The Power of the Powerless: Part 1, The Glue Holding It Together

When we talk about spiritual warfare the classic text is Ephesians 6.12 (KJV):
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.
This text has tended to be interpreted in one of two ways. Conservative Christians often read the phrase "we wrestle not with flesh and blood" to mean that spiritual warfare involves doing battle with demons--malevolent disembodied spirits. By contrast, progressive Christians have tended to take the reference to "the principalities and powers" to mean that the focus of spiritual warfare is to resist oppressive political and economic systems.

As a progressive Christian I've tended to go with this latter understanding of spiritual warfare. Inspired by liberation theology I tend to equate spiritual warfare with social justice. But this sort of understanding begs the obvious question. If you equate spiritual warfare with political activism then why use the word spiritual?

In answering this question many have turned to the work of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow to describe how power structures are created by and maintained by an inner or underlying spirituality. The spiritual and the political are closely connected. Spiritual liberation must accompany political liberation. This is why political movements often fail by not taking into account the spiritual aspects of the struggle. Repentance is as important as revolution.

A really insightful way to think about the relationship between the spiritual and the political is the analysis of Václav Havel in his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless”. Though written in response to the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s analysis is timeless, so I'd like to devote a few posts walking through the essay.

To start, Havel begins by describing the relationship between reigning power structures and ideology, the reigning cultural worldview. According to Havel, ideology is the spiritual glue that justifies and animates current power structures. Ideology is the “secularized religion” that justifies current power arrangements, making them seem moral, transcendent, and beyond dispute. Havel notes:
The whole power structure…could not exist at all if there were not a certain ‘metaphysical’ order binding its components together…This metaphysical order guarantees the inner coherence of [the power structure]. It is the glue holding it together, its binding principle, the instrument of its discipline.
In short, power becomes equated with truth:
…the centre of power is identical with the centre of truth…the highest secular authority is identical with the highest spiritual authority.
This is why all social resistance and dissent is inherently spiritual and religious in nature. What is being challenged and fought against is the spirituality of the power structures. Again, Havel's analysis here converges on the theological work of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow.

The spiritual, metaphysical, and religious aspect of power arrangements—all power arrangements, from the smallest organizations to the largest nation states—explains the impersonal inertia of power structures, why our battle is against an anonymous spirituality rather than the "flesh and blood" people embedded within the power structures.

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