My paper was entitled "On Anarchism and Assholes: Social Psychological Reflections on Anarchism and The Principalities and Powers." Though that title, as explained in the paper, wasn't the title printed in the program.
For CSC attendees who wanted a copy of the paper and for those of you who were not in attendance, the paper is given here in full:
It Should Not Be So Among You: Social Psychological Reflections on Anarchism and The Principalities and Powers
Abilene Christan University
Paper Presented at the 2013 Christian Scholars' Conference
To start, this paper was originally entitled “On Anarchism and Assholes.” The powers-that-be here at the Christian Scholars' Conference found that title to be a bit too provocative. They requested a change, and we accommodated them. My feeling is that this is as it should be. A session on anarchism has to have some confrontation with the principalities and powers.
The “assholes” from the original title was a reference to the best-selling and award-winning business book—The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't—written by Dr. Bob Sutton from Stanford. Given that the theme of the CSC this year is business and ethics I thought I’d try to involve The No Asshole Rule into the theological and psychological observations I’d like to make about anarchism and how we are to resist what the New Testament calls “the principalities and powers.”
The No Asshole Rule
It may seem strange to talk about a business book in a discussion about anarchism. But Dr. Sutton’s book is, at root, a meditation about power relations and, thus, it picks out and illustrates dynamics that have long been of concern to anarchists, particularly Christian anarchists. More on that in a minute. First, an overview of The No Asshole Rule.
In 2004 Sutton proposed and wrote up what he called the “No Asshole Rule” as a "Breakthrough Idea" in the annual edition on that topic for The Harvard Business Review. Basically, the "No Asshole Rule" states that a company would do well to attend to and address the behavior of mean, nasty, selfish, egomanical, and rude persons in the workplace. After publishing his idea in the Review Sutton was overwhelmed with feedback from people around the globe telling him stories of the toll assholes exact in the workplace. He also received confirmation that companies who had implemented a version of the "No Asshole Rule" had experienced not only a boost in their corporate culture but to their bottom line as well. All this inspired Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.
My interest in The No Asshole Rule for our purposes has to do with how much of the No Asshole Rule involves issues of hierarchy and power relations, specifically how toxic power relations are in daily human interactions.
For example, how do you identify an asshole in your life? Sutton proposes two tests (p. 9):
Test One:Test Two goes to the issues I’d like to discuss today. Sutton also sees Test Two as the most critical to his analysis. Later in the book he says this (p. 25): "the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know."
After talking to the alleged asshole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?
That’s a sentiment from a best-selling management book, and what interests me is how it could have come right out of the gospels.
According to Sutton, assholes are created because humans are easily corrupted by hierarchy, by asymmetries in power. Even the smallest power differentials can begin transforming us into assholes. Sutton cites research by Deborah Gruenfeld who has extensively studied the ruinous toll of hierarchy on human character. In one study describe by Sutton, Gruenfeld observed groups of three undergraduates asked to discuss a controversial topic. One of the three students was randomly appointed to evaluate the recommendations of the other two (placing them in a slightly higher power role). Later in the experiment the students were brought a plate of five cookies (intentionally an odd number!). Interestingly, the "high status" students were more likely to take a second cookie, chew with their mouths open, and get crumbs on their faces and the table. As Sutton reflects (p. 72): "This silly study scares me because it shows how having just a slight power edge causes regular people to grab the cookies for themselves and act like rude pigs. Just think about the effects in thousands of interactions every year..."
Basically, as Sutton summarizes later, "Power breeds nastiness." And here we begin to see the connection with the anarchist concern regarding the pernicious effects of power in human affairs.
Sutton’s conclusion—that “power breeds nastiness”—is well-known to psychologists. In thinking about how power relations can distort human relations our minds quickly go to two of the most famous studies in social psychology, the Stanford Prison Study and the Milgram Obedience Study. Conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Study was famously called off because the guards of the simulated prison, previously well-adjusted young college students, became abusive and sadistic when given power over the prisoners. And if the Stanford Prison Study illustrates the effects of power upon the minds of those wielding it, the Milgram Obedience Study illustrates the toxic effects of power upon those in subordinate positions, those lower down the power hierarchy. As many are aware, the Milgram Obedience Study revealed that the majority of people taken from the general population would give potentially lethal shocks to another human being, even over his cries of pain, if asked to do so by an authority figure.
