r m p







Principalities and Powers


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 82

New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-10

Texts: Ephesians 6:11-13; Mark 2:23-28


Two developments this week have finally prompted me to write up this sermon. I'd been thinking about it for some time. And this seemed to be the time. What were the two events? 

One was the anniversary (today, I believe) of the Damocletian descent of the atomic bomb on the unsuspecting people of Hiroshima. It fell like some great headsman's axe wielded by one of the Shinto gods. But in fact that deadly avenger's name was Uncle Sam. 

The other event was the merger of the ABC TV network with Disney. From now on I suppose we'll be treated to sights like Sam Donaldson wearing Mickey Mouse ears on Primetime. "Why, Diane? Because we love you." But what bothers me is that what we have here is really the promise of more bread and circuses from the Evil Empire, which is how I regard Disney. 

These events are theological in significance, even biblical. Let me show you how. 

Perhaps you may be familiar with Hal Lindsey and his preposterous book The Late Great Planet Earth. In it, like his fellow exegete Charlie Manson, Lindsey matches up current world events with biblical prophecies taken out of context. He makes the events the fulfillments of the bible texts. And he is wrong, as sound exegesis made clear then, and subsequent events have made even clearer now. 

But in a sense he was groping toward something valid. The Bible, often even in its strangest parts, does provide a kind of cryptic guide for understanding future events. It is not that the prophets predicted them. Rather, what they did was to provide certain grand archetypes for understanding the larger meaning dimensions of our history. 

For instance, the image of the Antichrist, the Great Beast. Sectarian fanatics love to count up the letters of people's names to find out if Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Juan Carlos, Reagan, Clinton may turn out to be the Antichrist. They are wasting their time in one sense. The White House barber is not going to find a "666" birthmark on Clinton's scalp. 

But how else can you describe Adolf Hitler? Khomeini? Saddam Hussein? They fit the type. Theirs is not a mundane evil like Spiro Agnew or used car salesmen. Nor are they freak aberrations like Jeff Dahmer. As Louis Farrakhan said of Hitler, they are "wickedly great" in an almost superhuman sense. Without doubt, Hitler was the Antichrist and, sadly, not the only one. Whether Farrrakhan himself will measure up to that standard of evil remains to be seen, though he is working hard at it. 

Now let me outline another great biblical myth so I can try to show how it helps us to understand our own times. It is the myth of the Principalities and Powers. It begins like the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, of which it is another version. The gods are threatened by primordial dragons, Leviathan and Rahab, who happen to be their own progenitors. (Think here of Zeus and the Titans, too.) Elyon, the old king and father of the gods, is helpless to protect the others. The young warrior god Yahweh steps forward and offers to combat the monsters if only the elder god Elyon will yield the divine throne to him. In return for this promise, he does fight and vanquish the monsters. He creates the world from their carcasses and assumes the throne of the cosmos. 

He appoints his fellow godlings each to govern one of the nations of humanity. But at length these Watchers, as they are called, later redefined as angels, become corrupt. They deny justice to their human subjects, requiring human sacrifices, teaching the wicked arts of crime and seduction. In Psalm 82 we have the anticipated scene of Yahweh toppling them all from their petty thrones, casting them down to Sheol, the netherworld of the dead, where their shuffling steps cause earthquake tremors up here on earth. Yahweh himself will assume direct rule of all the nations, and justice will at last prevail. This view of the world is really an explanation for how evil can prevail in a world created by a righteous god. This is a question we still ask. It has lost none of its acuteness. 

This myth is found in similar forms in the New Testament, in Gnosticism, and in contemporary Stoicism. The basic idea is that the world is under the control of wicked superhuman forces. They are called Archons, Elemental Spirits, Planetary Gods, Principalities, Powers, Thrones and Dominions. They are evil, and yet without them the world would collapse into Chaos--unless God himself were to assume direct control. And this is what early Christians like the writer of Ephesians expected to happen. 

But in the meantime one must simultaneously pray for the Roman Emperor and resist his excessive demands for worship. Caesar is at present holding back the flood of Chaos, and yet he may soon become the Great Beast himself. It might change from one to the other, so you had to be alert. Hence the warning of the Bible to discern the times. "How is it," asked Jesus of his contemporaries, "that you cannot discern the signs (i.e., the significance) of this present time?" 

