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.


The Dominance of Politics by One Sphere of Society
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of personal agency, that most seem to feel that we have very 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.

Following the line of theological insight in David Tracy’s work, The Analogical Imagination, we may picture society in three distinctive spheres of activity, however much they may overlap and interrelate: that of the cultural, of the polis, and of the technological-economic-bureaucratic.

The cultural realm of society is that which examines the tradition that has been handed down, offers values, fosters ideas, contributes its own creativity, and so passes on the cumulative tradition to the next generation. This realm of activity includes the academy, the arts, religion, and so forth.

The polis is concerned with governance and decision-making within society. In mature democracies are found structures and institutions that provide checks and balances to safeguard against the ability of one part of government to dominate others.

The technological-economic-bureaucratic sphere is composed of those structures and stratification systems designed to determine the most effective and efficient means to carry out all the economic and technical development of society. This includes everything from factories to scientific labs to Wall Street.

One reason most Americans feel a lack of agency is that there is one sector of society whose specialist seem to be much more in charge than those of who specialize in the other two spheres. The techno-economic realm seems to feel that it’s leaders and experts should be the decisive agents of political control, and in fact that they were handed the lead as a feature establishing the conservative movement. Others have increasingly awaken to the reality that they have less and less say, pretty much in inverse proportion to the extent that those with enough money have taken charge of the elective politics. Ironically, even those within the inner workings of the techno-economic realm feel that they too lack agency. This is due to the fact that they are working against the way the system is set up, and while they can dominate, they can’t take over. Instead, what is happening is that the system has slowly but surely been breaking down and simply not working. Even though a businessman with the reputation as one of the most successful ever is the nominee of one of our two major parties to be elected President, it should be apparent that the business community has itself lost control – almost totally.

Let’s start with the theory of how different spheres of society are designed to work together in a democracy, over against the political system in which one of them takes over.

There should be no room to value any one realm of society over against the others, or to think that one is more important, more pure, or more humanistic – or more of a response to the call of God. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or essentially flawed in any of the spheres of activity within and on behalf of society. The working cooperation between the three, all gears interlocking, is paramount.

However, there is indeed an inherent dynamic of competition between the three spheres. Part of this arises out of the conviction of those primarily engaged in each, that what they are doing is of crucial importance. But this virtuous and highly motivating perspective can become problematic when it is becomes one of superiority, when people dedicated to their sphere of activity begin to think that their expertise and judgment is so superior that they should be able to make decisions about the other two spheres, and protect the self interest of their realm of society over and above the others. It can also happen when one realm begins to think that the other two should leave it alone to function as it sees best, without the checks and balances of things like regulations. This has, in fact, occurred in many societies, and we know the results well.

When the polis absolutely dominates we term it a dictatorship. For example, it often is the military that emerges from within the sphere of the polis to take over and run all sectors of society. When the cultural realm takes over, as Plato dreamed in his desire for philosopher kings, it is usually a theocracy that succeeds. That is, it is usually the religious sphere taking over to dominate all parts of society. When the techno-economic-bureaucratic sector is running the whole show we have a plutocracy – or it has sometimes come to be termed an oligarchy. None of these forms of totalitarian government have ever been something North Americans want.

There is a strong tendency today to be dazzled by the glittering successes and attractive simplifications offered by modern technology and a business driven economy. The Greek farmer embraced the plow as a wonderful new technological device, but brought to that and the other technological advances of his day a worldview that took them in contemplatively. The Greek took technology, like all of life, and absorbed its fascinating betterment for productivity and lifestyle into the harmony of the created order, into the logos (the driving rational principle) of the universe.

The worldview we have inherited, unlike that of ancient Greece, leads us to use the methodology, the goals, the criteria for technological-economic-bureaucratic success as values in and of themselves, to employ the motivating urges of the technological-economic-bureaucratic sector pervasively throughout society, far beyond the proper boundaries and without stringent regulations and other forms of checks and balances. The United States has developed a society that can be defined, by and large, as a consumerist society. Everything seems to be for sale, and the value of everything is viewed in terms of what it is worth on “a market.”

The consumerist understanding of human nature is at fault rather than technology itself, though consumerism and the popular accessibility to high-technology seems to elicit tendencies from each other which builds onto the problem. The capitalistic system also tends to reward capital as a value in and of itself, such that there is now a tendency to rely too much on financing, that is, on making money out of money, than on producing goods and services. Indeed, one way of using money to make money is in giving it to politicians and reaping the rewards that can be elicited – legally and illegally – through legislation and executive powers.

There is much to be said here, but for our purposes let us simply say that when we combine all the factors with the domination of money in politics, we find ourselves today rapidly approaching a state of plutocracy, and the church should want that to be avoided. The genuine Christian never fares well in totalitarian government, that is, when government is totally dominated by one realm of government. Is it surprising that this is true even when the theocracy is identified as Christian?

