Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 9, Stringfellow on Death and the Powers

In this series I've discussed the thinking of Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder concerning the Powers. Both Wink and Yoder reference the work of William Stringfellow and his analysis of the powers. What I particularly like about Stringfellow's work is that he goes deeper, providing an analysis of the moral and spiritual core behind the powers.

Similar to Wink and Yoder, Stringfellow associates the "principalities and powers" with any created thing, idea, or image that captivates us and commands service and sacrifice from us:

According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

Terms that characterize are frequently used biblically in naming the principalities: “tempter,” “mocker,” “foul spirit,” “destroyer,” “adversary,” “the enemy.” And the privity of the principalities to the power of death incarnate is shown in mention of their agency to Beelzebub or Satan or the Devil or the Antichrist…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.
Using the language of the Old and New Testaments, Stringfellow calls the Powers, in a move familiar if you've been reading this series, "false gods," "demons" and "idols." That is, the Powers demand "sacrifice" from us, leading to a kind of "demonic possession":
People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by these claims and strivings of the various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty. In such a tumult it becomes very difficult for a human being even to identify the idols that would possess him or her…
Again, this analysis should be familiar as it is the view we've been working with throughout this series. But what Stringfellow adds to this discussion is his analysis of the moral force behind the powers. As we have discussed, the powers have a "spirituality." What is that spirituality? Although the powers are "legion" what is their common satanic core? Stringfellow, following the biblical writers, notes the close connection between Satan and Death. And it is Death, not Satan, that the last Enemy to be defeated. Satan, in this view, is the "angel of death," the spirituality of death. And, in this time of the Fall, Death and his "angel" rule. From Stringfellow:
Death, after all, is no abstract idea, nor merely a destination in time, nor just an occasional happening, nor only a reality for human beings, but, both biblically and empirically, death names a moral power claiming sovereignty over all people and all things in history. Apart from God, death is a living power greater--because death survives them all--than any other moral power in this world of whatever sort: human beings, nations, corporations, cultures, wealth, knowledge, fame or memory, language, the arts, race, religion.
Human institutions and ideologies are fallen--demonic--because they serve the angel of death. In Darwinian language they fight for their own survival. This means that death (survival) becomes their "god" or "angel," the morality and spirituality of the institution.
…history discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality—for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity—that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is—apart from God—the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers—the idol of all idols—is death.
As Stringfellow says, "Survival of the institution is the operative ethic of all institutions, in their fallenness." Consequently, when individuals serve these powers or allow the powers to shape their lives they come to serve Satan, the angel of death.
[The Power] is in conflict with the person until the person surrenders life in one fashion or another to the principality. The principality requires not only recognition and adulation as an idol from movie fans or voters or the public, but also demands that the person of the same name give up his or her life as a persons to the service and homage of the image. And when that surrender is made, the person in fact dies, though not yet physically. For at that point one is literally possessed by one's own image.
Let me try to illustrate this with a concrete example. I work at a "Christian" institution. I put "Christian" in scare quotes because, according to Stringfellow, my place of employment is a "principality and power." I wouldn't call ACU "demonic" but it is a fallen power that makes it struggle to be Christian. Why? Well, as Wink has taught us, human institutions have a spirituality, an "angel" associated with them. During the Fall, according to Stringfellow, this angel is, at root, the angel of death (the satanic). What this means is that, at the end of the day, the institution's ultimate goal will be to survive. Death is the deepest moral power. This means that, when push comes to shove, the institution will do what it has do to survive. It will fire people, protect its reputation, behave inconsistently (relative to the Christian ethic), etc. And let me be clear, I'm not being hard on ACU. All institutions are like this. And people are sacrificed every day to serve these powers. As Stringfellow says, even churches are demonic powers. In my denomination the people in the Churches of Christ have treated each other horribly to serve the (demonic) power known as "The Churches of Christ" (feel free to plug in your own religious tradition). Why? Because the "Churches of Christ" must survive, persist. The power, through those who serve it, defends itself. And it's a suprahuman thing. The power, not the people, is in control. The power existed before this generation and will survive it. It's like an ant colony. No one person rules. Individual ants come and go. Live and die. What controls it all is an emergent spirituality that governs the survival response and keeps the power alive from generation to generation, acquiring new slaves and servants as it moves through time.

Of course, some powers are more fallen than others, more angelic or demonic. ACU is, generally speaking, a good place, a place inspired by Christianity, more angel than demon. But I have no illusions. ACU existed before me and will exist after me. I'll spend my life serving this entity. And it can, like any idol, come to define my worth and significance. It can "own" or "possess" me. And I also know, that if the bottom line gets threatened, ACU will choose its life over mine. I serve ACU. ACU doesn't serve me. ACU is the power, not me. If faced with the choice, ACU will hand me a pink slip. Further, that fear of a pink slip, that anxiety, keeps me docile and slavish. Death reigns in all this.

