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 church is constantly discovering the Gospel. In each era the People of God seem to wake up to see a Gospel imperative as though it is new, with eyes that seem to pop open. How, it will be asked, was this missed before – something so obvious, something so demanding! And yet, there it is, God’s will for society to lift oppression, to demand better treatment of some class of persons, or to do something in care of God’s creation that simply wasn’t recognized before but becomes apparent.

Slavery stands as one of the most obvious examples of this dynamic. Civilization was built on the backs of slaves, and this was true all over the world. At any given time in history the people who enjoyed citizenship in one of the civilized cultures would not have been able to imagine any other way to be the people they were – Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, you name it – than through the use of slaves. Only gradually did another notion take hold of the imagination of societies, the recognition that freedom, the freedom enjoyed by the slave-users was a precious human right to be held and exercised by everyone. Finally, and only after the idea of equality and freedom had taken hold and began to make its way forward, the church seemed to come to its senses and was forceful in convincing its societies to reject the entire institution of slavery.

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The Rev. Susan Russell serves All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“Christ the King has been co-opted by those who understand the Reign of Christ to be not about the Lordship of Love but about obedience to orthodoxy. The king whose throne was a cross and whose dying words were, ‘My God, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!’ has been replaced with a judge whose message is, ‘My God will not forgive you unless you are doing it my way.’ It is time for us to find our voices and reclaim the historic faith we have inherited: to PRO-claim the Good News of the Gospel of Grace whenever and wherever we can; to challenge those who preach the Jesus of Judgment by our serving instead the King of Love.”

The Rev. Susan Russell, Episcopal priest, activist, and Dodgers fan

by John W. B. Hill

What can be learned about the ministry of ‘making disciples’ from the way Jesus did it? Surprisingly, in all the work that has been done to date in restoring the ministry of catechumenal formation in the church, remarkably little account has been taken of Jesus’ way of making disciples.¹

What follows is an attempt to apply some of the insights of René Girard in reading the Gospels² to unlock the question: How did Jesus make disciples, and – more to the point – what is the purpose of discipleship?

The four Gospels are not eye-witness accounts of the matter, nor may they be harmonized to form an aggregate account. Nevertheless, each of them informs the reading of the others; and even in their use of mythological forms of storytelling and culturally adapted detail, they serve as our primary witnesses to the nature of the gospel revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What follows, then, is an attempt to explore the witness of the Gospels to Jesus’ work with his disciples, using Girardian insights. Read More…