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Reading Notes 5.6.18 (The Powers That Be)

Resource: The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink
Section covered: Chapter 1 (Pages 22-30)
Theme(s): Projections of Power, How the Powers show up in the world, & the necessity of the church


The dual and integrated nature of the Powers:

“…the Powers, as we have seen, are not just physical. The bible insist that they are more than that (Eph 3:10; 6:12); this “more” holds the clue to their profundity. In the biblical view the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional (Col 1:15-20). Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government posses and outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality.”

Spirituality as the inner and central reality of institutions:

“Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon or the Chrysler Corporation, or the Mafia as having a spirituality, but they do. The New Testament uses the language of power to refer at one point to the outer aspect, at another to the inner aspect, and yet again to both together. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.”

The ancient worldview’s projection of power:

“The lesser-known aspect of the Powers is the spiritual, or invisible, dimension. We generally perceive it only indirectly, by means of projection. In New Testament times, people did not read the spirituality of an institution directly from its outer manifestations. Instead, they projected its felt or intuited spiritual qualities onto the screen of the universe and perceived them as cosmic forces reigning from the sky.”

“Some first-century Jews and Christians perceived in the Roman Empire a demonic spirituality which they called Satan (the “Dragon of Revelation 12). But they encountered this spirit in the actual institutional forms of Roman life; legions, governors, crucifixions, payment of tribute, Roman sacred emblems and standards, and so forth (the “beast” of Revelation 13). The spirit that they perceived existed right at the heart of the empire, but their worldview equipped them to discern that spirit only by intuiting it and then projecting it out, in visionary form, as a spiritual being residing in heaven and representing Rome in the heavenly council.”

“…fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual demonic beings in the air, largely divorced from their manifestations in the physical or political world (the theological worldview), and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists (the materialistic worldview).”

The way out of powerlessness lies in abandoning the way up concept of power:

“…we must withdraw the projections and recognize that the real spiritual force that we are experiencing emanates from actual institutions. Our task, working within the emerging unitary worldview, is to withdraw those projections from on high and relocate them in the institutions where they actually reside.”

“The demons projected onto the screen of the cosmos really are demonic, and play havoc with humanity. Only they are not up there but over there, in the socio-spiritual structures that make up the one and only real world. They exist in factories, medical centers, airlines, and agribusiness, to be sure, but also in smaller systems such as families, churches, the Boy Scouts, and programs for senior citizens.”

The institutional embodiment of spiritual entities as essential for their existence:

“The New Testament insists that demons can have no impact on us unless they are able to embody themselves in people (Mark 1:21-28; Matt. 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26), or pigs (Mark 5:1-20), or political systems (Rev. 12-13).”

“…we might think of ‘demons’ as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations. When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination system. From this perspective, “Satan” is the world-encompassing spirit of the Domination system. Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the “corporate personality” or ethos of an institution or epoch, having no independent existence apart from their incarnation in a system? That is for the reader to decide. My main objection to personalizing demons is that by doing so, we give them a “body” or form separate from the physical and historical institutions through which we experience them. I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life.”

“None of these “spiritual” realities has an existence independent of its material counterpart. None persist through time without embodiment in a people or a culture or a regime or a corporation or a dictator. An ideology, for example, is invisible, but it does not just float in the air; it is always the justification for some actual group, be it the AFL-CIO or General Motors, Greenpeace, or the oil industry. As the soul of systems, the Powers in their spiritual aspect are everywhere around us. Their presence is inescapable. The issue is not whether we “believe” in them but whether we can learn to identify them in our actual everyday encounters.”

The Church as the institutional response to institutional evil:

“When a particular Power becomes idolatrous — that is, when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good — then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask the idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world. But this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed — what the New Testament call an ekklesia (assembly) — one that exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation. That was to be the task of the church, “so that through the church (ekklesia) the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [“principalities and powers”] in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). And the church must perform this task despite its being as fallen and idolatrous as any other institution in society.”


The language of the ancient and theological worldview is that of the spiritual world being located “up” and “out” as in God and the Angelic beings are somewhere “up there” or “out there.” This causes us to think of these entities and forces as if they are disembodied personalities who jump in and out of the bodies of individuals. While Wink is agnostic on the issue of spirits as disembodied entities, he certainly criticizes it as a mental model. His preferred view is that of spiritual entities that do not exist or have impact independently of being manifest in individual or institutional form.

While Wink’s rejection of the notion of disembodied entities makes perfect sense when analyzing institutional demons, I wonder how he would interpret those passages of scripture that refer to demon possession. What does he think is going on in those instances? And what would be his take on individual encounters and conversations with Angels?

Wink also argues that the Church is necessary for spiritual warfare against institutional evil. Individuals cannot do this alone. I wonder what Wink’s take is on individuals who seemed to spark revolutions without being part of the church. How would he account for the energy dynamics of such things?

I find Wink’s concept of “The Domination System” to be intriguing. His language here makes me wonder if he’s coming at this from an anarchist perspective. I’m looking forward to hearing him flesh out this concept later in the book as he promises.

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