Tag Archives: BP

Beyond Good and Evil: Independence Day Musings on BP and the American “Empire”

In two recent posts, I’ve been reflecting on Walter Wink’s theological writings about “the Powers” – a concept from the Bible that arises out of the now all-too familiar experience of the social or political entity that suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts – often turning on its makers like Frankenstein’s monster. Corporations, created to serve us by providing goods and commodities in an efficient manner, end up reeking havoc on our financial systems and (in the case of BP) our environment. Likewise nations, created to help maintain social order and to protect rights, end up committing acts of torture and lawlessness in the name of protecting “the people.”

The Bible uses the language of the demonic to describe this experience. The “powers and principalities,” it tells us, are in control of these entities. And while modern Christians may or may not think of angels and demons in the same way as early Christians, we should at least understand that all things have outer and inner characteristics – even (especially!) nations and large corporations. BP and America have their own “spirituality” – for good or bad – as much as any individual.

July4_boston[1] How, then, should we think of the Powers? Here, unfortunately, Christians have a tendency to shift into one of two extremes. And since Independence Day is upon us once again, lets consider two very different ways of characterizing America itself:

Characterization #1: America is a great nation, founded upon principles of individual liberty. It affords economic opportunity and personal freedom to all of its citizens. While all religions are allowed within our system, many of us are committed followers of Jesus who seek to do God’s will, and we should also be proud of the way that our country and culture are shaped largely by our commitment to the teachings of Jesus and the Christian scripture.

Characterization #2:  America is a great world empire, along the same lines as the Roman empire of scripture. It has a history of racial intolerance and imperialistic meddling. Its voracious consumeristic appetite is slowly draining the world of resources, while simultaneously doing irreparable damage to the environment. In the meantime, the aggressive military policies that are necessary to protect these interests are causing thousands of needless deaths in the third world.

These characterizations, both of which are common among Christians, correspond, rather obviously, to the two “poles” that make up our political system. One is clearly sympathetic to the right/conservative view of America, and the other is clearly sympathetic to the left/liberal view of America.

So which is it?

If I am understanding Wink correctly, the question itself is the problem. We have come to see the Powers as purely good or purely evil, and – without a more nuanced view, we are never going to be able to speak about or to the Powers in an intelligible manner.

The funny thing about the powers is this: they are created things, just like you and I. “In Jesus,” Paul writes in Colossians, “all things in heaven and on earth were created….whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers…” Thus, Paul goes on to say, God is reconciling himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

Paul is convinced, not only that the Powers are created things, but that they have a proper place in a universe that is ordered with Jesus as its supreme authority. The failure to appreciate this aspect of Paul’s perspective on the Powers is, I think, is a fundamental flaw the “anti-Powers/anti-Empire” mentality that results in the second characterization I outlined above.

Wink puts it this way: In order to place the Powers in proper perspective, we must simultaneously uphold three concepts: (1) the Powers are good, (2) the Powers have fallen, and (3) the Powers must be/will be redeemed.

This makes sense to me. Lose #2, and you will fall victim to blind, pro-nationalistic patriotism. Lose #1 and/or #3, and you may lapse into pointless anti-Empire blogging (a crime for which I have probably been guilty).

Consider the case of the “Powers” that are at work behind BP. We must think of BP as (a) good, (b) fallen, and (c) in need of redemption.

The first premise, I would guess, is difficult for many of us to contemplate, given the constant stream of criticism that is directed at BP these days. Yet it is true.

Energy corporations employ thousands of Americans, almost all of whom – I would guess – would never do something that would intentionally hurt people or unnecessarily damage the environment. Their ability to supply and deliver energy resources into our society enables all sorts of good things: world-class facilities for quality health care, transportation systems that keep our economy moving, and cool homes and workplaces during heat-intensive summers. These are all good things, and there is nothing per-se wrong with any of them. If BP “behaved” and brought only these benefits to us, I think we could fairly say that it is serving a good and appropriate purpose within our social and economic systems.

But, of course, it doesn’t behave, because – as is the case with every other business – the Powers are at work, subverting its good purposes. Safety standards that gradually softened and executive decision-making under difficult financial pressures eventually resulted in the Gulf catastrophe. As such, what is now needed is not pointless criticism and fault-finding directed at the individuals who were – on the surface at least – “in charge,” but an appreciation of the way our system of multinational corporations is in need of redemption.

The same is true of America. Is America a great land of opportunity with a system of self-governance that is markedly superior to the systems that came before it? Yes. Is America’s economic and political system deeply flawed, resulting in some of the abuses that I mentioned above? Yes.

Christians must be willing and able to see both of these things as true to develop the nuanced perspective of the Powers that is presented in the Bible. This is why Paul can say that Jesus is Lord (and not Caesar) at one moment, and encourage us to submit to the Powers because they are established by God in the next. It is why Peter objects that he “must obey God rather than man” on one occasion, and can encourage people to “honor the Emperor” on another.