In a really brilliant little book called Christ and the Powers, the Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof showed the relevance of this myth. It cannot simply be dismissed along with demon possession and snake-handling as queer relics of the ancient world picture. As Bultmann had argued, myths tend to reflect the existential self-understanding of the people who told them. Once we realize this, we may find there is much to learn for our own existence, about our own existence even. And that is what Berkhof showed about the myth of the Powers. 

Isn't it obvious to you that our lives are in a real sense ruled by super-personal forces greater than any one individual? This is the meaning of the old fatalistic cliche "You can't fight City Hall." Because you will be shadow boxing. There is no single opponent you could sock in the mouth, as much as you know you'd like to! No, there are only swirling, looming shadows around you, as you are sent from one desk to another, from waiting line to waiting line, as you hang on the phone forever trying to trace down a computer error on your account. Good luck. 

Where do these inhuman entities come from? How were they conjured? What bumbling sorcerer's apprentice set them free? The answer is: you and me, or fools like us. It is all a matter of what sociologists call "reification," the process whereby institutions  created by human beings for human beings expand to the point of assuming a life of their own, bigger than the sum of their parts. They begin as a human construct. They serve those who built them. But they wind up being the masters, served by human beings. How does this happen? 

When more and more people get involved in the operation of a system, an expanding organization, the organization has priority over them. They were not the ones who built it. It has seniority, not them. They can't switch it off. And as the thing grows bigger and even more people are needed to run it, the whole thing becomes an interdependent web. For you to do your job requires a great number of others doing theirs. The whole operation is too big for any one person to have a serious impact on it. It's like in a spy novel: no one knows enough of the whole operation to be able to betray it. You are a cog in a machine. You are negligible in the big picture. You need AT&T, but AT&T doesn't need you. "We're the Phone Company. We don't care. We don't have to." 

Here's a biblical example. One in which the writer doesn't need to put in terms of the myth. Think of the reading from Mark. Jesus and his disciples are gleaning grain, which ordinarily they have every right to do, as poor holy men. But today, it happens to be the Sabbath, the day of enforced rest. And some scribes are quick to point this out to him. Jesus in effect counter charges them with reifying the Sabbath. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, wasn't it?" 

In fact rabbinic tradition did kind of suggest that the Sabbath was a pre-existent heavenly being, kind of a Jewish equivalent of the Virgin Mary in Catholic piety. The Sabbath was in effect a goddess of mercy. In effect, people had been created for the Sabbath, to provide people to observe the Sabbath! But, says the gospel passage, this is getting the cart before the horse! Surely the whole reason the Sabbath was created (whether by God or by human beings) was to give people a rest, to make things easier for them. And now we have legalists making the Sabbath all-important in its own right. It takes precedent over human need, whereas it was designed to meet human need! Such is the irony of reification. Even the kindly Sabbath had become one of the oppressive Powers. 

You couldn't ask for a better example of a reified Power than the Atomic Bomb. In fact, I have capitalized it in my notes, because it's the kind of thing that has a proper name. It began as a device created by ingenious humans. But it immediately became an autonomous reality, a cruel and lowering god. We tremble in fear of it. It conditioned my life from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when my family were looking under our house to find a place to hide from the radiation. My parents thought that under the concrete steps would be our best chance, but I reminded them the space would have to be completely enclosed. Even Bultmann admitted that the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon had revived the first-century myth of the apocalypse. 

I found a perfect depiction of the truth about the Bomb as a reified Power, a human creation broken free from Frankenstein's lab. It occurs in the movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Human civilization has long since been wiped out. Intelligent apes rule much of the old earth two thousand years hence, but in a place called The Forbidden Zone, the remains of New York City, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, a small coterie of hideously mutated humans have a functional Cobalt Doomsday Bomb raised above the altar. It represents their creator, the nuclear holocaust that formed their twisted world. They worship the Bomb, and here is their litany:

The heavens declare the glory of the Bomb, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. His sound is gone out unto all lands, and his light unto the ends of the world. He descended from the outermost part of heaven. And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof. There is neither speech nor language. But his voice is heard among them. Praise him, my strength and my redeemer. Glory be to the Bomb and to the Holy Fallout-As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Right now, a couple of the Powers are named Disney and The American Tobacco Institute. You can add as many other names to the list as you want: McDonalds, the Roman Catholic Church, Political Correctness, Big Business, High Fashion, the Republican and Democratic Parties, Network TV, Turner Enterprises, the 700 Club, Hollywood, MTV. 

