Know Your Enemy Part 2: Living Among the Powers — More on Exousiology.
This post builds upon the previous one, which dealt with the biblical passages undergirding the study known as exousiology. Exousiology is the study of demonic influence on human social institutions.
A personal story. It was about four years ago, during a time in my life when I was actively nurturing my spiritual sensitivity and gifts of the Spirit. I was working for the state supreme court, and was sent on a mission to deliver a document to a state senator in the legislative office building across the street. I expected that it would be exciting to visit the inner sanctum of where my state’s leaders did their daily work.
However, the moment I stepped off the elevator onto the floor where the top-ranking senators worked, I felt my face grow pale. I was struck with an undeniable, oppressive darkness in that place. It was heavy and haunting. I was creeped out. Joylessly, I delivered the document to the senator’s assistant, then expeditiously escaped.
Afterwards, I was disappointed in myself that I failed to anticipate that–of course–there would be a thick demonic presence in those halls. I was also disappointed that I did not immediately take authority over that atmosphere and pray through that building in the name of Jesus. I was unprepared and weak. But the experience was indelible.
It reminds me of the adage that power corrupts. Not only does power tempt people, but it attracts evil energies. And these tend to influence even good people who become ensconced in institutions.
In this era of war, terrorism, and secret surveillance, the powers that be have become the object of study for persons besides theologians. Documentary film director Eugene Jarecki got the idea for his new movie, “Why We Fight,” while working on a documentary on “The Trials of Henry Kissinger.” Kissinger, a longtime member of the “deep state,” has a reputations as a warmonger. Jarecki ultimately decided that Kissinger was not “in some way a villain any more than the system itself.” He states (in this interview),
When I went around with the Kissinger film and when I talked to audiences I was struck over and over by how much people were captivated by Henry Kissinger as a man, rather than looking through him at the system that employs him. . . That was unsettling to me because I really wanted to make a film about what makes the United States tick in these military misadventures like Vietnam. Once I saw how audiences were responding to that film, I vowed that whatever the next film I would make, it would look more deeply at the system itself, and not stop at the door at some patsy who is just a decision maker. Because the decision makers are replaceable, and had it not been Henry Kissinger it would have been someone else. But the machine has a life of its own.
One pioneer in unmasking the powers of the modern world is the lawyer/activist/theologian/mystic William Stringfellow, whose exploits include a public exorcism of president Richard Nixon. A formative experience for Stringfellow was when he delivered two identical lectures on “the powers:” one to students at Harvard’s Divinity School and one at Harvard Business School:
The divinity students felt the language of “principalities and powers” was archaic imagery with no contemporary relevance, but the business students, who lived and worked within the spheres of great corporate institutions, understood. . .
Stringfellow thus diagnosed the seminary students as subjects of another invisible power, the historical-critical method of biblical studies. To him, ideology, sport, fashion, religion, and sex all functioned as powers. He was especially critical of racism, which was not just “an evil in human hearts or minds,” but “a principality, a demonic power. . . over which human beings have little or no control.”
So how does one engage such principalities? My first response is that the ultimate spiritual power is to achieve the character of Christ in oneself through the transformative indwelling of the Spirit. People who know God and who understand the Gospel will work alongside the indwelling Spirit to transform their inner natures into a font of perfect love, oppenness, and compassion. The principalities operate by manipulating our desires. When you empty yourself the way Christ emptied himself for the world, then your desires flow only in the direction of God’s will and the powers hold no sway over you. So this sort of inner strength and God-inhabitedness is vital. If the church can inculcate this type of mystical character in people, it can lessen the scope of the powers’s effects.
As the example of Stringfellow and Nixon illustrated, some believers try to directly engage the powers in spiritual warfare. I am speaking about praying against them specifically and even exorcising buildings, cities, and institutions. It’s a controversial practice, but some missionaries stress the importance of driving the demons or powers out of a community before attempting to evangelize it. They generally do this through intense prayer sessions. Some do this from a distance. Others do it more directly, walking around the target area and perhaps sprinkling holy water or spreading olive oil here and there. I have no qualms with such practices. Even if they don’t succeed in ridding the target zones of demonic influence, such practices remind the disciple of her place in the spatial-spiritual matrix of human existence.
The possibility also exists that powers and principalities can be redeemed. Recall that institutions are not inherently bad. Institutions (states, churches, civic organizations, political organizations, local governments, etc.) are useful. They impose order on chaos and allow people to pool their resources. As such, I believe the evil powers can be driven out and affected institutions can be restored to their proper functionality.
I want to note here that there exists a tension in scripture concerning the redeemability of the powers. First Corinthians 15:24 states that at the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to the Father, he will have “destroyed” every ruler, authority, and power. On the other hand, the same author, in Colossians 1:20, after naming the thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers, asserts that God intends to reconcile “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” to himself through the peace-making blood of the cross. Perhaps the synthesis is that the demonic influences will be destroyed; the structures themselves will be redeemed. To the extent that the structures of human existence can be redeemed on this side of the new earth, I imagine it happens most effectively when the institutions become populated by people who think, feel, and act through the indwelling character of Christ. So, pray for institutions, and support believers with integrity who insert themselves into them.
Got any comments or questions on exousiology? Please share them below!
Here are some of the sources I used and/or quoted in this series:
Berkhof, Hendrik. Christ and the Powers. John Howard Yoder, trans. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977 (1953).
Campbell, Charles R. “Principalities, Powers, and Preaching: Learning from William Stringfellow.” Interpretation 51:4 (Oct. 1997) 384-401.
Cook, Robert. “Devils and Manticores: Plundering Jung for a Plausible Demonology.” The Unseen World. Anthony Lane, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. 165-84.
Dunn, James D. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Fernandino, Keith. “Screwtape Revisited: Demonology Western, African, and Biblical.” The Unseen World. Anthony Lane, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. 103-32.
Forbes, Chris. “Pauline Demonology and/or Cosmology? Principalities, Powers, and the Elements of the World in their Hellenistic Context.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 85 (2002) 51-73.
Forbes, Chris. “Paul’s Principalities and Powers: Demythologizing Apocalyptic?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 82 (2001) 61-88.
Garrett, Susan R. “Christ and the Present Evil Age.” Interpretation 57:4 (Oct. 2003) 370-83.
Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Martyn, J. Louis. Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.
Noble, Thomas. “The Spirit World: A Theological Approach.” The Unseen World. Anthony Lane, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. 185-223.
Noll, Stephen F. Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness. Downers Grove: IVP, 1998.
Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. Wink, Walter. Naming the Powers. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Wylie-Kellermann, Bill. “Not Vice-Versa. Reading the Powers Biblically: Stringfellow, Hermeneutics, and the Principalities.” Anglican Theological Review 81:4 (Fall 1999) 665-882.
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Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) is a lawyer and former minister who lives in the hills of Kentucky.