Against the Powers

October 31, 2013

A long-overdue return to the topic of this particular conference I attended in 2009. Previous entry here. The plenary sessions left me with a lot to chew on, and I may as well acknowledge that I’m still trying to take it all in. There were three speakers: Walter Wink, Stanley Hauerwas, and Marva Dawn.

Wink died in May of 2012. At the time of this conference, he was evidently neurologically impaired, and we were told that he had not done any public speaking for the last two years. He stood up for the first few minutes, and then sat down for the remainder of his talk; he basically read excerpts from his book The Powers That Be. Still, though his voice was frail, he read with a lot of tenderness and conviction.

Walter Wink started with a problem of understanding Scripture: namely, why are the seven letters in Revelation addressed to the angels of the churches and not to the churches themselves? What does it mean, in Daniel 10, that nations have angels? He took this insight into a spiritual world associated with our social and institutional life, and connected it to Paul’s references to the global reign of demoniac powers that are not just human beings. Whereas a more orthodox interpretation notes that Paul says, “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood!” and imagines these spirits as disembodied, Wink made a departure, imagining the spirits as very much embedded in the structures and systems that people build (and that inevitably go awry).

This is my quick and dirty take on it. I think the political Left stopped talking about personal holiness and temptation and started talking about systemic injustice and structural change. So Wink was trying to start a new conversation that incorporated the left-wing critique of institutional evil, while rediscovering its spiritual significance. While the Left believed that through activism and better laws we could change the very structure of society and make it more egalitarian, Wink pointed out that most often we change the cast of characters (throw out the Republicans, install the Democrats!) without changing the script at all. Institutions have their own identity, and their resistance to change is overwhelming and often violent. Coming to terms with that means acknowledging the governing presence of demons in our world, demons with which we are intimately familiar. They are called the education system, the health care system, global capitalism, the institution of marriage, the churches, etc. In Wink’s view, they are necessary and sometimes useful, but also destructive beyond any individual’s power to mitigate or control. They have a mandate from God to meet particular human needs, but they have fallen. Their rebellion against God, like our rebellion against God, causes untold grief.

Wink had already had his basic insight and was planning to write a book, if not books, about the powers. To understand better the work of demons that make their imprint felt on a national scale, he went to Chile in 1982, during the military dictatorship of Pinochet. It was his sabbatical year; he and his wife lived in Chile for a time, then traveled in South and Central America. They lived with the poor, interviewed many human rights activists (not a few of them were priests and nuns) as well as the victims of torture, and those who had lost family members, “disappeared” by the police. He found himself in the grip of a despondency, characterized by a rage against the oppressed and the oppressors, beyond what he could express. He never cried. He just became physically ill. As he put it, he had gone to Latin America hoping that it would help him write a book about the powers that could make a difference. The evil in Chile had such deep roots, including a long history of tyranny and current support by the U.S. government, that Wink became possessed by a conviction that nothing could make a difference.

“I had gone there to study the powers,” Wink said in his quavering voice, “I ended up being their captive.” A murmur went through the audience. I think everyone could relate to the dilemma: we tend to alternate between turning a blind eye to the full extent of the evil around us – the evil in which we are complicit – and then, if we examine it squarely, finding ourselves stunned by horror. The unpleasant choice seems to be between paralysis by ignorance and paralysis by despair.

Somewhat unwittingly, Wink went back and studied all the relevant New Testament passages from scratch, forced by his convalescence to do simple but tedious research on the range of meanings associated with every term the NT writers use to talk about “power,” whether political or spiritual. He began to engage with the conviction on the part of the NT writers that Christ was sovereign over the powers. He didn’t share their confidence at first. He got there eventually. Eventually, he said, he was able to cry. The question, in what way has God put the powers under Christ’s feet? was related to the question, how do you overcome the system of domination without becoming a dominator yourself? He came up with some answers and actually tried to put them to use in South Africa before the end of apartheid. It’s not implausible that Wink played some small role in the relatively nonviolent end of apartheid.

That brings us to Stanley Hauerwas, who said, in reference to Wink: “Walter and I both come from Dallas. We have to be into this nonviolence stuff, because we’re from Texas. Violence is in our bones!”

Hauerwas is currently a communicant at an Episcopalian church in North Carolina (where he teaches theological ethics at Duke Divinity School), but he has deep roots in the United Methodists, and some of his strongest influences have been Catholic and Mennonite. He speaks in kind of a low growl, with a Texas drawl.

“Everyone confesses war is horrible, but we continue to have war.” He paused and leaned into the mike a bit. “That’s when you know you’re in the grip of a power.”

He went on: “War has captured the habits of our imagination. When was the last time you went to see a movie about peace?

“The philosopher William James said that we need something to do the work of war – its ability to form a certain type of military character… He failed to see that war is a sacrificial system. The greatest sacrifice of war is that of our unwillingness to kill.

“War is attractive to Christians, because it seems to call for the kind of sacrifice we find admirable. It is also repellent to us. Our unease with war is liturgical. War is the alternative church. And, if Christians are serious, we are the alternative to war.”