It may sound paranoid for me to say that these Powers rule our lives. But don't they? They set the rules, dictate the options, control the economy, catechize our children in ways we simply cannot shut out, just as surely as if the Soviet authorities appeared at our doorsteps every morning to accompany Victoria and Veronica off to their classes in Marxism-Leninism. 

I view Disney, like McDonalds, as the Evil Empire. Phil Hartman's SNL skits, where he plays Michael Eiser of Disney are right on the money. Disney and McDonalds are doing the same thing Camel Cigarettes are accused of doing: using cute, apparently innocent cartoon pixies to seduce children into becoming consumers of needless if not actually dangerous junk. Joe Camel, Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse--don't you see, these are all shameless hucksters. No different from Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose. Ronald and Mickey and Joe are the strangers who lure your children into their car by offering them candy and puppies. Don't you see that? 

What is Pocahontas? A wholesome film for children? An educational tool? Don't kid yourself. It is nothing but a commercial for all the merchandise: Pocahontas lunchboxes and clothing and what all. Disney knows they've got you right where they want you. You will be a cruel parent if you deprive your little consumers of what all the other robot kids on the block have, if you don't take them to Disney World where they can fulfil their life's ambition by meeting Mickey Mouse--the Antichrist. When I see that TV ad, "I've been waiting my whole life to see you," I can't help thinking of that creepy scene with Saddam Hussein dandling that little English hostage boy on his knee. 

The smarmy smiles, the disingenuous unctuousness of the wage slaves in the McDonalds ads: they make you think their little micro-waved syntha-pastries are the Apple Pie that things are supposed to be as American as. It's just like the bogus "love-bombing" of the Moonies. Heavenly deception practiced in the name of one's god Mammon, the Almighty Dollar. 

Jean Baudrillard, in books including The Political Economy of the Sign and The Mirror of Production, explains how capitalistic society has finally succeeded in commoditizing meaning, creating an all-encompassing false world of stimulating images via TV, MTV, movies, commercials, the propagandistic promotion of Basketball mutants as media idols so kids will pay hundreds of dollars for their brand of sneakers. When American children are asked to name their heroes and they list Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Madonna, but don't even know the names of Jefferson, Gandhi, or Madame Curie, you know Baudrillard is right. 

Media religion is another great and tragic example. Twenty years ago Malcolm Muggeridge speculated that had Satan offered Jesus Television to get his message across, as Judas suggested in Jesus Christ Superstar, he would have turned it down. He would have recognized it for what it was: a fatal delusion. And he was right. Look at TV religion. It is vacuous, superficial, money-worshipping. The medium is the message, the message is the medium. TV itself has become the object of worship. The viewer's greatest religious duty was to send in pledges to keep the show on the air. Buying the gospel. Meaning had become a commodity. The PTL Club was just the Home Shopping Club with Jesus Christ as the merchandise. Salvation for sale cheap! This week only! Just 30 pieces of silver, not including COD. 

The day I wrote this sermon I happened to hear a bit of a CNN discussion of corporate behavior, how the new owner of the conglomerate that owned New York Newsday killed off the paper not because it was losing money (it wasn't), but because the new Head Honcho decided it would make him look tough. People's jobs meant nothing to him. One panelist made a significant Freudian slip. She meant to say "these companies" but actually said "these countries." That's the truth of the matter. As the corporate king says to Howard Beal, the mad prophet in Paddy Chayevsky's brilliant movie Network, national boundaries are merely lines on a piece of paper. The world is governed by international economics. And that's governed by multinational corporations, not by national governments. 

This is what John of Patmos symbolizes perfectly as the Great Harlot Babylon. She is wealthy from her prostitution with all the nations, who mourn her final destruction since their greatest market for commerce is gone. She is literally a multinational corporation who grows inconceivably wealthy by exploiting the innocent, drunk on the blood of the martyrs, John says. 

