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A Prophetic Response to the Powers


  • Naming the Powers

    • In Scripture: Ephesians 6: 10-12 and Revelation 12-13.

      • Ephesians – “We are not doing battle with mere mortals, but with the powers and principalities of this world.”  Paul is not talking about “power” as we understand it – the ability to accomplish and to influence others. He is talking about unseen forces with more than human power to influence (tempt) us in negative ways, or more simply, demonic forces or spirits, the power of evil in the world.

      • Revelation – These demonic forces are visualized as a 7-headed, 10-horned dragon or beast. As Walter Wink puts it -“Some 1st century Jews and Christians perceived in the Roman Empire a demonic spirituality which they called Satan (the “Dragon” of Revelation 12).  But they encountered this spirit in the actual institutional forms of Roman life: legions, governors, crucifixions, payment of tribute, Roman sacred emblems and standards, and so forth (the “beast” of Revelation 13).”  (Walter Wink, THE POWERS THAT BE, p. 25)

    • Definitions and examples

      • “Powers are the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life” (Wink, p. 28)

      • “… the ‘corporate personality’ or ethos of an institution or epoch…” (Wink, p. 27)

      • “… the soul of systems…” (Wink, p. 29)

      • The “-isms” – racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism, militarism, nationalism, patriotism…

      As such, the powers are not necessarily evil.  This “ethos” or “soul” of an institution, system, nation or epoch can influence us positively or negatively.  It can motivate us to extraordinary unselfishness and service for good or it can be manipulated in the service of evil. For example:

      • In sports, this spirit is called “sportsmanship” or “team spirit” or “fanaticism”

        • “Think, for example, of a riot at a championship soccer game.  For a few frenzied minutes, people who in their ordinary lives behave on the whole quite decently suddenly find themselves bludgeoning and even killing opponents whose only sin was rooting for the other team.  Afterward people often act bewildered and wonder what could have possessed them.  Was it a ‘riot demon’ that leapt upon them from the sky, or was it something intrinsic to the social situation: a ‘spirituality’ that crystallized suddenly, caused by the conjunction of an outer permissiveness, heavy drinking, a violent ethos, a triggering incident, and the inner violence of the fans?  And when the riot subsides, does the ‘riot demon’ rocket back to heaven, or does the spirituality of the rioters simply dissipate as they are scattered, subdued, or arrested?” (Wink, p. 28)

        • In contrast, go back to the summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs were locked in an historic race to surpass Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in home-runs for a single season.  The spirit of good sportsmanship they exemplified helped to redeem the game of baseball from the selfish spirit that manifested itself in the shortened season of 1994.  So caught up in this good spirit, fans in St. Louis who caught McGwire’s historic home-run balls returned them to McGwire rather than sell or auction them for millions of dollars.

      • In nations, this spirit or power is generally called “nationalism” or “patriotism.”

        How would you describe and characterize (as positive or negative) this spirit or power in:

        • Nazi Germany before and during World War II

        • United States during World War II

        • United States immediately after 9/11

        • United States during the war on Iraq

        The power of nationalism when it becomes absolute and “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

        • “In this myth, the survival and welfare of the nation becomes the highest earthly and heavenly good.  Here, a Power is made absolute.  There can be no other gods before the nation.  Not only does this myth establish a patriotic religion at the heart of the state, it gives divine sanction to that nation’s imperialism.  The myth of redemptive violence thus serves as the spirituality of militarism…. It provides divine legitimation for the suppression of poor people everywhere, and the extraction of wealth from the poorer nations.” (Wink, pp. 56-57)

        • “… the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.” (Wink, p. 42)

          Reflection:  To what extent does this description apply to the United States? … in the past, at present, both, or neither?  And why or why not?




    • “This overarching network of Powers is what we are calling the Domination System.  It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all…  from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism…” (Wink, p. 39)

      Reflection:  How have these powers manifested themselves in your own life?  In what situations have you or do you tend to dominate others?


  • Responding to the Powers 

    • In Scripture

      • “From then on Jesus started to indicate to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day.  At this, Peter took him aside and began to remonstrate with him.  “May you be spared, Master!  God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!”  Jesus turned on Peter and said, “Get out of my sight, you satan!  You are trying to make me trip and fall.  You are not judging by God’s standards but by a human standard.”  Jesus then said to his disciples: If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny their very self, take up the cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps.  Whoever would save their life for my sake will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.  What profit would anyone show if that person were to gain the whole world and destroy themselves in the process?  What can anyone offer in exchange for their very self?”  (Matthew 16:21-27)

      • Other Scriptures for personal reflection:  Jeremiah 1: 17-19;  John 4: 7-10, 27-30;  Matthew 21: 12-13;  John 18: 33-38;  Ephesians 6: 13-20;  Hebrews 12: 1-4;  Revelations 12: 1-5

    • In THE POWERS THAT BE, by Walter Wink

      • “We must die to our learned preferences for domination. . . die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia.  We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.   As Paul put it, ”Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus, by which the Domination System (kosmos) has been crucified to me, and I to it.” (Galatians 6:14)

        Reflection: What challenges you in this passage?

      •  “Dying to the Powers is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers.  When Jesus said, “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across - step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh.  That new approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way’”. (Wink, p. 97)

        Reflection: What challenges you in this passage?

    • In our own lives

      • When have you confronted the beast of violence, e.g. sexism, racism, consumerism, discrimination, hate, vengeance, with the weapons of the Spirit?  What’s your next step?