The Powers That Be


[Note: Walter Wink’s “The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium” is the basis for this entry (and expected future entries) as I try to work through his concepts in my own mind.]


“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” – Paul (Ephesians 6:12, RSV)

According to Walter Wink, the “powers of this world” are more than simply people. They are bigger. They are unseen forces that often drive people to do things they would never do. For example, in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the men sent to foreclose on the land of the poverty-stricken don’t want to do what they do: it is the “monster” of the bank that drives them. They are “the Man” from the dictionary of the Civil Rights Era, or maybe the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith. Bigger than individuals. Evident, but unseen.

It may be easiest for us to see them in the personification of contemporary institutions. An individual doesn’t personify Harvard, but Harvard still has a personality. As does the NAACP. And the Religious Right. And General Motors. And the New York Yankees. And the Southern Baptist Convention. The people come and go, but the very institution has a character. And it is that character that drives and shapes people.

The Bible speaks of angels and demons, of principalities and powers, and Wink claims that these concepts aren’t to be relegated to the days of pre-scientific thought, but better understood to exist as the essence of every social reality evident today. The essence of these organizations (or “spirituality” as Wink calls it) can be either benign or pathological, at times proving to be “necessary” and “useful” (e.g. good roads, food inspections, building codes), at others “the source of unmitigated evils” (e.g. pollution, racism, terrorism). Wink resonates with me when he claims that he never could take the whole “demon” picture very seriously. “But” (he writes) “if the demonic is the spirituality produced when the angel of an institution turns its back on its divine vocation, then I could not only believe in the demonic, I could point to its presence in everyday life.”

So maybe Jesus has something to say to today’s world after all. Could one of whom it is written “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” have a message to all of us in a world filled with injustice perpetuated by demonic forces using violent means to maintain their domination?

I think it is worth considering.

There are unseen forces that govern the world, forces the Bible refers to as “principalities and powers.” Jesus fought against these powers, and his followers are to continue the fight. For people trapped in the clutches of these “monsters,” we probably need to understand the war.

[NEXT ENTRY: Identifying the Powers]


4 Responses to “The Powers That Be”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    As I read my own summary of the introduction, I don’t know if there’s much to discuss just yet. Which, I guess, would serve the title “introduction” well.

    As of now, I guess we’re simply beginning to call into question the pictures of a Devil running around with a pitchfork and little red suit wreaking havoc and demons jumping down from dark clouds and inhabiting people before jumping back up into the sky, dodging airplanes and birds on the way.

    In short, the nature of “spiritual warfare” is being called into question. What is being fought? And what is the nature of the fight?

    That might elicit some initial comments before I post again.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’m in the same camp with you and Wink on that one.

    As for discussion, the summer heat seems to have put the kibosh on it in general, the last couple of weeks.

  3. Mystique Free Says:

    I never really “got” the idea of a supernatural entity devoted to pure evil, and this concept interests me.

    I think spiritual warefare might really be, at least in part, the battle against ourselves – it’s not easy to be kind, to stand up to the “demons” of irresponsible power (even when you fight against racism or homophobia, the real fear you face is within).

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Al — looking forward to the future posts. I’ve heard the term spiritual warfare a lot, but don’t really understand it, or at least I don’t understand it the way those I’ve heard talk about it use the term. But it seems to be something that so many Christians are fascinated with. To the point that we focus on some big war against evil rather than the day-to-day lesser evils in our lives. If that makes any sense. Wish I could blame my nonsensicalness on the heat, as JU suggests, but I never make much sense anyway.

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