In John Jakes' Second Galaxy series of science fiction novels, the universe in the future is governed completely by multi-planetary companies. Their leaders are called "the Lords of the Exchange." There is no longer any pretense of national sovereignty. But hasn't this already happened? 

If it hasn't, tell me why it was for decades a federal felony to disclose the secret contents of cigarette smoke? Better that smokers not learn they're inhaling deadly xylene gas, for example. The government didn't protect smokers from the gas. They "protected" them from knowing they were inhaling it! 

Remember the Drug War? Kind of a cross between two dystopias: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. It was as if we had targeted the makers of the Soma drug to be our opponents in a fake war, like those between Oceania and Eurasia, just to take the minds of the public off what the government was getting away with at home. 

Remember when we sent troops into Bolivia to destroy the coca crops? What a mess! The whole thing's hopeless when Drug Lords run the countries, as you can see in Columbia:  when the government does try to pretend it's in control, terrorism and assassination break out. How can the Drug Lords get away with it? Because the population is in cahoots with them. Since just about everybody uses or cultivates the drugs, they are more in sympathy with the Drug Lords than with the nominal government. When we try to shut down the drug trade we cause total chaos because we destroy a major crop raised by the peasant farmers and destabilize the government. And yet drugs are wrong--evil and demonic. The Drug Lords are the local Principalities and Powers, and the people have taken the mark of the Beast, without which no man might buy or sell, unless he have the name of the Beast or the number of his name. 

It can't happen here, you say? It already has! Here the Drug Lords are R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Ligget-Meyers. They are selling a death-dealing addictive drug! And the government impotently flails about, trying to "regulate" it. And even this they have trouble doing because the Death Lords have so much pull in the government itself (just like all the other multinationals). 

But suppose the government actually did what theoretically they should certainly do, outlaw the manufacture of cigarettes. There might be mass rioting. There would be more drug wars, pushers selling illegal cigarettes more deadly than ever, machine gunning each other to expand their market share. And a lucrative market there would surely be. In other words, the addicted population itself is firmly in the pocket of Joe Camel, the Antichrist. They have taken his mark. 

What can one do? Baudrillard, who has seen all this more clearly than anyone else, in my opinion, is pessimistic. He says we can only wait for the apocalypse, the final collapse of the superannuated, over-extended system. Wait for the bottom to fall out. A strange apocalypse: "The Day After" would not be a landscape of smoking, glowing rubble and debris. No, it would be a skyline free of TV antennas and billboards. It would be deafening silence. Stephen King puts it well in his own apocalypse, The Stand: a new chance to start over without Ronald McDonald--the Antichrist. 

In the meantime we must compute a sectarian calculus for ourselves and our families. We must decide how far we can afford to opt out of this all-encompassing system. We cannot stop our children from watching the propaganda box, the catechism tube, the manure duct. They will only watch it over at their friends' houses. Or they will grow up resentful, just waiting for the chance to become worse TV addicts than ever. That is out of your hands. The Beast has seen to that. 

But you can do what Communists and Mennonites and others have done, encourage your kids to learn to see what is odd, what is phoney, what is devious about TV. You can try to tell them what is going on, why they should be careful before cooperating with it. In the same way student leftists used to give draft counseling. It's called "consciousness-raising." 

We don't want ourselves or our kids to seem like oddball nonconformists, like the poor little Jehovah's Witness kids who can't go to birthday parties or celebrate Christmas. But we don't want them to mindlessly follow the lemming herd, either. We don't want them to become well-adjusted to a sick society. Because then they would be sick, too, and not even know it! The others lepers would be admiring their pallor. We must tread carefully in the shadow of the Principalities and Powers. We must learn to be strangers in a strange land. 

If we can, let us also start to build Powers for good. But watch out; that's probably just what the creators of today's oppressive Powers thought they were doing. In the climactic moment of the final episode of The Prisoner, the hero has resisted all his captors' attempts to make him conform and sell out. And he finally gets to unmask Number One, the master of the Village--only to behold his own face! We have met the enemy, and he is us. 

Perhaps the alternative left to us is to let our light shine, the light of our refusal to buy into the prescribed values and lifestyle of the advertisement world, so that others will see and decide to do likewise. It would be authentic existence. It's tricky, "because we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against Principalities and Powers and spiritual forces of wickedness in high places." 

Robert M. Price

August 4, 1995




Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design