To envision the way “the powers” operate in our lives (see Part One for an explanation of this theological concept), it is useful to consider some concrete scenarios. For example, imagine an energetic, entrepreneurial woman decides she wants to design and make clothing, but in a way that does not exploit workers sewing the clothing, does not pollute the environment, and does not promote materialism with all its waste and domination. She loves the artistic expression of clothing, and notes that everyone has to wear clothes. So why not clothe ourselves in a more ethical fashion? First, it does not take long for her to realize she can’t pay her workers fair wages and still locate her business close to North American customers. Her competitors pay rock-bottom wages in factories overseas. She cannot compete. The competitors are able to sell their clothing for the cost of her overhead, and she doesn’t wish to sell exorbitantly-priced clothing, catering solely to wealthy consumers. She could decide to use factories in the global south and strive to pay an international living wage. But she would still struggle to pay North American staff the salaries executives expect, and would thus struggle to keep her state-side employees. And besides, she’s aware of the massive pollution that would result from transporting her product thousands of miles from the point of production to the points of sale. Then, there is the dilemma of letting people know about her product without the manipulations of advertising, conspicuously promoting materialism. After all, stoking materialistic urges is what fashion advertising does. All in all, the system seems to have her stymied. If she wants to participate in the system, she will have to lay aside her concerns about fair wages and environmental stewardship, blindly adopting the “prevailing spirit” (ie a spirit of greed) in order for her business to succeed. This “spirit of greed” seems to somehow animate our consumer culture in a way that overpowers us, no matter our intentions. For the most part, we don’t even see it.
Or consider the example of a woman known to my sister, who attended the woman’s trial. The woman’s son, in the late stages of cancer, had been taken from her at the behest of the medical system after she’d chosen not to put him through chemotherapy, which doctors admitted would delay his death by only a few years. This mother had seen people go through chemotherapy and didn’t want her son’s remaining months further marred by complications from chemo: intense weakness, nausea, infection. Yet the medical system, so committed to its own treatment programs, reacted to her decision by turning the child over to the state. In the landmark court case, the dying boy was returned to his mother. But the situation vivid exemplified how the powers work. The self-preservation of the system becomes primary, and those within the system fight to protect its preservation. They cannot see how the system is animated by a force that is somehow spiritual. Any threat to the established way of doing things is met with violent resistance by system-insiders because it threatens the survival or preservation of the system that defines them and gives them power. Yet their violent resistance is in no way self-consciously greedy, power-hungry, or nefarious. In fact most often those shielding the system believe with the vibration of their innermost being that they are doing good. In fact, they allow the system to define them because they truly believe the system is good, they want to be good, and they believe service to the system will make them good. Think of denominational leaders shielding pastors accused of sexual harassment, or cardinals hiding priests accused of pedophilia—all the while justifying their actions “for the good of the church.”
I see something similar happening in Congress as GOP lawmakers collectively shield a president who deserves no such shielding. In fact, GOP congresspersons who can no longer participate in this shielding are simply leaving Congress (choosing not to defend their seats) because they’re unable to stand against a powerful tide moving through the party. Their reasons are surely muddled, including concerns about the likelihood of re-election, but this too is evidence of the tide. Call me an optimist, but I expect many GOPers shielding the president have convinced themselves they are doing good. For whatever reason, they believe this. They believe their participation in the system of party politics is working for the good. They believe they are protecting unborn life, the vibrancy of the economy; and—let’s be clear, some disturbingly believe they are protecting “White America.” They cannot see their below-the-surface motivations (greed, white supremacy and racism, power-lust, fear), or see how the system is taking them for a ride they have little power to stop. The engine of self-preservation propels forward, with unstoppable force, the sh*#-show we now witness daily. Again, GOP lawmakers who intuit this are simply stepping aside because they realize the engine, the forward motion, is—at this point—too much for them to stand against. It will keep barreling forward in blind adherence to self-preservation—in a way that always, in the ironic end of things, leads to self-destruction. Mind you, Democrats have done the same thing at other times, in other ways (I think of the shielding of President Clinton by Democrats, even feminists, when he was accused of sexual harassment and abuse). It is how human systems operate, animated as they are by the powers—human systems that are more than the sum of their individual human parts.
The doctors in our story above, who had the boy taken from his mother and who testified against her, were not acting with violent and evil intentions, nor were they possessed by evil spirits. The system‚ itself undergirded by a broken spirituality the doctors could not see—again, a system bent on its own survival over the intentions of wholeness inherent in creation, was and is violent on their behalf. The doctors believed they were doing the best for the child, that they were doing good. Threatening the parents who refuse to comply with recommended treatment programs is apparently the way things were done in hospitals a decade ago. Several parents of children who had cancer and had suffered from the radical chemical treatments admitted to my sister that they had been threatened by hospitals. They were told that if they did not put their children in chemo and radiation treatment, their children would be taken away.
