Thursday, February 09, 2006

With the cross of Jesus / Marching on before

It seems I have opened a door into something much larger, and this through a process of reading Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Galilee/Doubleday, 1998)

And what are the Powers? Here is Wink’s description:

Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers,” not as disembodies spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic and cultural institutions of their day. (Powers That Be, 24)

Wink continues:

It is merely a habit of thought that makes people think of the Powers as personal beings. In fact, many of the spiritual powers and gods of the ancient world were not conceived of as personal at all. I prefer to think of the Powers as impersonal entities, though I know of no sure way to settle the question. Humans naturally tend to personalize anything that seems to act intentionally. But we are now discovering from computer viruses that certain systemic processes are self-replicating and “contagious,” behaving almost willfully even though they are quite impersonal. For the present, I [Wink] have set aside the question of the actual status of these Powers, and instead have attempted to describe what it was that people in ancient times were experiencing when they spoke of “Satan,” “demons,” “powers,” “angels,” and the like. “None of these “spiritual” realities has an existence independent of its material counterpart. None persists through time without embodiment in a people or a culture or a regime or a corporation or a dictator.

The issue is not whether we “believe,” in them but whether we can learn to identify them in our actual, everyday encounters. When a particular Power becomes idolatrous—that is, when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good—then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world. But this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed—what the New Testament calls an ekklesia (assembly)—one that exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation.

Evil, then, is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems [Dominations Systems] over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed. Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure. (Ibid. 27, 30-31)

Now an address by Dan Liechty, "Principalities and Powers: A Beckerian Reading of Walter Wink's The Powers Trilogy."

"In the Yoder/Berkhof line of interpretation, Principalities and Powers are understood as social forces, encompassing

an inclusive vision of religious structure (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures (`ologies and `isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race, and nation).

Walter Wink's voluminous work self-consciously builds on and extends this line of interpretation. Wink's approach emphasizes the following points, which will also become our final points of comparison for a social scientific view.

The Powers are Good. Wink suggests that the Powers were created by God for the ordering of human community. The Powers are part of the original creation of God and, as such, were created good, like all of God's original creation. If the Powers functioned according to God's original intention, they would be our ally in assuring that people are fed, goods are distributed to those in need, and in general, that communal laws would govern life together for the common good.

The Powers are Fallen. But these Powers are in rebellion against God's original intentions. As such, these Powers act in accordance with the `system of domination,' creating vast inequalities and injustices in the economic order. They make themselves the hand servants of the worst of human emotions and motivations, of greed, envy, revenge and violence. They facilitate actions leading to ecological destruction, inequality and injustice, making such actions appear `logical' and `inevitable,' causing good people to act accordingly, even as they may personally regret the results.

The Powers must be Redeemed. Christ has brought redemption for the Powers. They have been broken and shown in the Cross to be a mockery of God's justice and goodness. The decisive battle against the Powers has been won in the Cross of Christ. The task now is to bring the Powers to this recognition and to allow them again to function for the common good according to God's original intention.

The eschatological Christian community is God's tool to bring this redemption of the Powers into historical reality. The problem arises when Christians themselves fail to recognize this corporate and transpersonal element in God's salvation and retreat into satisfaction with personal salvation, the world be damned. They then become easy prey for the fallen Powers, seducing them into acting corporately and politically according to the Powers' own fallen dictates. Christians then begin to value `patriotic duty' as equal to or above their Christian commitments. They begin to lean toward the `expediency' of violent solutions to political problems. They close their eyes to the systemic inequalities and injustices of economic and political systems, however much they may regret the suffering that results. And worst of all, they begin to play power politics within the Christian community itself on the model of the fallen Powers rather than according to Christ's suffering love, thus diluting and negating the very high calling with which God entrusted them."

One more note from Wink. He writes:

William Stringfellow's Free in Obedience(New York: Seabury, 1964) had provided me a vision of how the biblical category of principalities and powers could serve as the basis for a social ethic based on the New Testament. The received wisdom till then was that the New Testament is only concerned with personal ethics; if one is interested in a social ethic, one must turn to the Exodus or the prophets. Work on the Powers series, first conceived as a single volume, grew into three, and occupied 28 years. The titles in the Powers trilogy are Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers (which was awarded the "Best Religious Book of 1993.”) A related volume, Cracking the Gnostic Code, rounds out the understanding of the Powers in the early centuries of our era.

And a nod toward his solution to the Powers:

I became increasingly convinced that nonviolence was the only way to overcome the domination of the Powers without creating new forms of domination. (Walter Wink, “Write What You See: An Odyssey.” The Fourth R Vol. 7 No. 3 (May/June 1994)

Now all of this meshes quite well with what N.T. Wright was saying about Colossians. And, as I said, it opens a door for me that hasn’t been opened before, both to the role of the liberal arts, as I stated, and also for the role of the church and its people: people like me going about their Kingdom-work within the everyday.
Walter Wink, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, NY. has worn many hats. Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. And, in 1989-1990, he was a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. His many award winning books include: The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament and When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations

Most recently, Wink has written The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man(Fortress Press, 2001; read scholar's responses.) and edited the book, Peace Is The Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation(Orbis Books, 2000.)

See the previous post in this series, Unmasking the Powers with N. T. Wright

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