will turn out to be due to the agreement within our social circle and within the culture with which we identify. If the great majority of people we associate with regularly, and with whom we feel we belong, think the same way, contrary political and social imposition is likely to feel like insufferable wrongheadedness, or even a matter of moral right and wrong. This comes from something termed, accurately enough in the language of the street (if not in textbooks): “group think.”

Today “group think” is a prevailing concern for a nation that is deeply divided along just such lines. That whole communities and segments of society are so segmented is painfully experienced. Yet we find ourselves as participants in the divisions. As individuals we all know the tendency to pick among the plethora of information sources now available to use those that can be relied upon for agreement and reinforcement of the social, political, and religious perspectives of our circles.

The open conversations and comments about issues at controversy today, say in a locker room, invariably are going to sound like there is agreement that goes so far beyond the point of mere consensus that the points of view are being offered as assumptions. But depending on where they are being propounded, (e.g. small town exercise club, basket ball gym, country club, college faculty club) such opinions will express the exact opposite points of view, falling on the contrary ends of respective spectrums.

When your point of view is supported on the rigidly solid ground of “group think” and yet you find yourself on the losing end of a decision, the frustrating sense of a lack of agency is going to be inevitable and probably accompanied by the feeling that you and yours are being awfully wronged.

Perhaps the largest grouping in which thinking seems to be fixed in agreement, with no acceptable room for disagreement, is – and has long been – within regions. How else can it be that white Southerners in the U. S. always vote as a single party block – as Democrats from the Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement and since then as Republicans? How else is there to explain that an engulfing number of white Southerners identify as conservatives and seem to feel that being a conservative is morally correct while anything else is relatively immoral? How is it that racial prejudice and injustice can remain so much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else?

I do not believe the questions can be answered in a way that identifies most people in a whole region as inherently conservative, or inherently right, or inherently wrong, or inherently evil. It is due to cultural “group think.”

One last word, and it is absolutely central to the whole, and ongoing, story of Christianity. It is central to the good news of God in Christ; it is Gospel. Giving into “group think” is really, painfully, stupid. No other word will do. We all do it, and that stands as evidence that we all can be pretty stupid. When we free ourselves from “group think,” we are going to experience a most humanizing freedom, shockingly refreshing. There is a social price to be paid, for sure. One will be accused of being a bad citizen of one’s own society – and very probably made to feel like that indeed is so. One may even have to pick up a bit of the cross. But such a citizen will discover that truth and freedom are worth the price.

It is the truth that will set us free, not “group think” conformity.