Is it surprising that the path we have been on has taken us too far and thrown us into a crisis? Are we ready to us wake up and smell the smoke? Are we ready to correct the relationships between the three spheres of society?


Reaction to Globalization and Deindustrialization
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Globalization is a fact. This is producing a very different mode of operation internationally and domestically. Americans are finding the change highly exciting, very scary, and often painful. Some are all for it; some are absolutely against it; many are just confused and waiting to see what things look like when enough of the smoke clears.

Trade agreements are opposed by politicians on the left and on the right, from Bernie Sanders to organized Labor to Donald Trump. Others who also represent both the left and the right, from President Obama to most Republicans in Congress, are all for free trade and the agreements that enhance it. That alone is confusing enough.

If you understand it and embrace it you are pleased that globalization is widening and deepening in almost every conceivable dimension. Anyone can do business with anyone else anywhere. America’s hardware, software, automobile, pharmaceutical, and other companies all depend more than ever on sales abroad for their growth; 40% of the S&P 500’s revenues are international. The American economy is increasingly dependent on globalization with respect to the inflows of talent and investment and outflows of goods, services, and capital seeking higher returns. If you are in favor of all this, it is very likely that you would be in favor of opening America to engagement with the whole world in more ways than simply doing business. You are, if you will, “open” to internationalism and the whole new dispensation about how the world works.

If you have lost a job because manufacturing plants are closing down, or if you live in large regions of the nation where the pain of unemployment is being broadly shared, you are likely to blame the movement of companies abroad and view international labor competition as unfair. It is likely that you would be more closed to “internationalism,” generally. For example, you would be more likely to resent the immigration of new peoples into the land, and perhaps not only because of labor competition, but because of a rising wish to be left along and closed to the rest of the world. Besides open borders and free trade, you might resent cosmopolitan culture and global intervention. You might just find a candidate appealing who is for closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture, and an America First foreign policy.

In an age of anxiety, that closed posture might have a shot at winning. On trade agreements, for example, though supporters represent both the left and right wings of the political spectrum, the opposition is moving into the lead at this point: 60 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents believe that trade agreements are mostly harmful (according to a Brookings Institution/Public Religion Research Institute study).

OK, but where does this picture leave us? Here is the reality, and so, “get over it:” globalization is here to stay. We have to adjust, pitch in, and continue to work for the common good.

Take the movement of American manufacturing to foreign lands:

It is tragic to see the suffering caused by those whose jobs are taken abroad, but then it is also tragic to see the suffering of human beings in other countries who lack jobs and livable wages. Christians are just as concerned for neighbors who are far off as for neighbors who are near. The evidence is stacking up to indicate that globalization is better for the world, and if that is so, then Christians must be ready and willing to work for the good of all.

Meanwhile, there is always going to be “the next China” to attract labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing. In fact, America’s efforts to bring back home one or two million manufacturing jobs pale in comparison to the nearly 100 million manufacturing jobs that are flowing out of China and recirculating to places where there is cheaper labor costs: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and other low-wage, low-skill countries.

The output of American made goods by American companies will continue to decline because the math still clearly favors arbitrage – (1) producing at the cheapest price and (2) closest to one’s customers. The combination of cheaper labor and being able to build close to the customer is the optimal way to manufacture. Indeed, the American manufacturer is discovering that building closer to the customers they are reaching right at home can be cheaper than the savings to be made by hiring cheaper labor elsewhere. In an age of globalization, the hope for increasing American manufacturing is largely in having foreign companies build locally in order to be closer to the Americans to whom they hope to sale what is manufactured. This is apparent, for example, with Japanese cars.

The best way to increase manufacturing at home is not to try to bring plants and companies back, but to improve the infrastructure, making it easier to build and sale across the land. Of course this includes improvement of the social infrastructure in states and cities wishing to attract high-wage business, e.g. schools, broadband availability, culture, etc.

One other fact should be taken into account as workers loose manufacturing jobs: a relatively new problem is about to overtake American workers: robotics. The only hope going forward is to provide training for new jobs and new skills, while supporting those who will need to be retrained.

Take those trade agreements:

Is it not clear enough that The US got the deal it wanted with Iran regarding nuclear weapons production because it had entered into trade agreements with countries that cooperated with the imposition of economic sanctions?

Are enough people paying attention to what “the turn to the East” has meant to American business enterprises, and how much damage would be done economically if the US does not enter into pan Asian trade agreements that are fair, innovative, and foresighted? A study by Peter Petri and Michael Plummer estimates that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would boost American incomes by $131 billion.

Does anyone think Mexico would have become as democratic and economically healthy without NAFTA? And, the flow of Mexican and US immigration during Obama’s term has mainly been the voluntary exiting of Mexicans on their way home to capitalize on the growing economy. The smartest thing the US can do is to send job creating and socially stabilizing supply chains back with those people returning Mexico, investing there. America should begin to think of itself as the heart of an integrated North American supercontinent. The infrastructural, economic, cultural, and strategic blending of north America has become an irreversible fact.

