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Theology

Naming the Powers

Walter Wink

p. 126-130

Is it our responsibility to help her [the oppressed person]? Isnít it Godís task to deliver the captives? Christians all over the globe have raised that very objection, convinced that on biblical and dogmatic grounds the church is forbidden to become engaged in struggles against systemic injustice. The issue must be met head-on, because those who argue this way have at least one leg on very firm ground. Just a sample of passages shows that their concern is not simply for proof-texting but for a proper regard for the sovereignty of God. Stand still and see this great thing, which the Lord will do before your eyes (1 Sam. 12:16). A great king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save (Ps. 13:16). Power belongs to God (Ps. 62:11...) In the face of such texts, quietism and docile trust would seem to be the order of the day.

Yet nowhere in the Bible do we see anyone standing still. All the human agents of Godís will are working, not only hard but with almost superhuman effort. Mosesí care for his people exhausts him to distraction, and Jesusí movements through Galilee resemble a blitzkrieg. Why then the curious passivity that the Bible seems to enjoin in the struggle against the Powers? Perhaps our distinction between outer and inner might cast a feeble light on this baffling paradox of human action and heavenly grace. We are told, on the one hand, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), because it is our responsibility to change the outer arrangements by which power is structured in the world. We can reform or revamp the organization, elect better leaders, win equal rights for or as the disadvantaged, or even engage in revolution. But we cannot affect the inner, spiritual dimension of institutions directly. Blacks could not simply settle for winning the right to sit at the front of the bus; they needed to lay siege to the very citadel of racism itself, the hearts of members of the white majority. But how were they to storm hearts? For we have no unmediated access to the Ďwithiní of a system, or institution, or even another person, for their Ďwithinsí are a function not of our acts alone but of all the history and traditions, beliefs and experiences that make up their reality at any given moment. That is where faith and prayer come in (emphasis mine). We intercede before the Sovereign of the Powers to rectify this institutionís or personís balance, to align its spirituality with the good of the whole, to convert it and transform it. That is something we cannot bring about no matter how much outer change we achieve, but it is precisely the outer changes we make that challenge, lure, and goad the oppressor toward inner change. Hence the Philippians passage continues for God is at work within you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2:13)....

The issue, then, is not social struggle versus inner change, but their orchestration together so that both occur simultaneously. The transformation of society and persons can begin at either end. The early church began from the pole of steadfastness in prayer and the refusal of idolatry, manifesting that hupomone which the Book of Revelation regards as the highest Christian virtue. It is usually somewhat limply rendered patient endurance but it is in fact closer to absolute intransigence, unbending determination, an iron will, the capacity to endure persecution, torture, and death without yielding oneís faith. It is one of the fundamental attributes of nonviolent resistance.

But that same transformation can begin at the pole of social struggle and work an inner change along the way. Many people entered the civil rights movement because they were concerned with justice for blacks, and in the course of involvement in nonviolent direct action discovered an even greater change taking place in themselves. When F. D. Dawson III and I drove from Texas to Selma, Alabama, to join the thousands of clergy who had converged to support the black struggle for voting rights there, we were accosted at the edge of town by a man in a pickup who chased us all over town honking his horn and shouting obscenities and threats. His truck was equipped with a gun rack; we were afraid he might be armed. We were terrified. When we finally got away from him, we were as pale as ghosts. We were not ready to die. After two hours of training in nonviolent action the next day, we joined the marchers moving down main street, fully prepared to die. Perhaps our presence among so many aided their struggle in a minuscule way, but their struggle aided us enormously. We had gone to champion social justice; in the process we were forced to deal with the very personal question of the cost of discipleship. There is no more effective way of undergoing the spiritual discipline of dying to oneís ego than to position oneself directly in the path of the possibility of actual death-say, on the tracks of a train loaded with nuclear warheads or before the prow of a Trident sub. Social involvement of that kind can do wonders for the soul-if the leadership understands the essential unity of body and spirit and addresses them both.

This unity must be kept paramount in addressing the Powers. It is easy enough to set oneself against the visible evil of a Power. But we never have control over that inner dimension of reality which we are calling the spiritual dimension of power. The outer signs, symbols, personnel, buildings, and structures of a Power can be manipulated, opposed, altered, but we never know if our intervention will in fact affect the essential spirit of the entity and bring genuine change. The students who struck Columbia University in 1968 succeeded in winning significant aspects of their program, but the universityís "angel" was not itself changed in any substantial way, and the moment student pressures erased, reaction set in.

Change is possible, but only if the spirit as well as the forms of Power are touched. And that spirit can only be spiritually discerned and spiritually encountered. This is what made Martin Luther King, Jr., a figure of world-historic proportions. With only the powerless at his side, he formulated actions that would provoke and make visible the institutional violence of racism. By absorbing that violence in their own bodies, they exposed the legalized system as immoral, stripped it of legitimacy, and forced unprecedented numbers of people to choose between their racism and their Christianity. He resolutely refused to treat racism as a political issue only; he insisted that it be seen also as a moral and spiritual sickness. He did not attack the soul of America, but appealed to its most profound depths. His confrontational tactics were attempts to address that soul. He called a nation to repent, and significant numbers did. In the process the spirit of the nation itself began to change. His assassination, and the abandonment of the moral basis of the struggle for one of black power versus white power, allowed the worst elements of the ugly racist spirit to reassert themselves, this time with blacks no longer the vanguard of reconciliation and conversion, but openly espousing a counterracism of their own. Those who continued to insist on loving the enemy and working interracially were buried under the flood of poisons now unleashed from both sides. Blacks and whites not only ceased to work together, but even stopped speaking. The adoption of the methods of the oppressor had finally turned all parties into oppressors, and it was now only a matter of finding someone weak enough to oppress....Once the moral grounds of struggle had been yielded, it was merely a matter of which side had more power. In a contest of that sort, it did not require a Solomon to predict which side would win. The revival and new respectability of the Ku Klux Klan, the collapse of the political coalition of blacks and whites, the abandonment or abatement of efforts for equal rights in employment and housing-all that was predictable the moment the spiritual basis of the struggle shifted from love to resentment, from nonviolence to the rhetoric of violence, from moral force to the force of anger. Impatient with the pace of a struggle that sought not only legal equality but the conversion of the very heart of the nation from racism, black power attempted the quick fix of structural change by a formal assault on white power. Its epitaph can be formulated as an axiom: the direct use of power against a Power will inevitably be to the advantage of The Powers That Be.

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