In sum, power differentials corrupt both those with the power and those without it. This entire dynamic Philip Zimbardo has dubbed “the Lucifer effect.”
The Principalities and Powers
And having just mentioned the Devil, let us shift away from assholes to talk a bit about spiritual warfare and the theology behind what the New Testament authors call “the principalities and powers.”
We all know the famous text from Ephesians 6. From the King James Version:
Ephesians 6.11-12I want to take up an examination of the principalities and powers as it will help us find theological connections between the concerns of Christian anarchists and the power dynamics we have been discussing.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
The root of the word anarchy is the Greek word arche, along with the prefix an- meaning “not.” Arche is often translated in the New Testament as “power,” “rule,” or “authority.” Etymologically, then, anarchy means “against power, rule, or authority.”
Importantly for our purposes, arche is the word we encounter in Ephesians 6, the second part of the pair “principalities and powers” (archai kai exousiai) which occurs ten times in the New Testament (Lk. 12.11, 20.20; 1 Cor. 15.24; Col. 1.16, 2.10, 2.15; Eph. 1.21, 3.10, 6.12; Titus 3.1). And given that Christians are encouraged in Ephesians 6 to wage a battle “against” the archai—against the powers—spiritual warfare can be described as anarchist, as a battle not against flesh and blood but against the arche, against the principalities and powers.
This connection between Christianity and anarchism may seem odd, particularly given the historical antipathy between anarchists and institutionalized religion. Institutionalized religion, particularly when it has been wedded to the power of the State, has always been a location of anarchist protest and resistance. Thus many secular anarchists would consider the term “Christian anarchism” to be an oxymoron. So a few words about Christian anarchism by way of addressing an anarchist vision of spiritual warfare.
Historically, anarchism has focused on resisting the power of the State and positing a vision of human society where State control has been abolished. This is a radical libertarian vision. And this radical vision of individual liberty does sit in tension with the Christian call for submission to God and for mutual submission among the members of the Kingdom of God.
And yet, Christian anarchists, then and now, have often resisted the State precisely because of their Christian commitments. A possible mantra for Christian anarchism is captured in the words of Peter and the apostles in Acts 5.29: “We must obey God rather than man.” The early confession of the church that Jesus is “Lord of all” places the Christian in a critical and prophetic relationship with the State. Beginning with this refusal to give the State ultimate allegiance, Christian anarchists argue that the call of Christian community is to create and enjoy, outside the State’s sphere of influence, alternative economies and modes of mutuality like those witnessed in the New Testament church (cf. Acts 4.32-37).
And beyond these alternative economies and communities, Christian anarchists also actively resist the abuses of State power. Christian anarchists tend to be political activists, often engaging in civil disobedience. And an important location of resistance is against the war-making power of the State. Most, if not all, Christian anarchists are pacifists.
For practical exemplars of Christian anarchism I’d recommend a close study of the Catholic Worker movement.
In all of this, we see convergences between classical anarchism and Christian anarchism. Each is focused on resisting the State in various ways, particularly its war-making powers, and each seeks the realization of an alternative community, a community that is not mediated by power-relations, a community governed by “no rule.” To be sure, there are libertarian strains of anarchism where the community is oriented around a radical independence, around liberty, autonomy and freedom. Christian anarchist communities will find greater affiliation with the strains of anarchism that emphasize mutuality and cooperation, a radical interdependence of love, mutual aid, and care. What Christians would name as the koinonia of the Kingdom.
And all this unpacks a bit how a Christian anarchist might approach the admonition of Ephesians 6 to resist the principalities and powers. In this anarchist vision of spiritual warfare—a battle against wickedness in high places—our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the power structures, against the arche, that corrupt human relationality. And a key part of this spiritual warfare is the creation of alternative and counter-cultural communities, economies, and modes of living that eschew power and resist the corrupting and oppressive uses of power.