Though developments are still so rapid and so fluid that it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions, overall and on balance there is evidence that globalization is good for the American economy. A study by the Peterson Institute found that past trade liberalization laws added between $7,100 to 12,900 in additional income to the average household. And, a more efficient manufacturing system makes it possible to divert resources into things that improve the quality of life. Neil Irwin points out that Pittsburgh has lost 5,100 steel jobs since 1990, but it has also gained 66,000 health care jobs over the same time.


The Confusing New World
Written by:
Joe Morris Doss

The vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has caused all of us to sit up and pay attention to new realities. No one is confident of predicting where that decision may lead, but we all know that important things are going to be different. The fact is, this crisis is due in large measure, perhaps decisively, to the way everything is already changing from what we know and assumed to be relatively permanent.

Even though we know better, we still tend to see history as leading up to now, and somehow feel that this is fundamentally the way it will be – adding in the improvements and rough bumps in the road – world without end. Most of us picture Western history roughly in terms of a movement from the primitive life of tribal hunting and gathering, to agriculturally based ethnic communities that began to settle in defined territories, to a civilization of empires, to some dark ages, that in turn gave rise to rule by feudal lords, and then built to the establishment of princedoms and finally monarchical nations having ethnically homogeneous populations, to culminate in nation-states, increasingly governed as liberal parliamentary democracies, finally forming an international community of nations that hold a rather broadly based common vision of international law and human rights. From here it should be onward and upward with that!

But of course history is always on the move and suddenly we are starting to feel like we are on a runaway horse without a good grip on the reins or a saddle with stirrups. We are in the beginning stages of a technological revolution, which for the time being we might term “the digital age.” But we are also in the crisis of going from a world order grounded in nation-states to, well, whatever globalization is going to become. Already we have gone beyond the straightforward and exclusive governance by governments, and the populations within national territories are less and less defined by a homogeneous ethnic identify.

Governance now occurs, not only through governments that are accountable to the people of a state, but through decisions made and actions taken by market agents (such as multinational corporations, social entrepreneurs, and micro-financiers), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Some facts to ponder:

  • As of 2010, there were about 200 nations that have relations with one another;
  • 130 of the countries were unable to feed the population, and had to rely on the generosity of outside resources, many if not most provided through NGO and IGO operations.
  • There were close to 100,000 multinational corporations that constantly negotiate with governments and one another;
  • There were at least 50,000 transnational NGO’s (Non-governmental Organizations) that consulted on international laws and treaties and intervene in conflict zones to provide assistance to regimes and peoples in need (There was only one as of 1970: Common Cause, a watch-dog organization in the US made famous for the Watergate Reforms)
  • Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, half were companies. At the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, corporations had their own pavilions alongside countries;
  • HSBC had 20,000 offices in 83 countries, 300,000 employees, and 150 million customers.
  • More than 100 countries have external voting rights for citizens of other countries in diaspora and 11 reserve seats in parliament for them.
  • In 2006, people of the US (not the government) sent $192 billion to the developing world – most of it in foreign investment, portfolio capital, foundation grants, and philanthropic giving.

A random list providing some sense of NGOs:

Americans for Informed Democracy, World Economic Forum, CARE, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, US Committee to Expand NATO, Clinton Global Initiative, Peace Corps, U.S. Overseas Private Investment Company, Global Business Council for HIV/AIDS, International Campaign for Tibet, Lighting a Billion Lives, Open Society Institute, The Soros Foundation, International Crisis Group, International Rescue Committee, National Solidarity Program, Business for Diplomatic Action, The Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, AccountAbility, LeapFrog Investments, The Self-Employed Women’s Association, Kiva, World Wide Water, Clinical Directors Network, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Institute for OneWorld Health, Habitat for Humanity, International Union for the Conservation of Nature

Only governments, and international organizations founded by governmental accords and agreements have the traditional sort of direct accountability to a population that provides legitimacy of power.

Businesses are directly accountable only to shareholders.

NGOs are accountable to standards set by donors, charities, customers, and their own competition. The legitimacy they are granted depends on their authority of expertise, impartiality, representativeness, and transparency of operations.

The ability of NGOs, as well as businesses, to leverage technology and capital enables them at times to bypass governments altogether.

It is a confusing, churning international picture, within a hot house of rapid change and newly arising realities: new powers, failed states, multinational corporations, organized crime, cyber crime, drug cartels, terrorism, powerful families, increased percentage of wealth in the hands of a decreasing percentage of individuals, vast amounts of inherited wealth, religious radicals, humanitarian philanthropists, powerful and independent organizations, and on and on.

Technology and money, not sovereignty, seems increasingly determinative of who has authority and calls the shots.

No wonder we feel that little ol’ us lacks agency. “Grab a ‘hold and ride,” seems more like the order of the day.

But, stand by, more coming.