Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Powers That Be

So, to continue this little series on Christian social and political engagement.  Miroslav Volf tells us that Christianity is a prophetic faith, and that our prophetic calling requires us to engage with our wider society in a manner which is neither passive not coercive.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that a prophetic ministry should open up possibilities beyond the dominant consciousness, allowing us to mourn the injustices of our society and dream of something better.

Neither of them tells us how we should do this.  One way to start to think about this more practically is via Walter Wink's The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, first published in 1999.  This is a short, accessible rendering of material from a trilogy of books Wink published between 1984 and 1992.

Wink suggests that institutions, like individuals, have a spiritual as well as a physical reality.  This reality is not inherently good or evil.  Our social institutions often have a good and necessary purpose but like individuals they are fallen, their goodness subverted by evil.  As a result, our major institutions become damaging and oppressive.

The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers need to be redeemed.

The most damaging way these Powers manifest themselves in the world is through what Wink calls the 'Domination System' - the set of arrangements which govern our world, which keep the rich rich and the poor poor, which keep the elites and outsiders in their places.

This system is not simply a single institution or a single party.  It is a combination of different parts of our society which operate towards the same, or similar, ends.  You can change the people in charge of this system but if you don't also change the system itself, it will continue to function in the same way - it's spirit will be unchanged.
The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.  It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

He shows how this story pervades human history, from the Babylonian Enuma Elish to modern cartoons, and we can see it every day in our politics, in the War on Terror, the theory of deterrence on criminal justice, the rise of aggressive nationalism.  Just the other day on the radio I heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoking the many Israeli soldiers who had given their lives "in the cause of peace".  We believe that violence will save us, that safety comes from strength, that the only way to peace is through war.

This is an illusion - war only breeds more war, being 'tough on crime' leads to more crime.  But it is a convenient illusion.  Thse domination system keeps the rulers in charge and their subjects subject, keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, keeps men in authority and women and  children in submission, keeps white people rich and comfortable while dark-skinned people struggle.

Jesus presents us with an alternative to this domination system, both in the way his own disciples are to live, and in the way they are to interact with the Powers in the wider society.

In their own community, the logic of domination is to replaced by one of service - the greatest of all must be the servant of all, as he shows both through washing their feet and through his own death.  Economic domination is replaced by equality as the disciples share a common purse and wealthy followers contribute to the wellbeing of poorer ones.  They are not to fight violence with violence.  The taboos about gender relations and the various forms of "uncleanness" such as leprosy, blindness, menstruation and the various issues designated as "demon possession", are overturned as Jesus shares table fellowship indiscriminately.

Crucially, in his own practice and in his teaching Jesus charts a third way between passive acquiescence and armed resistance - the way of non-violence.  When Jesus asks his hearers to turn the other cheek to someone who strikes them, or to go a second mile when asked to carry a soldiers pack the regulation one, he is not simply advising them to accept oppression.  Rather he is inviting them to challenge it without retaliating in kind.  When struck in the face by their oppressors, they are not to slink off, they are to offer to be struck again with the intention of shaming their attacker.  Roman soldiers were entitled to order a civilian to carry their gear for one mile but could be severely disciplined for demanding more, so the civilian who keeps carrying the kit beyond the next way-marker exposes the owner of the kit to risk.  These actions disrupt domination rather than either accepting it or replicating it.

Jesus himself demonstrates this non-violent disruption in his life, particularly in his final week in Jerusalem.  His entry into Jerusalem is a classic piece of protest theatre, turning the Roman triumph on its head.  His symbolic expulsion of the money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles strikes at the heart of the priestly regime, recalling it to its proper purpose.  His subsequent crucifixion shows just how seriously the Roman and Jewish authorities took this challenge.  It also shows that those who practice non-violence take a huge risk - the Domination System has no such commitment to non-violence.  The person who turns their cheek runs the real risk of being hit much harder the second time.  This is why Jesus asks his followers to count the cost before entering into the battle.

In the second half of the book, Wink draws out what this means for us in practice.  He draws on 20th century practitioners of non-violent struggle including Gandhi and King, and the movements they influenced in their home countries and around the world.  He also draws on his own experiences and observations from his contact with non-violent liberation movements in South America and South Africa.  All of these movements spring directly from Jesus' teaching and practice on non-violence, and embody two central principles - the means must be consistent with the ends, and the rule of law must be respected.

The first principle suggests that we need to model the change we are seeking.  If we are seeking peace we need to seek it peacefully.  if we are seeking justice we need to act justly.  We cannot achieve peace through armed struggle, or overcome oppression by oppressing in our turn.  This requires great discipline - it is tempting to suspend the usual rules on the pretext of war or struggle, but inevitably the result is that the change is compromised, the victorious freedom fighters become the new oppressors.

The second is similar and presents similar challenges.  Respecting the rule of law doesn't mean simply doing whatever the Powers say.  Rather, it means choosing carefully which laws will be broken and accepting the consequences of such breaches.  This may involve arrest and imprisonment, it may involve fines, it may even (as it did for Jesus) involve death.  The key is to be punished for doing right, not for doing wrong - to challenge unjust laws rather than break good, beneficial ones.  Accepting this punishment in itself can further highlight the injustice of the laws but it also reinforces the cost of non-violent action.  It is a hard path, but the only way to genuine change.

Two things sustain this struggle.  The first is the discipline of loving one's enemies, of seeing our enemies not as faceless people but as humans like us who are also in need of redemption.  This leads us to reach out to them in kindness and attempt to build bridges, however difficult this seems, and keeps alive the hope that there can be reconciliation and genuine peace.  The second is prayer, which reminds us that the struggle is not ours but God's and keeps us centred on His way, sustaining us for the long haul.

If you have read the previous two reviews you will see some strong similarities with both Volf and Breuggemann.  Non-violence corresponds with the middle way sought by Volf, the way that is neither coercion nor idleness.  Yet Wink is much closer to Brueggemann in his assessment of our current environment - the Domination System corresponds with Brueggemann's Royal Consciousness, an all-encompassing worldview whose sole aim is its own preservation.  Like Brueggemann. Wink sees Jesus as taking us beyond this system and opening up new possibilities for his followers, but recognises how profoundly counter-cultural and disruptive this way is.

What Wink brings to the analysis is a far stronger and deeper practical focus.  Wink was himself not merely a theorist of non-violence but a deeply engaged practitioner, participating in movements for change around the globe.  He is not writing to satisfy us intellectually but to inspire us to action.  The path he outlines for us is difficult and dangerous but I think he would suggest that the ease of the alternatives is illusory.  The way of Jesus is countercultural in any age but this is what we need.

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