Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Lamb's War & Activism

One thing that has troubled me for a while is that while many peace-oriented Quaker activities may be inspired by the Holy Spirit, the activities themselves seem to lack any awareness or acknowledgment of that spirit. Some Friends seem to have no trouble saying ugly things about their political opponents. One of the things I have struggled with is that in an effort to "love their enemies", some Friends just take the "enemy" label off one group of people and place it on another.

Chuck Fager helped clarify things for me when he spoke about Quaker House during a session at the North Carolina Yearly Meeting - Conservative gathering. In the book of Ephesians, Paul wrote about "spiritual armor", and I have read this passage numerous times ("the belt of truth", "the breastplate of integrity", etc.) What I managed to miss time after time was Ephesians 6:12, which in the Revised English Bible says:

For our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark age, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Chuck spoke about the same thing - that the "Lamb's War" is not against people, but against "principalities and powers". I did not realize at first that Chuck was quoting Paul, but I came across the passage the next day (or it was shown to me, the Holy Spirit can be subtle). When we take that passage to heart, I think it transforms how we deal with people who would otherwise be our opponents. We are not fighting against them, but the powers, the system, that they are caught up in. This separation, to me, helps us continue to deal with people in love without sowing further seeds of war.

Just to put in a plug for Quaker House, they have been doing a "Truth in Recruitment" campaign - trying to tell people things that the recruiters may not tell them. They have recently posted a YouTube video of Sergeant Abe, the honest recruiter. They also put out a flyer about the enlistment document.


  1. Hi, Mark!

    The stuff about "principalities and powers" is a pretty big deal among liberal Christians these days. The roots of it are not only in Ephesians 6:12, but also Romans 8:38, Ephesians 1:21 and 3:10, and Colossians 1:16, 2:10 and 2:15.

    Modern thinking about principalities and powers began with Hendrik Berkhof, a Reformed theologian and a major figure in the post-World-War-II Council of Churches movement, who wrote a very short book, published in 1953, titled Christus en de Machen. This book was an outgrowth of Berkhof's private ponderings about the most notorious power of the twentieth century, the Nazi regime, which Berkhof had had to suffer under in the occupied Netherlands.

    Berkhof's little book was translated into English by the prominent Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, and republished, in the United States and Canada, in 1962, as Christ and the Powers. Its release in this translation stimulated wider thinking on the matter. Both Yoder himself, and also the Protestant ecumenicist and lawyer-philanthropist William Stringfellow, wrote books applying Berkhof's insight to the situation in the United States. Yoder's book was The Politics of Jesus. Vicit Agnus Noster (1972, 1974); it developed a fairly systematic theology of the powers, and presented a Mennonite-colored vision of true Christianity as a path distinctly separate from ordinary good-citizenship. Stringfellow's book was An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973); it converted Berkhof's theology into a searingly honest examination of our own weaknesses as individuals, and of how we need to change, to become better Christians in a power-corrupted world.

    Finally, in the 1990s, another theologian, Walter Wink, got hold of these ideas, and reduced them to a sort of superhero-comic-book vision (strong on simple, easy-to-understand images and clean moral contrasts), in a series of books (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers, When the Powers Fall, The Powers That Be) that popularized this line of thinking among a much wider audience. Wink presently worships with liberal Friends, and his work has become especially popular among them.

    Berkhof, Yoder and Stringfellow are all well worth reading. I'm less comfortable recommending Wink simply because I mistrust comic book simplicities in theology. But you will meet many very intelligent Friends who recommend Wink enthusiastically and more or less ignore Berkhof, Yoder and Stringfellow.

    It's worth bearing in mind that the powers-and-principalities theology is, at heart, a species of demonology. Is demonology really the best way forward? I'm not convinced it is.

  2. I found Walter Wink's book Engaging the Powers to be very interesting and helpful. I wouldn't describe it as "a super-hero comic book". I am not really even sure what that means. I think many thoughtful people have appreciated Wink's writing.

  3. "Superhero-comic-book vision" sounds uncharitable to me. If it implies a goodies vs baddies account of the Powers it certainly misrepresents "Engaging the Powers",which is much more nuanced. An example that comes to my mind is Wink's remark about the many peace activists who have said that the worst violence and aggression they have encountered has been within the movement itself, among fellow-activists - something which has, sadly, been my experience also.

    I do think Wink is inclined to be over-optimistic about the possibilities for nonviolent social and political change, and Yoder's more pessimistic anabaptist view is I feel a healthy corrective to this. Yoder - and Stanley Hauerwas, who is deeply indebted to him - deserve to be better known among Quakers. But if liberal Quakers are reading Wink, that's a good start.

  4. To Alan Paxton -- friend, I do believe I explained in my previous comment what I meant by "superhero-comic-book vision": I said that it meant "strong on simple, easy-to-understand images and clean moral contrasts". You're very welcome to give my phrase a different meaning, and then condemn that different meaning as uncharitable; I don't mind at all if you do. But if you do that, I hope you'll bear in mind that you are condemning the meaning you yourself have given the phrase, rather than the meaning I gave it.

    Wink's criticism of the peace movement emerges, of course, from his recognition that it too is a power or principality. So it is not a nuancing of Wink's basic simple vision, it is an application of his simple vision to a power or principality that his readers might otherwise be disposed to accept uncritically.

    To Mark -- friend, I'm not saying that the principalities-and-powers theology is intimately linked with demonology; I'm saying that it is a demonology. A "demon" is a more-than-human spiritual being who is fallen from pure virtue, now works partly or completely in opposition to the reign of God, and is given to possessing human beings. (Cf., for example, the entry on "demons" in Joseph A. Komonchak et al., eds., The New Dictionary of Theology [The Liturgical Press, 1991].) As Berkhof, Yoder, Stringfellow and Wink use the terms "powers" and "principalities", they fit this definition: they are more than human, spiritual, and fallen, they work partly or completely in opposition to God's reign, and they possess human beings. They are thus types of demons.

  5. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were simply necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

    We have met the enemy and they is us. — Pogo

    Francis Drake sirfr AT earthlink.net

  6. Wink's writing is very clear that no person is the enemy. He is also clear that all of us are in ways within the grasp of diseased and evil spiritualities. All of us have to seek to live in another reality, it is a constant work to live in the reign of God, not the reign of evil.

    I just wanted to be sure that the discussion here is clear that Wink is not in disagreement with the two quotes in the last comment. He clearly understands these quotes.


  7. "...Wink is not in disagreement with the two quotes in the last comment."

    I did not advance my own ideas first, in part because I have not yet read Wink's *powers* series, but based on the one book and several essays of his I *have* read, I expect he would indeed agree with those sentiments. They were not intended as commentary on him.

    Admitting my knowledge of demonology, whether in Christian, Gnostic, ritual magical, or any other context, is next to nil, it seems to me that these beings, and the texts that describe and enumerate them, are best understood as mythical and metaphoric representations of aspects of the human mind and heart, and the various impulses that arise therefrom, especially those that seek power and domination. Put another way, our struggle is not against Bush or Cheney or their ilk, but those seeds which, encouraged to grow, helped make them what they are today. And any of us, in similar circumstances, could have fallen as low and lived lives of destructive power comparable to theirs.

    As Gandalf put it, "No one is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so."

    Francis Drake sirfr AT earthlink.net