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.
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.