To clarify the latter assertion, he cited a book by journalist Chris Hedges, which is indeed a phenomenal book, called
War is a force that gives us meaning. Hedges describes his pathological attraction to being a wartime reporter, and meditates on the strange power of war to, as Hauerwas put it, capture the habits of our imagination. Our deepest questions about the meaninglessness of life, Hedges claims, are displaced by the ugliness and beauty of war, and its power to give us a chance to be noble.

There is an overall vacuum of meaning from which we suffer, collectively, that forces us to return to this “force” over and over. That still leaves us with a “disconnect” between our armies as honor societies and the societies they defend with their willingness to die (and to kill). The clearest example of the disconnect happened after 9/11. American soldiers ultimately went overseas to kill and be killed, while the principal sacrifice that President Bush called for from the civilian population was to defy the terrorists by continuing to shop. Hauerwas took pains to explain that he did not consider it dishonorable to lay down one’s life, or even to sacrifice one’s unwillingness to kill, for flag and country. What he insisted on was a frank assessment of the worthiness of flag and country, as a pretender to the role of God, to which we offer such spiritually consequential sacrifices.

He told a story about the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in the Korean War. The hill went back and forth between the Americans and the Chinese multiple times. At one point there were less than a dozen men on top of the hill, still defending this scrap of land while an armistice was actually in the works. The generals debated the option of reinforcing the remaining men, saving their lives at the expense of, doubtless, many more lives. In the end, they did it, not because of the strategic value of Pork Chop Hill, but because if they did not, they would fail to honor the lives of all the men who had already died to take the hill! In the end, over 300 soldiers were killed in the various battles. Hauerwas said: the moral stakes keep getting raised because of all the sacrifices that have already been made.

Something similar happens on the domestic front. Veterans return terribly burdened by the knowledge that they are now killers, and have to negotiate a very difficult reentry into society. To appropriately honor their sacrifices, we have to be able to offer them gratitude and support. This means affirming the validity of war. This tends to shut down a necessary discussion about the wisdom and morality of waging war. “Killing creates a wall of silence,” Hauerwas said, “isolating those who kill.”

The real meat of his talk turned out to be this discussion of veterans. He seemed to be applying himself to the question of what possible way out can there be for those we send off to kill for us, and who return home to a nation unwilling or unable to come to terms with the moral repercussions. How can they possibly tell their story?

He did some discussion of the role of the church towards the end. His style tends to be aphoristic, and this part was very much a string of aphorisms. The best was probably: “The church does not have a policy or plan for stopping war. The church is called to be an alternative to war.”

How’s that work exactly? For one thing, our churches can be our public assemblies where we share goals and projects. Just by doing that, we reclaim some of the spiritual territory that war has illegitimately taken over. He pointed out that in Canada and the U.S., our wars are our only common experience. (He illustrated this with another crack about Texas: “You know what finally reunited the North and the South after the Civil War? World War One. In Texas we say, we were so desperate to kill some people, we were even willing to kill for the Yankees!”) The power claims of the nation would be subverted, rendered secondary, if only the church could be the place where people truly come together and share a “commonwealth.”

Theologically, we have two other things on our side. First of all, we follow Jesus Christ, the utterly complete sacrifice, the last sacrifice, and as we celebrate the Eucharist we remember that all the other sacrifices are “finished.” We don’t have to deny the spiritual power that war appropriates by calling us to lay down our lives and our consciences, we just have to remember that the true seat of that power is the mercy seat of Christ. Secondly, what the cross has accomplished is that those who have killed can be reconciled to those they have killed.

After his main talk, one of the people invited to give a response was Dan Oudshoorn (his blog, which can only be described as harrowing, is here) Dan took the opportunity to point out that while the Eucharist helps to reclaim our imaginations from war, by giving us an image of being a community of gratitude and generosity, that image demands substantiation. We have to find concrete ways to repent of our marginalization of the poor and miserable and be the counterculture that doesn’t simply enforce (perhaps by more covert means) the same dehumanizing standards as the world does. What good is the Eucharist if we are still pawns of the Prince of Darkness when away from the table? Hauerwas took that one step further by reminding us that, according to 1 Cor 11, “when we do the Eucharist unworthily, God’s going to kill us.”

Hauerwas offered a workshop session between his talk and Marva Dawn’s last plenary. The one acquaintance I made at the conference had no interest in going. “I don’t want to be depressed!” she said, “He’s a little too downbeat!” I said, “What are you talking about?” My tongue was a little in my cheek, and sure enough the first thing Hauerwas wanted to talk about at the session was death. “One thing I didn’t emphasize in my talk about war is that we Christians are in the death game too! We want your lives, and your children’s lives too!” He talked about the martyrdom of Perpetua (where her children became martyrs with her because she was unwilling to have them raised as pagans), as well as Paul’s reference to baptism as a baptism “into death.” More generally, he said, a commitment to nonviolence means we may have to watch the innocent suffer for our convictions, “a terrible fate.” He wanted to make it clear that we don’t want this to happen, and should be ready to flee. One fellow asked, “What do I do when my kid is being bullied in his daycare?” and Hauerwas hastened to emphasize that our goal should be to “free the violent from their violence,” so that challenging the bully is appropriate (if not obligatory) as well as finding an adult to police the interaction.