But all this is simply to say that I shouldn't serve or worship ACU. ACU is a creature, a created thing, not God. The ancients worshiped Golden Calves. We worship human institutions, money, 401Ks, religious traditions and political parties.

So how can we escape the power of death? Christians call this escape resurrection, being set free from the power and spirituality of death. From Stringfellow:
Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfillment of life before death...

[Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.
On to Part 10

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8 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 9, Stringfellow on Death and the Powers”

  1. Wonderful post as usual, Dr. Beck. Stringfellow is a very perceptive, provocative theologian. I completely agree with his insights on the moral and spiritual significance of death. However, I would take issue with his overwhelming emphasis on the power of resurrection in THIS life only. Part of the reason Death is the enemy is that it threatens to completely do away with and dissolve the things we care about, including friendships, memories, beauty, joy, etc. Being able to live free of the fear of and subjection to death in this life is wonderful, but as the apostle Paul insisted "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied." Christ's work of redemption is not complete, indeed is trivialized, if the resurrection did not FULLY conquer the power of death. And that seems to me to involve some kind of resurrected life after this one, whatever its nature.

  2. Consider how much worse are governments! ACU can fire you, but the government can have you tortured, incarcerated, or killed without offering any justification or trial. Any secession of any fragment human sovereignty to one of these Powers represents a rejection of Christ as a refuge for prosperity and security.

  3. The other day, you spiritualized the material, whereas, today you separate the spiritual from the material altogther.

    Why do you find it necessary to spiritualize anything? Politics is where the real world lies and the political realm can be "demonic" (your term). But it is only demonic if a country does not play by the rules, which our Constitutional government protects...

  4. Angie, I wrestle with spirituality and politics. Jesus seemed to point beyond or tangential to human politics in his KOG. Yet all human community develops politics - e.g., churches, etc.. Richard's post is wrestling with the same ideas - as if everything to which we set our collective hands becomes corrupt in some way. I don't claim to understand this "corruption" but I sense it calls into question everything we hold dear, everything we value - that we might overcome our attachments (to wealth, objects, politic, commerce, even comfort) as we mature spiritually.

    Richard, thanks for this. Really insightful.

  5. I like Wink and Yoder and Hauerwas (Woderwas) on these issues, but to a degree. Cavenaugh, on the other hand seems to espouse all of the elements these fellows get wrong. I have not read Stringfellow, but in response to what you have shared:
    We need to discern among institutions which emerge spontaneously and those which exercise power-over mechanisms. In particular Woderwas identifies Capitalism as a demonic institution which I see as a voluntarist institution which does not serve the angel of death. Manifestations of Capitalism as it has been enslaved by various states do demonstrate the demonic, but the market itself does not bring death. Rather, it transforms self-interest into life for all those involved. It is the pinnacle of common grace.
    The profit motive is identified as evil, but this only works in a zero-sum game. Is increase in productivity within self-sustaining communities evil? Is it not God who brings the increase? Profit is evil when it is achieved by fraud or theft, but whatever is of the market does not practice fraud or theft, rather it provides the work-arounds despite the presence of privileged interests.
    There is a legitimate theory behind the existence of the firm, one which is voluntarist and does not require power-over mechanisms (see Alchian and Demsetz from UCLA Econ.)
    Corporations and nations die, but in regards to corporations this is part of creative destruction (see Schumpeter).
    The market is not an institution with a life such that it can die. The state and the corporation and even denominations are. The desire for and advantages of mutual gains through exchange is ubiquitous. The only thing which halts it is violence.
    Sometimes I think Woderwas means Oligopolistic Capitalism when they say Capitalism. That is, privileged interests within the market exercise power. This is true. The solution is not to subvert the corporations, which, if privileged, are mere symptoms, but rather to act subversively towards the power which grants the privilege, the state.
    Nathanael Snow
    Graduate student, economics
    george Mason University

  6. I agree with the theologian entirely that all institutions and ideologies are satanic and that they must be fought in the power and name of Christ; to surrender to them is to reject Christ. I also agree that "Christian" traditions and institutional "churches" are principalities of darkness. However, I believe that the true Church, the Body of Christ, that is, the global dispensation of God's Kingdom on earth, in the form of local, independent, evangelical fellowships with transparency, a plurality of elders, deacons and ministries, with leaders "called out" rather than appointed and leadership positions created only when there is need rather than being permanent offices- this is of God and is not an institution of man.

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