The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.

So…when July 4 rolls around, there is nothing wrong with celebrating the things that are good about our country. My advice is: Pop some firecrackers. Eat some ice cream. Celebrate the innovations of a constitutional system of government and the Bill of Rights. If you aren’t comfortable celebrating the War of Independence itself – at least celebrate/uphold instances of non-violent resistance, such as the Boston Tea Party.

America is a deeply flawed society, prone to abuse its power – but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination (or by any characterization that is Biblical), all bad. By finding good things to celebrate as citizens, our voices as prophets can become even stronger.

Oil Spills, Shadow Banking, Sham Accounting, and The Powers

cleaning-oil-spill-2[1] I am sure that I am not the first to observe this, but a rather disturbing pattern is emerging out of the various crises that have dominated our nation’s agenda during last few months.

Here is how the pattern operates: First, a particular sector of the economy generates a public crisis. People panic. Legislators, keen on satisfying the people’s need to perceive that they have control over the situation, enact legislation and call for increased regulation of the industry. Then, over time, the regulations are relaxed when the economy itself becomes the crisis-of-the-day (“The red tape is holding us back!” the industry argues). Furthermore, when the public eye is turned away, regulators invariably get cozy with the industry.

Then, suddenly, another crisis. Oil flows into the gulf. Sub-prime mortgage securities turn out to be worthless, triggering a devastating banking/mortgage crisis. Savings and loan institutions fail. Retirement plans shrivel as a result of deceptive public reports, backed by questionable accounting practices.

And now we find ourselves back at the start of the cycle, facing another crisis triggered by another entity which is so large, and so crucial to the economy, that it can’t be effectively “punished.” In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, the cries are rising again for regulation and for accountability in the energy industry, but…

We feel like we already know what is going to happen, don’t we? Despite our best efforts and intentions, the forces that brought about the Exxon Valdiz crisis of 1989 have cycled around to the BP oil spill of 2010, which will cycle around to another environmental disaster in another 20 or 30 years.

Things that ought to be within our power to control – democratic governments, publicly held corporations, regulated industries – behave in ways that we don’t intend. At times, their behavior even seems malevolent.

So what is happening here?

On one level, we could simply say that it is a failure in our system of government to sustain important regulatory policies over the long-term. However, I am pretty sure that Walter Wink (whose work I’ve been eagerly reading lately) would offer a much different answer.

Wink observes that the people who wrote the New Testament believed that there was more to the world than what the eye could see. Every human institution, no matter how humble or powerful, had its own angel or demon – a counterpart that existed in the “spiritual realm.” This counterpart influenced the behavior of the institution. Thus, for example, in Revelation, the heavenly visage of Jesus speaks not to “the Church in Ephesus,” but to “the angel of the Church in Ephesus.” The Ephesian church, like the other six churches in Revelation, has its own “spiritual” existence. And that spiritual counterpart reflected the nature of the church itself.

In particular, the phrase “principalities and powers” was used to refer to the spiritual counterparts of the most expansive and influential institutions of the day – chiefly nations and empires. The Apostle Paul often spoke about the threat of these “principalities and powers” and the manner in which they would ultimately be made subject to Jesus. It really is impossible to fully understand Paul’s belief system without accounting for his concept of what scholars now refer to – in shorthand – as “the Powers.”

As I mentioned in the last post, this ancient worldview (which holds that everything “down here” has a corollary existence “up there”) is not one that is widely accepted in the West, even by Christians. However, when we interpret scripture through an integrated worldview – one which is readily accessible in our culture, and which understands that all things have both a material, “outward” aspect and a spiritual, “inward” aspect – we can begin to make sense of the seemingly out-of-control nature of governments and corporations.

Here is Wink’s argument: each of these institutions does, in fact, have its own “spirit.” There is, he says, a “spirit of America.” For students in a High School, there is such a thing as “school spirit.” Every corporation – including BP – has its own spiritual nature. Any employee or executive officer can tell you that, even if they don’t want to admit that it includes a dark side.

When things go bad, you can decide for yourself, he says, whether it is nothing more than an unfortunate socio-political phenomenon or whether there really is an intelligent force – a “demon” – behind it. It doesn’t matter, because we can all experience it and observe it in the same way: the thing that we created is more than the sum of its parts – it is out of our control, working against us.

Wink believes that you cannot understand how the writers of the Bible viewed the relationship between Jesus and Rome or God and culture without appreciating the nature of the Powers, and I think his work in this area provides an important signpost for Christians who – like me – are struggling to understand the institutional problems that I’ve described above. In short, if Christians are to effectively speak to the seemingly endless stream of crises that are emerging out of our socio-political system, we must begin by understanding that the institutions that are at the center of each crisis (whether it be the US government, BP, or the finance industry) are under the sway of the Powers.

Stay tuned. There’s more to come.