We've arrived at Ground Zero of William Stringfellow studies: Chapter 3 of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.
This is the chapter (entitled "The Moral Reality Named Death") where Stringfellow gives what is generally considered to be his fullest and most definitive treatment regarding the nature of "the principalities and powers."
I guess if you were going to read only one chapter of William Stringfellow Chapter 3 of An Ethic might be your best bet.
Before getting to his description of the principalities and powers in Chapter 3 Stringfellow starts by articulating a theology of the Fall. This is important for Stringfellow because our conceptions of the Fall shape our vision of Christian ethics. According to Stringfellow, the Fall isn't just about human sinfulness, people doing bad things. For Stringfellow, the Fall points to the moral disorder of Creation and the resultant antagonism within Creation because of that disorder:
The biblical description of the Fall concerns the alienation of the whole of Creation from God, and, thus, the rupture and profound disorientation of all relationships within the whole of Creation. Human beings are fallen, indeed! But all other creatures suffer fallenness, too. And the other creatures include, as it were, not only cows, but corporations; the other creatures are, among others, the nations, the institutions, the principalities and powers. The biblical doctrine of the Fall means the brokenness of relationships among human beings and the other creatures, and the rest of Creation, and the spoiled and confused identity of each human being, within herself or himself.The Fall, then, is less about sin than about the moral antagonism we experience in relating to the world, with much of this antagonism coming from "the principalities and powers." Christian ethics, according to Stringfellow, is less about Christian piety than it is about learning to become a human being in the face of the moral antagonism we experience from the principalities and powers, an antagonism that blunts, numbs, confuses, distracts, intimidates and demoralizes the conscience.
From there Stringfellow goes on in the chapter to describe the "Traits of the Principalities." He asks: "Who and what are the principalities and powers? How are the principalities related to the moral reality of death?"
Stringfellow starts by describing the powers as "legion" in appearance and manifestation:
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…Having described the principalities and powers Stringfellow goes on to comment on two common mistakes we make in relation to them. First, we deny that these institutions and ideologies can have, if we can put it this way, a "will of their own." The powers are not inert. They have goals and, thus, intentions in the world, a "personality" if you will. Stringfellow:
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.
A recurrent stumbling block to comprehending the principalities exists...[because] [h]uman beings are reluctant to acknowledge institutions--or any of the other principalities--as creatures having their own existence, personality, and mode of life.This leads to the second mistake. In believing that the principalities and powers are passive and inert we trick ourselves into thinking that we can master, control and remake these institutions. We think we are "in change" of the powers when, in fact, quite the opposite is the case: the powers control us:
The typical version of human reluctance to accord the principalities their due integrity as creatures is the illusion of human beings that they make or create and, hence, control institutions and the institutions are no more than groups of human beings duly organized...Human beings do not control the institutions and ideologies of which they are a part. The institutions and ideologies control and dominate human beings. How so? The principality and power usurps the role of God, inserting and making itself the goal of human existence and the foundation of human worth and significance. Basically, the principalities and powers become idols and we, in serving the powers, engage in idolatry. We come to worship the creature rather than the Creator:
[H]uman beings do not control institutions or any other principalities.
The principality, insinuating itself in the place of God, deceives humans into thinking and acting as if the moral worth and justification of human being is defined and determined by commitment or surrender--literally, sacrifice--of human life to the survival interest, grandeur, and vanity of the principality.And as slaves and servants of the powers we become pushed and pulled by their competing demands:
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…Stringfellow goes on to describe this idolatry as a form of "demonic possession" that dehumanizes human persons:
There are those who actually define their humanity as nonhuman or subhuman loyalty and diligence to the interests and appetites of the principalities. There are many who are dumb and complacent in their captivity by institutions, traditions, and similar powers. There are persons who have become automatons. There are humans who know of no other alternative to an existence in vassalage to the principalities. There are people who are programed and propagandized, conditioned and conformed, intimidated and manipulated, fabricated and consigned to role-playing. These are human beings who are demonically possessed.Stringfellow, in striking turn of phrase, calls this captivity to the powers "dehumanized obeisance to the demonic."
But what are the powers wanting? What do they need us for? Survival, according to Stringfellow. The animating goal of the powers is to survive:
Corporations and nations and other demonic powers restrict, control, and consume human life or order to sustain and extend and prosper their own survival.And yet, as creatures the principalities and powers are subject to death. Thus, all the idolatrous service rendered to the principalities and powers ultimately becomes, in the long run, service rendered to death. Fighting for survival the ethos of every principality and power is the ethos of death. Death is the "angel"--the morality and spirituality--of every institution and ideology:
The principalities have great resilience; the death game which they play continues, adapting its means of dominating human beings to the sole morality which governs all demonic powers so long as they exist--survival.
[H]istory 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.This is the moral condition of the Fall: human beings idolatrously serving the principalities and powers in the search of meaning and significance only to find that the moral reality behind the powers is death.
Thus, in the final words of Chapter 3, the Fall becomes the place where "human life is sacrificed for the demonic."
Link to Chapter 4