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.