Resisting the Principalities and Powers
What I just described is what we typically think of when we think of anarchism, even in its Christian manifestations. Specifically, anarchist resistance to “wickedness in high places” will be externally and politically focused, how the church and the Christian relates to the State in its cultural, political, and economic manifestations. This is, no doubt, a foundational aspect of Christian anarchism: resistance to the power of the State when that power is oppressive, exploitative, unjust and violent. And in our world, much of this power is manifested in economic oppression and injustice.
But as a psychologist I’d like to focus not on these external and political acts of anarchist resistance but upon the internal struggle, on the spiritual and psychological dynamics of how we live, embedded as we are, within power structures. I’d like to meditate a bit about Bob Sutton’s conclusion that “power breeds nastiness.” So for the rest of this paper I’d like to return to this notion that spiritual warfare is about not being an asshole. Or, more specifically, how spiritual warfare is about resisting the corrupting influences of power that turn us into assholes.
In focusing on the inner dynamics of this spiritual struggle I’m taking a cue from the seminal work of the late Walter Wink. Most of you will not need a summary of Wink’s analysis of the principalities and powers, but for those of you who do a quick summary.
Wink’s observation is that the ancients and the biblical authors did not discriminate between spiritual and political powers, that for them the two were intimately intertwined. Thus, in many of the NT texts where the principalities and powers are enumerated political officials—rulers, judges, magistrates—are mentioned right alongside spiritual—angelic and demonic—powers. Wink’s observation is that for the ancients every political power had a corresponding spiritual power and that every spiritual power had a corresponding political power.
In this view, spiritual warfare is simultaneously a political and spiritual struggle, with a political battle on earth also being fought as a battle in heaven. And while this view may seem strange, it makes more sense if you contemplate how the ancients saw their Pharaohs, kings and Caesars as divine beings, gods or sons of god. And at the very least rulers were divinely appointed or favored. And even now, in modern America, we read the words “In God We Trust” printed on our coinage. Money is a spiritual power, even for moderns. And if the bible is to be believed, it’s a demonic power.
Following theologians like Bultmann, Wink argues that the dualism of the ancients, where spiritual powers are believed to exist above or over physical powers below on earth, is difficult to maintain for many modern believers. Wink’s suggestion is that we retain the dualisim—the tight association between political and spiritual powers—by trading in the Up/Down spatial metaphor of the ancients for an Inside/Outside metaphor. That is, power structures have an inner spirituality that animate and vivify the external, organizational, and institutionalized expressions of power. Here is Wink describing this:
What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power...the "principalities and powers" are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the "demons" are the psychic or spiritual powers emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that "gods" are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain...and that "Satan" is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values. (Naming the Powers, pp. 104-105)No doubt there are many Christians who would argue that the principalities and powers involve more than this, but I’d like to use Wink’s analysis as his focus on the “inner aspect” of power relations is particularly amenable to psychological analysis. If fact, I would argue that Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, the Stanford Prison Study and the Milgram Obedience Study are very much about the demonic spirituality that is created by power relations, a spirituality with obvious psychological and moral force. And this seems to me to be a remarkable convergence between modern social science and the biblical witness.
So let’s push further in this direction.
The corrupting influence of power relations isn’t reduced to how power is exerted externally with, for example, one group or person bossing or ordering around another group or person. Though, to be clear, this is a large part of what has to be addressed in resisting the principalities and powers. But my interests as a psychologist are drawn to how the inner spirituality, the animating ethos, of a power structure—that of a nation, economy, culture, organization or institution—becomes internalized by individuals. How the spirituality of the principalities and powers becomes the spirituality of the individual. When this happens, when the animating ethos of a power becomes my animating ethos, the spirit of the principality and power takes up resistance in my heart and mind. I become possessed, owned and enslaved by this spirit. And while Philip Zimbardo likely didn’t have demonic possession in mind when he described “the Lucifer effect,” his reference to the diabolical seems particularly apt and biblical.
