by Jamie Pitts
During the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, many philosophers argued that the only forces at work in the world were those that could be detected by our senses or scientific measuring devices. Unseen “spirits” of all kinds were thereby discarded from the furniture of the universe, or rather were judged never to have existed at all. Since all attempts to prove that angels, demons, and even God could cause things to happen on earth failed, many thought it reasonable to doubt or deny their existence.
Christian theologians who took these developments seriously focused much of their energy on defending the plausibility of belief in God and in God’s ability to act in the world. It was only in the aftermath of the two world wars that theologians turned back to those other spiritual characters, focusing especially on the Apostle Paul’s language of the “principalities and powers.” As a British scholar
put it, after surviving months of Nazi bombing, it was easier to believe “that ‘Things’ still go bump in the night.”
But what are those things, and how do they relate to the powerful forces that many of us are accustomed to see as dominating our world—empires, states, corporations, ideologies, and so on? This matter continues to be a point of discussion among biblical scholars and theologians, and I will not try to resolve the issue here. But if our goal is not only answering the “what” question, but also the “so what” question, then it is worth noting that there is a general consensus that whatever Paul meant by “principalities and powers,” he meant to include social and political forces, and not exclude them in favor of invisible spiritual hosts.
At the very least, this inclusion creates a link between modern sociological categories and ancient spiritual ones. The most influential interpretation
of that link has been the claim that the broad biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption tells us about the origins, status, and future of not only “the spiritual realm,” but also of the social and political dimensions of our world.
If the deepest roots of complex human social organization are in God’s good, creative purposes, then any attempt to cast such organization as unreal or evil must be misguided. Here I think of Margaret Thatcher’s famous line
: “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Thatcher’s words were an early public formulation of the ideology that has run our world for the past forty years, what is often called “neoliberalism
”—the view that governmental and other social assistance should be minimized in favor of individuals acting freely within competitive markets to gain advantage for themselves and their kin. But if there is such a thing as “society,” if organizing into complex social formations is part of who we are and what we do as a species, then we have good reason to hesitate before accepting Thatcher’s conclusions about how we pursue the common good.
On the other hand, viewing social organization as partaking in all manner of human viciousness and vice introduces an appropriate realism into our political projects. The truth in the conservative critique of “progressives” is that they can be overly idealistic about the potential of human-directed institutions to achieve the common good. But the conservative preference for families and local communities—or for entire nations identified with specific religious outlooks—as training grounds for virtue is just as utopian, just as prone to overlook the violence endemic to all forms of human organization.
Those who tell the world’s story as ending in some kind of grand redemption have, at times, tried to marry this realism about society with a hope for the future that nurtures transformation in the present. We can think here of Martin Luther King Jr.’s
“moral arc of the universe” bending toward justice. King’s trust in a good conclusion to the story neither obscured from his view the injustices he faced nor sapped his energy to confront those injustices. Christians like King have often looked to Jesus as their guide, both to a future of social harmony beyond our imagining and for inspiration in today’s struggle for justice.
In a recent newsletter, Wess mentioned the idea of “powerful practices”
associated with Anabaptist theologians James McClendon
and Nancey Murphy
. That idea puts the theological narrative of the socio-political powers together with a focus on the importance of communal practices for sustaining hope and resisting injustice. Community, on this Christian view, is important because following Jesus is inherently a group activity.
For McClendon and Murphy, communities are constituted by the stories they tell, and the practices they engage in form community members for participation in those stories. By “practices,” McClendon and Murphy mean regular patterns of activity with a discernable character and purpose. Wess mentioned the Quaker practice of gathering to listen in silence, and to that might be added practices of study, protest, and celebration. When allied to a story (or multiple stories) about the inherent goodness of human sociality, its propensity to violence, and its ultimate destination of harmony and peace, our practices can form us into loving, realistic, and hopeful forces of social transformation.
McClendon and Murphy warn, however, that even our best practices can breed viciousness. McClendon, in particular, challenges those who praise virtuous community practices over and against oppressive institutions—surely, he says, practices can also deform and institutions also elevate. And Murphy draws attention to why this is the case: all human society involves power, and our power-ful practices and organizations can be sites of empowerment or of the abuse of power. They often, tragically, are both.
If we are to continue to tell stories that orient our work for justice toward a hope for peace, and if we are to continue to organize communities that embody and pursue peace through our practices, then we must be mindful of the risks we are taking. One risk of committing to a community and its stories and practices is that our preference for the community will lead us to neglect and so perpetuate its abuses—its own internal abuses of power, as well as any abuses towards others. Growing awareness of sexual abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, settler colonialism and other abuses by religious and activist communities should alert us to this risk.
Another, related risk is seeing one’s own community as the primary or exclusive means of transformation. This tendency not only provides a powerful rationale for ignoring abuse, but also undermines collective efforts for change that require broad collaboration. Building movements and institutions that empower people for peaceable social relationships requires an ecumenical, non-sectarian spirit.
With these risks in mind, the question might arise:
why bother with community at all? To this another question might be posed: what is risked if we dispense with community? What do we lose if we cease paying attention to our stories, if we forget our practices, if we stop organizing?
It is, I think, impossible to respond to these questions without some reference to the stories we tell as disclosing the truth of our human situation. If the story outlined above about “the powers” has some purchase, goes some way in orienting us to reality, then the answer is clear: the risk of community is worthwhile because social organization is how we participate in and prepare for the just order we long for. There is, moreover, a pragmatic reason for organizing communities, insofar as the failure to organize peace-seeking communities cedes ground to forces of violence and injustice. The risks of organizing are great, and those risks need to be attended to carefully and continually; and yet the risks of not organizing are greater still. The future of the powers, and of power, depends on it.