July 28, 2019

Disarming the Powers

Passage: Colossians 2:6-15

Synopsis: Racism is raising its head and infiltrating places of power in our nation. As a pastor, I don’t want to get into a partisan political fray but feel that I must speak up for people who are being demeaned and hurt. We recognize that Jesus disarmed the powers and triumphed over then in the cross (Col, 2:15). Accordingly Richard Rohr says, “I would insist that the foundation of Jesus’ social program is what I will call non-idolatry or the withdrawal of your enthrallment from all kingdoms except the Kingdom of God.”


Racism lurks in the shadows of our country and infiltrates places of power. We pretend it’s not there but it occasionally raises its head in ways we can’t ignore. I was recently consoling an African American mother who was distraught for her son who had a group of white friends in high school. One of those friends recently got married and he came home from graduate school for the wedding only to discover that the rest of that group of friends was part of the wedding party but he was ignored and relegated to a back seat.


Racism again raised its ugly head when our president tweeted about four congresswomen of color, calling them disloyal to America, and saying that they should go back to the failed countries they came from. (He used obscene language that I’m not repeating.) He then doubled down at a political rally in Greenville, North Carolina with more accusations against congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who came to our county as a refugee from Somalia when she was four years old. Anger filled the arena as people responded by shouting, “Send her back. Send he back.” It’s a racist trope that’s especially been used against people of Mexican, Chinese, and African ancestry for generations. It that respect, it’s nothing new.


This has called for some deep soul searching in our churches. Stephen Howard, the pastor of a black church in Greenville, knew he had to respond even though, as he said, “I’m not into politics, but I’m into speaking for people.” He knew that many of his white Christian neighbors had been at the rally. He called out the president’s words as racist and reminded his congregation that such hatred is not only against congresswoman Omar but against all of us, “What do you want us to go back to? Second-class citizenship? Jim Crow?”[1]


Brad Smith, the pastor of an historic white Baptist church in Greenville, is doing a different kind of soul searching because some of their church members are Trump supporters. He’s disturbed by the anger at the rally because he says it doesn’t represent the Greenville he knows. Their church shares their chapel with a Chinese and a Hispanic congregation and they have grown closer over the past decade through joint fellowship meals and Bible studies.[2] He didn’t feel comfortable preaching directly against the hateful things said at the political rally but he did say that the love, and grace and mercy found in the body of Christ can mend divisions. “To love God is to love all of us. It’s hard to do but it’s beautiful.”[3]


Violence, greed, and racism are woven into the power structures of our world and, to some extent, we’re all complicit simply by being alive. We can’t escape the reach of these Powers but we can struggle against the violence, greed, and racism contained within them. Furthermore, according to the apostle Paul, they have already been defeated by the cross of Christ.


In his book, Engaging the Powers, biblical scholar Walter Wink says that the Powers are part of God’s good creation but are fallen. Furthermore, it’s God’s plan to redeem them. In the hymn to the cosmic Christ in the book of Colossians, the Powers are described as having been created in, through, and for Christ. Listen to this hymn in the Common English translation of the Bible:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God,

the one who is first over all creation,


Because all things were created by him:

both in the heavens and on the earth,

the things that are visible and the things that are invisible


Whether they are thrones or powers,

or rulers or authorities,

all things were created through him and for him (Col. 1: 15-16).


Wink explains, “The Colossians hymn is the brash assertion, against the grain of human suffering, that the . . . Powers that visit the world with so much evil are not autonomous, not independent, not eternal, not utterly depraved. The social structures of reality are creations of God. Because they are creatures, they are mortal, limited, responsible to God, and made to serve the humanizing purposes of God in the world.”[4]


These Powers as we know them are corrupted and fallen. How else can we understand that hateful, racist rhetoric at the political rally in Greenville? In the verses preceding the hymn of Colossians, which may have been sung as a baptism liturgy, Paul refers to these Powers collectively as “the dominion of darkness” from which believers have been delivered.


Yet these Powers are part of God’s good creation even though they have become destructive in various ways. To help us better understand this, let’s go back to when I was a teenager. Lyndon Johnson, a powerful Democratic politician from Texas, was our president. Because of his strong support for civil rights, his political party lost its majority in the South. Some of the most vehement racists were southern Democrats who then switched to the Republican party.


Johnson had ambitious plans to fight poverty in America and accomplished some good things even though his plans never completely came to fruition because of the escalating costs and political divisions caused by the war in Vietnam. He was determined to win that war and kept pouring in more and more money and troops. People my age were completely disillusioned. I still remember one of the chants protestors shouted in response to the horrific aerial bombing of North Vietnam, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today!”


We need governments; they’re part of God’s good design to serve humanity. Yet governments as we know them are fallen and need to be redeemed. The same is true of business. Even the quintessential capitalist economist Adam Smith acknowledged that the ultimate goal of business is not to make a profit. That’s just a means. The goal is human welfare. The unchecked power and profit motive of powerful corporations will eventually destroy a society.


Wink says that recognizing the fallen nature of the Powers “frees us from delusions about the perfectibility of ourselves and our institutions, and from the diabolical belief that we’re responsible for everything that happens.” I ponder this in our present political climate. The very success of a reform movement then helps produce its decline. “Furthermore,” as Wink says, “We’re usually able to understand only the political system that’s crumbling, not the one emerging.”[5]


The Powers become demonic when they seek to impose their will on others through torture and death. This is what Christ exposed when the religious and political leaders of his day collaborated to have him cruelly flogged and executed on a cross. As Paul says, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15). Christ’s way of nonviolent love was shown to be more powerful.


According to Paul, the normal human condition is that of being entrapped by these Powers. Giving our complete allegiance to them is idolatry. Through the cross, Christ has created the path to liberation. Listen to what Richard Rohr says about this:

I would insist that the foundation of Jesus’ social program is what I will call non-idolatry or the withdrawal of your enthrallment from all kingdoms except the Kingdom of God. This is a much better agenda than feeling you have to attack things directly, or defeat other nation-states, the banking system, the military-industrial complex, or even the religious system.[6]


A word to the wise, political, corporate, and religious leaders of all stripes easily become addicted to power. According to Richard Rohr, “The addict, or sinner, does not actually enjoy the world as much as he or she is enslaved to it.[7] In this respect, I feel compassion for a political leader who stays awake at night firing off angry and demeaning tweets against political enemies.


Rohr says that “Jesus has come to offer us a true alternative social order here and not just a ‘way to heaven’ later.”[8] He adds, “Our present highly partisan politics, angry culture wars, and circling of the wagons around white privilege are just the final gasps of the old dying paradigm.”[9]


Let me end by making the bold claim that we and our small congregation here in Fairfax (on the outskirts of the center of power in our nation’s capital) are part of God’s new paradigm.  Sure, we’re far from perfect but I see many signs of Christ in us in our care for each other, in the way that we still love each other even when we disagree, in how Jesus’ way of peace is central to who we are, and how we seek to embody living in love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone.


[1] “At N.C. churches, political soul searching,” The Washington Post (July 22, 2019): A1, A6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 65-66.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 197.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 198.

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