Exorcism in this account thus involves being able to name and recognize the spirituality of the power at work around us—in the nation, in the organization, in the economy, and even in the local church—and how that spirituality has taken up resistance in our own lives, exerting a negative moral force upon us. This act of naming and recognition is a process of “discerning the spirits.” And once the spirituality of the power is named, in the world and in our own hearts, we create the capacity to externalize this spirituality, to “cast it out” and “exorcise” its demonic influence. Here is Wink describing this dynamic of naming and externalizing demonic influences:
Discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge, but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is. Nothing is more rare, or more revolutionary, than an accurate description of reality. The struggle for a precise "naming" of the Powers that assail us is itself an essential part of social struggle.What all this points to, and is the big point that would like to make for you today, is how the anarchist resistance to the principalities and powers is not limited to resistance to the State and other external powers. An anarchist resistance to the powers is also, and perhaps even primarily so, an internal, psychological struggle. An anarchist resistance to the powers must involve recognizing, naming and expunging the spirituality of the powers from our hearts and minds. This resistance is the work of the exorcist, the liberation of ourselves and others from the Lucifer effect. This is deliverance from the alluring spirituality of power, a spirituality that turns us into assholes. And much worse.
The seer does not, however, simply read off the spirituality of the empire or an institution from its observed behavior. The situation is more complex. The demonic spirit of the outer structure has already been internalized by the seer, along with everyone else. That is how the empire wins compliance. The seer's gift is not to be immune to invasion by the empire's spirituality, but to be able to discern that internalized spirituality, name it, and externalize it. This drives the demonic out of concealment. What is hidden is now revealed. The seer is enabled to hear her own voice chanting the slogans of the Powers, is shown that they are a lie, and is empowered to expel them. The seer locates the source of the chanting outside, and is set free from them. (Engaging the Powers, p. 89)
How, then, are we to be set free from this spirituality that demonically possesses us?
I can’t begin an exhaustive analysis here, but perhaps we can conclude by taking a cue from Jesus:
Matthew 20.25-28 (NLT)“But among you it will be different.” How so?
But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, there is no “lording over,” no use of power, or rule, or authority. And this, I would argue, as far as human relations in the Kingdom of God are concerned, is an anarchist vision. In the words of Mark Van Steenwyk (The Holy Anarchist, p. 14), the Kingdom of God is an unKingdom. Similarly, John Caputo calls the Kingdom of God “a sacred anarchy.” And why is this? Because relations within the Kingdom of God are not mediated by power but by “no rule,” by weakness. Here is Caputo describing the sacred anarchy of the Kingdom of God (The Weakness of God, p. 14, 46):
The kingdom of God is a domain in which weakness “reigns,” where speaking of a “kingdom” is always an irony that mocks sheer strength…The kingdom of God obtains whenever powerlessness exerts its force, whenever the high and mighty are displaced by the least among us.And within this unKingdom where weakness “reigns” Jesus is the unKing. Jesus is “Lord” in being the weak and powerless one among us. As Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 22.27:
God chose the “outsiders,” the people deprived of power, wealth, education, high birth, high culture. Theirs is a “royalty” of outcasts, so that, from the point of view of the aion, the age or the world, the word kingdom is being used ironically, almost mockingly, to refer to these pockets of the despised that infect and infest the world. For this is a kingdom of the low-down and lowborn, the “excluded,” the very people who are precisely the victims of the world’s power.
I am among you as the one who serves.Jesus is among us as the one who serves. That is how Jesus “rules” and “reigns” within his ironic unKingdom, within this sacred anarchy, within these “pockets of the despised.”
So among us it should be different. Power, rule, and authority among us will be weakness and powerlessness. There shall be anarchy in our midst. No power, hierarchy or rule. Our leaders will not “lord over” as the pagans do, but will be the one among us who serves.
For in the Kingdom of God there will be no assholes.