This week, the West looked on in horror as the Taliban advanced into Kabul with shocking speed; in just a few days, it seemed, two decades of nation-building was being undone. It was a sad reminder that the world is a violent place, filled with injustice and tyrannies of all kinds. And it seems that as soon as one violent regime is put down, another pops up in its stead. As soon as one law promoting justice is passed, another is needed. Indeed, fighting violence and injustice in the world often feels like a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole. This is true today as much as it was in the ancient Mediterranean world in which Christianity emerged. Today’s Epistle reading offers us some helpful insights and advice about how to manage this, directing our attention beyond the immediate bogeymen of the day to what we really need to watch out for, but also reminding us that we are not without tools of our own.
For being a series of documents with serious anti-imperial implications, the New Testament doesn’t say much about the Roman Empire specifically. This may have simply been self-preservation, but I think it has more to do with that Jesus, the Evangelists, and Apostles all understood that the problems of the world were not about Rome. After hundreds of years of foreign domination, they knew that Empires beget Empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome had all had Judea under their thumbs at one point in time. The problem wasn’t Rome, but Empire itself. The real enemy is not the politics of the day, but the spiritual forces behind them, what Paul and the other Apostles call throughout the Epistles such things like “thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers” (Colossians 1.16), “authorities” (1 Peter 3.22), and angels (Romans 8.38). Today’s Epistle, Ephesians 6.10-20, offers perhaps the most extensive list, saying: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
There are different ways we can understand this language. Some people, both historically and today, take it as referring to literal spiritual beings, but we might just as easily understand them as collective psychological phenomena that can work their way through societies — not only the obvious ‘big bads’ like the scapegoat mechanism and various national or racial messianisms, but also more on the surface innocuous phenomena like law-and-order or libertarianism or collectivism or for-king-and-country or progress, and so on. Walter Wink hits the nail on the head when he writes:
[I]t is clear that we contend not against human beings as such (“blood and flesh”) but against the legitimations, seats of authority, hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions which their human incumbents exercise and which transcend these incumbents in both time and power. It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institutions and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent. For the institution will guarantee the replacement of this person with another virtually the same, who despite personal preferences will replicate decisions made by a whole string of predecessors because that is what the institution requires for its survival. (Naming the Powers, 85f)
This is why we might talk about Empire instead of the Roman Empire, or Revolution instead of the French Revolution; when we’re talking spiritually, we’re talking about the general rather than the specific.
But, far more importantly for the Apostles and for us, we are not without tools in our struggle against these powers:
Take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
What are the tools in our fight against the spiritual powers at work in the world?
- Truth: In a world of gaslighting, propaganda, and comfortable lies, we uphold truth, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, or unpopular.
- Righteousness, or Justice: In a world of self-justification and unjust systems, we work toward what is right and what is just.
- Readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace: In a world of bad news, we ready ourselves to proclaim the good news that is God’s peace, shalom, that is life in whole and healthy relationships.
- Faith: In a world of faithless self-concern, we show up for ourselves, for others, and for God.
- Salvation: In a world that is insecure and unsafe and full of self-appointed ‘saviours’, we remember that healing, safety and security come from God.
- The Spirit, that is, the word of God: In a world that demands silence in the face of oppression, we rest confident that the Holy Spirit will give us the words we need when the time is right (cf., Matthew 10.19f). (As a side note, the grammar and word choice of the Greek text strongly prefers this interpretation over one that focuses on the Scriptures as the “Word of God.” The Scriptures can indeed be useful against the powers, as Jesus demonstrated in the desert, but are not the primary tool the Apostle has in mind here.)
- Prayer: In a world of closed doors, learned helplessness, and without hope, we persist in prayer, lamenting what is wrong, seeking a way forward, and trusting that God is present and active in our world.
Yes, we live in a violent and unjust world. And yes, the powers that be can be crazy-making in their lies, evasions, and justifications. But this is not the whole story. Against the crazy-making of the world we are not powerless, without defenses or tools. Our faith insists that our true home is God’s Kingdom and it operates along a constellation of related ideas that we keep in our minds, hearts, and actions to stay sane and maintain hope: ideas like truth, justice, Shalom, faith, and salvation.
And so today, this week, this month, this year, and throughout our lives, let’s commit ourselves to these things, knowing that they are good, that they are of God, and that they are powerful.