Monday, April 3, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series. You can read the first post here.

Walter Wink's three volumes on "the powers" focus on the task of naming, unmasking, and engaging those powers, which Wink connects primarily (but not exclusively) with the Greek words archai and exousiai, or what we might call "the powers and principalities of this world."

In Volume II, Wink begins by recognizing this is not language that modern people (and especially "progressive" Christians) are very comfortable with. We've given the language over to the television evangelists, whom Wink laments "could try to terrorize us with Satan and then speak favorably of South African apartheid." He wryly observes that "we should have sensed something wrong."

In its reaction against the misuse of this highly charged language, however, liberal Christianity has tended to throw out the notion altogether. This has left us "at the mercy of a shallow religious rationalism that is naive, optimistic, and self-deceiving." (page 28)

How, then to reclaim this language? That is the work of this second volume: to re-imagine and re-claim words like "Satan" and "demonic" and "angel." But it's a real challenge. I learned this as a parish priest whenever I would prepare young parents and godparents for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. In my denomination, in the liturgy for Baptism, the priest asks the candidate (and if the candidate is a child who cannot yet speak for herself, the parents and godparents of that child): "Do you renounce Satan and all of the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?" (BCP 302) The correct response is, "I renounce them." But that takes some unpacking...

I was first given this second volume for Christmas in 1992 by a member of my Campus Ministry Board in New Britain. It's well marked! But in re-reading it twenty-five years later I find it even more compelling and important, because I've come to believe that Christian theology stripped of this language is indeed very thin and naive. Or as Wink puts it:
...without a means of symbolization...evil cannot come to conscious awareness and thus be consciously resisted. Like an undiagnosed disease it rages through society and we are helpless to produce a cure." (page 11) 
That is a sentence worth reading again: without an adequate theological vocabulary to name the evil powers of this world, they cannot be resisted. This is precisely why I've become so interested in returning the Book of Revelation - to reclaim that language at a time when the Empire looms large.

So, how exactly to re-symbolize evil? It doesn't work to simply repeat the words wrenched from their first-century Biblical context in the Roman empire. Picturing Satan as the guy with the pitchpork in the red suit trivializes the very nature of evil. From a practical point of view, how in fact might parents and godparents answer this question about "Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness" as something they are truly ready to renounce and resist? I used to try to get at this by asking them what they were afraid of, for their children. Bullying, mental illness, racism, sexism, and addiction were often the first things to come up but sometimes in pushing one might also get to some others: the idea that work and money are the only things that matter in this life or since my context was the suburbs, that insidious notion that no matter how much a child achieved they might never feel good enough.

Wink puts it this way:
Satan is the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good. Satan is the spirituality of an epoch, the peculiar constellation of alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy that characterizes a specific period of history as a consequence of human decisions to tolerate and even further such a state of isn't then a question of whether we "believe" in Satan or not, but of how the archetypal and/or social reality of evil is currently manifesting itself in persons and in society. (page 25)
To make sense of this, it helps to consider how Wink deals with the issue of angels, in Greek, aggelos (literally "messenger") and then double back.  Wink got interested in this question as a young pastor in Texas in 1964, reading the Book of Revelation with a group of young people. He noticed that unlike St. Paul's letters to the early Christians in Corinth and Galatia and Rome, the writer of the Book of Revelation addresses this to the aggelos of the churches in Ephesus (see Rev. 2:1), Smyrna (2:8), Pergamum (2:13), Thyatira (2:18), Sardis (3:1), Philadelphia (3:7) and Laodicea (3:14). What he came to understand is that angel is a symbolic way of talking about both what the church is and what it is called to be. It's the church's corporate personality; a close synonym to the word "Gestalt."

I could read Wink's words in 1992 and understand them intellectually a young pastor serving on a college campus, but my experience with congregations was pretty limited. Today, however, I know exactly what he means in my bones, especially based on my experience these past four years of diocesan work. He uses a corporate example in the book that is helpful: if you fired all the employees and GE on Friday and replaced them all with new employees on Monday, the corporate culture would not dramatically change, maybe hardly at all. Changing corporate culture requires intentionality and time. There is something bigger than the sum of the parts. This, in part what is meant by its "angel."

He doesn't go there but since today is Opening Day in baseball and I'm soon headed into Fenway Park, one could say this is true of sports teams too, especially the ones that have been around a while. The "angel" of the Red Sox, of the Chicago Cubs, of the New York Yankees, of the transplanted Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers is different, based on lots of things that have little to do with the current roster.

And of course the same is true of congregations. Architecture, liturgical style, the socio-economic-political-cultural-racial-gender-educational level make-up of the members, the power structure (is it a father-knows-best parish or is there strong lay leadership?) all affect how we think about a congregation. How does the congregation deal with conflict? How do they see themselves? How do others see them? Sometimes you can feel it when you walk in. And changing church cultures isn't easy; ask any pastor, across denominational lines.

Wink is saying that the angel is what it is, and what it is called to be. And this can be distorted. Perhaps the most painful and obvious example is related to clergy sexual abuse, which contrary to popular opinion is not limited to Roman Catholic congregations. When trust is violated, it stays in the air and in the water for a very long time. It cannot be hidden under the carpet forever. The angel may give way to the demonic.

Wink says nations have angels too, and that "we cannot minister to the soul of America unless we love its soul." But these angels of nations have a will of their own: they push toward rebellion against God by claiming they deserve ultimate allegiance. Canada and the United States may have similar histories, but in this language they have very different angels. So how about this insight?
...angels of the nations have a will of their own, and are capable of resisting the will of God...the angel of an entity must be seen under two aspects: what it is and what it is called to be...[the former might be called] it's personality, what it is called to be, its repent means to recover vocation.
It is now possible to double-back to Satan and the spiritual powers that rebel against God. Wink writes about a German pastor who said, cannot understand what happened in [Nazi] Germany unless you understand that we were possessed by demonic powers. I do not say this to excuse ourselves, because we let ourselves be possessed.
Wink adds this:
The demonic was the interiority of the German state made into an idol. The demon was the Angel of Germany having turned its back on its vocation.
That kind of writing gives me goosebumps! I see it in congregations that lose their sense of vocation and sometimes even turn their backs on it. And on occasion also repent and turn again to the living God and rediscover who they are called to be: not some generic church in some generic place but a specific congregation with a particular calling to their neighbors. And I see it today, in this nation. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are cheap and in some ways not so helpful; the reason is that our angels and our demons are different. But noticing how nations give in to "temptation" and naming what repentance looks like? I think this falls under the rubric of the work God has given us to do in this time and place.

Having named the powers (as that language is used in the New Testament) and having unmasked the powers (by reclaiming this language for our own time and place) the question then becomes: how do God's people engage those powers? How do we discern and resist in a world of domination?

But that question will have to wait for the next post. I'm off to see if I can spot an angel in the outfield today...

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