Reviving the Language of the Powers

Thursday, February 3, 2022

From Michael Anthony Howard, Minister of Faith in Action,
Living Water Association, Ohio North East, UCC

Tags: Streams of Connection | From Our Association Ministers | Faith in Action

“Our struggle is not with enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, against the worldly powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in high places.”

—Ephesians 6:12

Just like every organizer should have a theory of power, I believe every community engagement venture should include a clear theory and theology of power. Developing a team’s ability to think and talk about power can transform entire ministries, build community, and change lives. This can invite the kind of buzz most activists feel when they are in the rooms organizing an action they expect will bring real change. That’s why we desperately need to reclaim the use of the biblical language of the powers.

The late theologian, Marva Dawn, writes that the concept of “the powers” was forgotten by the Reformers who were leery of eschatology. It was recalled, she explained, “when there was no other way to name the extremity of events in the years surrounding World War I and II.” She uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example. When he saw Naziism coming into power in the early 1930s, he wrote to his brother, “How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy?”

Bill Wyllie-Kellerman narrates it well, that a number of relatively recent historical crises filled the void and revived the language of the powers: the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany; the liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America; the anti-war movement against the Pentagon in the 1960s; the African American freedom struggle. We could add many more to this list of movements using the spiritual language of “the powers,” especially in the last decade.

The lawyer and Civil Rights activist William Stringfellow is often said in American Christianity to be the thinker who reclaimed the biblical language of the principalities and powers for social ethics. Stringfellow’s work inspired the late New Testament scholar Walter Wink to write a powerful trilogy about the use of the language of the powers in early Christianity: Naming the Powers (1983), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992).

Where Marva Dawn blamed Luther and Calvin, Stringfellow located the disappearance of the powers from Christian theology in the West much earlier with what he called “the Constantinian Arrangement.” In his short book, Free in Obedience (1964), he referred to institutions, images, and ideologies as the powers, borrowing from the language of Ephesians 6. The powers have their own independent life and integrity. While they were created to praise God and serve the wholeness of creation with the power of life, they have become demonic powers, playing God and enslaving creation through the power of death.

We need community engagement teams with their own robust theories and theologies of power. This will help us root our community work in the gospel. It will provide a framework that connects our who, what, when, where, and how to our why. Introducing the biblical language of the powers can transform our engagement and our faith.