Hauerwas has a poster on his office door from the Mennonite Central Committee which reads:

A Modest Proposal For Peace:
Let The Christians Of The World
Agree That They Will Not Kill
Each Other.

He said he gets a lot of angry responses to that poster, because people say, “Christians shouldn’t be killing anyone!” His stock response: “I agree, but it’s called ‘A modest proposal’. You’ve got to start somewhere!”

OK, last thing from Hauerwas: he had pointed out that many people in his morning session, when asked about how they would like to die, said they would like to die in their sleep, or suddenly, or otherwise without having to know that they were going to die. He pointed out how from a Christian point of view it would seem to be a great misfortune to not know you were about to die. So at our session, someone asked: “Well, what about you? How do you want to die?”

He thought about it for a moment. “I would like to die,” he said finally, “still having some role among people I loved, that of being able to receive their care.” He commented that he has a poem above his desk that includes the words: do not be afraid to go where so many good have gone before.

The closing speaker was Marva Dawn. She is this kind of elfin woman, with this huge smile and a little-girl voice. She strikes you at first as being kind of blissed-out, sort of carrying on the hippie tradition, but then she starts doing theology and there’s something hard as nails about her commitment to Christ.

The daughter of a principal (whose Lutheran elementary school she attended as a child) and the wife of an elementary school teacher (now retired), this woman could be called Lutheran, but I think it makes more sense to call her an evangelical extrovert, in that she has a very full career of speaking at different organizations and churches from all over the map. She writes tons of books and is constantly conversing with the world. Unlike Wink, she could stand up for the duration of her talk, but like Wink, she had her own companions of weakness: we were reminded of that when her Bible fell off her lecture stand, and she had to leave it on the floor until someone ran up on stage to pick it up off the floor. She complained good-humoredly that, when she was offered a teaching position in Vancouver, Canada had denied her citizenship because her list of pre-existent medical conditions was too long. “Because Christ is risen,” she marveled at one point, “I don’t care how defunct my body is!”

Her talk sort of careened one way and then another. She began by announcing that she had come with three “lesson plans” prepared, and only chosen her topic three minutes before taking the stage. She saw Wink as having sketched the broad outlines of the threat posed by the powers, and Hauerwas as having given a detailed (and distressing) account of how one particular power is wreaking havoc in the world. So she decided what was needed was a proclamation of hope. So the meat of her talk was an exposition of the armor of God in Ephesians 6. These are defensive weapons that give us a lot of support when we try to take our stand against the powers.

I was hoping she would use my favorite line about the belt of truth (namely, that it keeps our pants from falling down around our ankles while we’re under attack!) She did talk about a variety of situations in which telling the truth is one of the most powerful defenses against the powers, and greatly undervalued. We are timid about “calling out” the people who are actually in a position to hear us. Gee, shouldn’t our church budget reveal a clear priority for meeting the needs of the poor? Um, doesn’t the ten (fifteen, twenty…?) hours of TV we let our kids watch every week form their brains a lot more than the two hours of worship they get?

As for the breastplate of righteousness, you can hide under the righteousness of Christ, she said: it covers over our vital organs. Why is this so powerful? It means that we live as people forgiven. That neutralizes a lot of the threats leveled at us by the various powers in our lives. She observed, “A lot of people stuck in systems could get out of those systems if they could be forgiven.”

One thing I thought is not said enough about the shoes of readiness is that part of their purpose is to make it possible to run away! (Hauerwas had me thinking very keenly about the importance of running away, as you can imagine.) For Marva Dawn, they’re more for going to where the trouble is, actively trying to bring reconciliation to places of conflict, and serve where people are hurting.

She said that Roman soldiers had unbreakable ranks because any given shield covered two thirds of one soldier and one third of the adjacent soldier. So for her the shield of faith represented the communal endeavor: how our faith protects others, and how their faith protects us, when we stay in rank. “I know that hope in my own life comes by the prayers of others,” she said in response to a question later. “To help someone afraid of,” sticking out their neck and risking the wrath of the powers, “in all submission to Christ I would hope to be used by God to speak an encouraging word to them. But I can’t talk about the costliness of obedience for others, because the powers tend to aim at our particular, individual vulnerability. I can say that hope does not disappoint, but that’s because the hope is in God.”

After that, I’m sorry to say, she did not delve into the last two parts of the armor, because she had not left herself enough time.

In the end, although Dawn indicated she does not agree with Wink’s understanding of the powers (I’ve found this to be true of a lot of theologians: they don’t think Wink’s exegesis holds up, but they respect his insights into Christian resistance to evil), she too wanted to emphasize that our nonviolent resistance to evil is partly based on an understanding of spiritual evil that transcends “flesh and blood.” She said, “We can love our enemies, because the systems are the enemy, and our ‘enemies’ are just people in the grip of the system.” Of this quest to find sources of power in weakness, she said: “The church should not seek to get ahead, but to get behind.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: