Unpublished: Beholden to the Principalities and Powers

In my most recent book The Slavery of Death I provide a psychological and theological analysis of how we become beholden to and practice idolatry in relation to the principalities and powers of the world, the various nations, organizations and institutions we are a part of.

Specifically, institutions help us in two different ways. Institutions (1) aid us in survival and (2) they help us achieve a sense of significance and purpose.

For example, your workplace provides you with (1) a paycheck and (2) a way to achieve self-esteem by becoming "successful."

Driven by these fears--survival and self-esteem--we become beholden to these institutions and organizations. We come to idolatrously serve the principalities and powers because they address and reduce our deepest anxieties about material survival and our quest for success, significance and self-esteem. Thus service to the principalities and powers makes us feel that we can escape death.

And yet, as William Stringfellow notes, the principalities and powers are also enslaved by the power of death. We can't escape the power of death in idolatrously serving institutions as institutions are also driven by death anxiety. At root the motive force behind all nations, organizations and institutions is survival. The principality and power will do what it has to do to survive. Which means that nations, organizations and institutions are driven by death anxiety as much as any person.

So what happens when we are a part of an institution or organization is that our personal fears of death become entangled with institutional and organizational fears of death. In fact, as I describe it in The Slavery of Death, our personal fears of death--worries over material well-being and self-esteem--are exploited by institutions and organizations to secure and ensure their own survival.

What happens when your material well-being and self-esteem get tangled up with the survival of an institution?

What happens is that you are tempted, in quite powerful and profound ways, to sacrifice your personal moral integrity to protect and save the institution.

And for good reason, as both material livelihood and a legacy of success are at stake.

The associated and very legitimate fears here sit at the heart of idolatry.

--from an unpublished post trying to explain why Christians in institutions--even in Christian institutions--become morally paralyzed by their service to the institution

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27 thoughts on “Unpublished: Beholden to the Principalities and Powers”

  1. Reading this, what springs to mind is the distressing and most prominent example in my own life: the church. More specifically, a British mainline denomination that has been shrinking since the late sixties. Fear abounds, especially amongst clergy. Not so much over institutional collapse - most are in denial over that - as over any kind renewal over which they have no control. It's a strange situation where a church is modelling this death anxiety when you would hope we would be a place where grace would set free. But, perhaps my eschatology is looking a little too realized.

  2. A heads-up: Christians, Stringfellow insists (e.g., in your citation from An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land on p. 45 of The Slavery of Death), should be aware that the church itself may be a principality; that is, that it can act as a demonic power. And commentators like Jacques Ellul and Marva Dawn point us to a particular contemporary sign of the church's fallenness -- viz., its aping of our cultural obsession with organisational performance, efficiency, and results. The antidote? Critical vigilance, suspicion of managerial power, and cruciform witness.

  3. Having just posted my comment, I saw yours. Nice double act, I think -- and both from the UK!

  4. Btw, completely off thread but apropos of yesterday's discussion, I propose an aphorism of Mark Twain as its epigraph, viz his cunning send-up of Titus 1:15:

    "To the pure, all things are impure."

  5. This is what i felt in my spirit within my role serving the church as a worship singer. I felt morally paralysed! Now when someone asks me why i stopped singing after doing it 7 years, I will have some better words to describe it. And hopefully they will have a solid ten minutes free to listen lol.

  6. And they say Americans don't have have a sense of irony.

    (A majority of UK posts - is this a first??)

  7. As one who works in the business area of healthcare, yet believes that capitalism's right to exist reaches only as far as its endeavor to help those who cannot help themselves, please let me describe the tension that those who work in a local long term medical facility belonging to a large corporation must endure.

    Whether they are of Finance, Nursing, Rehab, Social Services, Dietary, Maintenance, or House Keeping, they feel the weight when the company places them within a budget to be strictly adhered to in order to keep their jobs. Yet, these very people are the ones who know how important the government programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are for families who are not able to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for long term health care for their loved ones. Yes, they work and hope to be a success. But they hold a compassion for these families, even when some, a few, accuse them of seeing only the business side; and most of them vote accordingly.

    The daily tension they feel being pulled between families and the company sometimes feels unbearable. Most will confess that often when walking out of a budget meeting, or when having to speak with a family regarding their financial responsibility, they feel that they have grown a set of horns, a forked tail and a pitch fork. Yet, many of these same people grow beautiful wings when working directly with the patients and their families. Whether it is assisting the family obtain Medicaid, helping the patient eat a meal, or teaching them how to use a wash cloth once again, they are aware of the negativity in which some families view them; yet, each day when they walk through the door they do so, striving to the best of their ability, to keep their work as "human to human".

  8. “the church itself may be a principality; that is, that it can act as a demonic power.”

    Excellent point! I would suggest that potentially “Dunbar’s number” has something anthropologically to do with this as well, in that any group that tips over 150 mark; the internal power dynamics start to shift dramatically
    – both vertically and horizontally. A greater percentage of their time is then dedicated to social grooming and keeping the status quo, which in turn can circumvent productive and cooperative efforts.

  9. I am inclined to think that not only MAY it be a principality, but that it is particularly prone to do so (religion institutions in general rather than any specific church). Most institutions exist for some end; my job provides a service to our clients, universities provide education, nations provide safety and security to their citizenry. They may try to compel me to sacrifice something of myself to them, but they are at least bound by their ends. I am hard pressed to name the 'ends' of many religious institutions. It seems to me too many exist solely to exist. (I think this somehow ties back to Becker's immortality project but I am loathe to say how exactly) I am reminded of the story of Easter Island in Jared Diamond's book collapse. He claims that the islanders deforested the island and consequently destroyed their civilization making those giant statues in some sort of religious arms race. (I have no idea if this is factual)

  10. And they say Americans don't have have a sense of irony. @-;¦)

    Yeah, that non-observation has always struck me as like "you gotta be kidding me"!

  11. that it is particularly prone to do so

    Yep. Hence the prophets: "Thus says the Lord!"

  12. "What happens is that you are tempted, in quite powerful and profound ways, to sacrifice your personal moral integrity to protect and save the institution."

    Our former mission organization is a sad example of this. The abuse of missionary children at overseas boarding school was covered up for decades in order to save the institution. Even now it is difficult for the mission leaders to prioritize making things right with the victims because of the perceived need to save the institution.

  13. I've tried to frame a reply which makes reference to a couple of yesterday's comments, but find myself - even more ironically - displaying my own ugly version of moral superiority, so will limit myself instead to the words that formed in my mind after reading Richard's original post: Lord have mercy on me. Christ have mercy on me.

  14. The motto I hold to as I move from company to company: "A job can't love you back." No matter what you give of yourself (time, energy, potential moral compromise) to succeed at the company and improve their bottom line, it cannot return the favor. At the end of the day, you're a number on a page. Framing it that way helps to provide some perspective.

  15. I always tell myself, "Just do good work."

    I also think about Ecclesiastes and what it says about work. On the one had work can be a form of "chasing the wind." But on the other hand the work of the day is a gift from God that we should take satisfaction in. I think that's the spiritual battle, chasing the wind of "success" vs. enjoying the simple gift of work as work.

  16. This makes me think back to our experience with the counseling department of our former mission agency (about 10 years ago). I had a porn problem so had to do required counseling. My wife had done nothing wrong but was treated as if she had. It eventually dawned on us that the department's main goal was to server the organization, not us as individuals. (i.e. determine if we were fit to continue as members) My wife has written a great memoir if anyone's interested. (this counseling situation is only a small part of our story) http://www.amazon.com/As-Soon-Fell-Memoir/dp/1500573973

  17. The analysis might not apply in a situation like that. If someone had the luxury of working for free then, of course, they wouldn't feel as anxious about losing their job if a moral conflict arose. Which isn't a bad thing, it's a great thing. Just rare.

  18. Most people walk a tightrope between personal integrity and personal gain - often financial. In our work life we're often asked to edge near, or step over the line on behalf of our employer (principality and power). Often faced with a tough decision we end up compromising our moral compass in lieu of compensation. Ask any sales/marketing person involved in commerce. The same is often true in religious institutions and their leaders, and certainly religious bloggers. Having been in both camps, corporate and local religious leader (not a blogger), I find there is little difference, regrettably. The very difficult circumstance is when one is in the public eye and others weigh in on our public decision making (yesterdays post). Is our moral conviction strong enough to withstand personal fame (ego) and financial gain? When the public weighs in things can get dicey very quickly. Ultimate it's a personal decision and one must to be able withstand the scrutiny or find a new line of work.

  19. Way back when I started working my dad told me that work is about trading your time for money and to always remember that every payday you are even. It has always helped me keep the right perspective and push back when an employer tries to take the position that they are doing me a favor. It now helps me keep the right perspective when dealing with my employees when I am tempted to slip into the same thing....

  20. In that case survival would be removed from the equation but self-esteem, significance and purpose remain as mighty foes!

  21. Regarding work, I've encountered people that say that "good" work that is not done in Christ's name is useless. Not sure if this was the fault of students misunderstanding what their religion teacher was trying to get at or if it is a prevailing attitude that it is folly to do any type of good work if someone is not a Christian... (fyi, coming from an ELCA person teacher in an LC-MS High School)

  22. I think where abusive personalities rule progress cash some times only be made one funeral at a time.

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