The powers are the animating forces that imbue human systems, the spiritual underpinnings of those systems. Meanwhile, the systems are comprised of all sorts of well-meaning individuals. Yet each of them has about as much freedom of action as does the entrepreneurial, clothes-designing woman in the aforementioned example, or the doctors in the other example—which is to say, relatively little. They have inherited a system that, if they choose to participate in it, largely predetermines their actions. The powers have a way of making people feel stuck, or limiting the choices we can make. Is this the intention of the myriad human beings who in small ways shaped and are shaping the systems that we now have? Surely not. The systems we collectively mold and participate in seem to get quite out of our control—especially as they grow to the scale we see today, with global industrial empires, military industrial complexes, and social media platforms that influence half the plant.
Never is this more evident than in geopolitics, where the war machine, once it gets moving, runs roughshod over everyone’s best intentions and thoroughly out of human control. According to the Pauline concept of “the powers,” this is not merely because of human frailty and error, but because spiritual forces are at work in and through fallen human institutions.
It is terribly hard to see this fallen spirituality in institutions we hold dear—the companies we work for, the brands we love to buy, the political parties we support, the organizations we love, the churches where we worship. I remember how it felt in the Fall of 2002, many people around the world watching the US administration drum up war with Iraq, slowly and methodically shaping people’s perceptions to win them over to a completely offensive war plan. Something deeper and more sinister than politics seemed to be at work in this, yet the majority of Americans got on the war wagon and were shunted along by it. Our Congress and Senate handed President Bush permission to stage a “preemptive” war, lending legitimacy to a plan that would have catastrophic consequences—as many suspected then, and many more know now. Many of the leaders and people of the United States were swept along by that current of revenge, stubborn myopia, and greed for oil money that was controlled by no one, claimed by no one, and seemingly irresistible.
Because we live in a notably materialistic time, people in western societies explain these movements of history using materialistic categories. We see and seek material causes and solutions for every human problem—so-in-so did this, then so-in-so did that—and are generally blind to the spiritual underpinnings of what is going on. This is no different for most people of faith. Though they might believe in spiritual forces, most people of faith operate as materialists or, more precisely, as dualists, separating out the spiritual from things earthly and physical, keeping their everyday earthly lives compartmentalized or segregated from what they call their “spiritual lives.” Spiritual things impinge upon such invisible entities as the soul, or the heart. Full stop. Thus we see zealous drives for the conversion of individual souls alongside zealous support for violence, nationalism, and luxurious living. Some may see this as a perfectly modern approach to things, a way to be spiritual without holding to an antiquated worldview. Yet this kind of religion, one that separates the material from the spiritual, is age-old and bears little resemblance to incarnational Christianity. Misguided dualistic interpretations of Christianity may focus on the salvation that will happen in another life, and in another realm, asserting that Jesus came to set accounts right on some cosmic, spiritual plane, primarily affecting the afterlife and the narrow purview of the “spiritual.” But this packaging of Christianity is a hoax.
In reality, the Bible tells the story of a God actively engaged in and concerned with the everyday existence of God’s “children.” “Salvation,” in the biblical sense, is profoundly earthly and spiritual. Indeed, the two are inseparable. According to the biblical story, being “saved” entails rescue from the self-aggrandizing powers at work in earthly systems and institutions that oppose the wholeness intended by the Creator and that work to usurp the movement of the Divine. Beyond this, Christians see the Divine incarnated in a man who ministered to very human, earthly needs, who proclaimed the in-breaking of God’s realm into our world of family relationships and money and anger, who was crucified by the powers, who triumphed over them in the flesh-and-bloodness of the cross and resurrection, and who invites as to participate in this new reality called “Christ”—the incarnation of God in the world that we see in Jesus, and that has been a part of creation since its inception. Incarnation is and always was. Christianity is profoundly incarnational and evolutionary, meaning that truth and redemption take on flesh-and-blood relevance, completely altering our existence both “in earth and in heaven,” which we now see as intertwined. In the New Testament sense, to say that Jesus set us free from “sin” is to say that Jesus set us free from all the ways we are bound to systems that dominate us, both in the course of our lives and beyond. It is to say that we are free, because we recognize the incarnation of God in us and through us. We are the offspring of God, not automatons serving the powers. Christian ethics, then, always have to do with how people live this; how we live out our identity as the incarnation of God in everyday, existence in the era of the Fall—the mythological language meaning “in the era of the powers that dominate our existence.”
In Part Three of this series on the powers, we will talk about how we engage with the powers, the many ways we are charged with shaping the character of human systems, and how we might live in freedom as we inevitably wrestle with them. Assuredly, we are not alone.