Sermon- The Principalities and Powers
Dark Vader from Star Wars; Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter; Sauron from Lord of the Rings; Joker from the Batman series. We have so many rich characters in our movies that represent pure evil and the powers of darkness. Whether it’s the fear brought on by Darth Vader’s heavy breathing presence, or the towering burning eye of Sauron, or the slithering voice of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, we have many representations of what the presence of pure evil looks like. But is this just fiction, or does it point to something real? Are we just having fun at the movies, or are these characters revealing to us something true about reality?
For most of us modern ‘progressive’ Christians we’d probably answer those questions by first denying the reality of evil and the demonic. That’s just the thinking of a superstitious past, or today’s fundamentalist Christians, but it’s not ‘real’. So our answer would likely be, “Those movies are certainly good fun, but in the end they’re only fiction”. I understand this response. With the advent of modernity and science and the Enlightenment in the West, the notion of evil as a force working in the cosmos was rejected. This was considered the outmoded thinking of a bygone era, and dismissed as a bunch of hocus pocus. So-called evil was now thought to arise solely from the bad decisions made by human beings, who just didn’t use their rationality and their free will properly. But their actions, as terrible as they might be, had no outside source. It was only poor choices made by weak-minded humans, not some ‘demonic’ force that possessed them.
Today I want to argue that our rejection of the reality of evil, and of supernatural entities such as angels and demons, was a big mistake. I want to make a case that us moderns should re-integrate this understanding back into our worldview. Why? Because I think there’s plenty of there there, as we’ll talk about, and not taking this reality seriously weakens our ability to understand our planet and what’s happening on it. And because we’re currently witnessing layer after layer being pulled back from a dark underbelly that’s been operating under the surface of our world for many decades. I’m talking about things such as the serial sexual abuse that’s gone on in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, by people like Billy Cosby, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey. I’m talking about the revelations coming out around the mysterious billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was running a human trafficking and blackmail operation involving some very powerful players. I’m talking about NXIVM, the Hollywood [sex] cult that was involved in human trafficking and slavery.
So much that’s been hidden in darkness is now being brought into the light. This is a wonderful thing. But my research tells me that the ongoing revelations of the rot below the surface are only going to get worse. So I felt called this week- and I mean literally called, something was moving me in this direction- to write about this topic, so that we can have other tools for understanding any further revelations that may come to light.
One of the best places to get an understanding of the dark forces operating in the cosmos, is in how the New Testament talks about the “principalities and powers”. Let’s look at the first three lines in our passage from Ephesians. Paul says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”- and here’s the key line- “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. Our struggle on this earth is ultimately not against flesh and blood humans, although they do play a role as conduits for dark powers. The forces we truly struggle against are the spiritual forces of evil operating in the cosmos. These forces use human beings and human institutions to do their bidding. In this biblical worldview, the cosmos contains both light and dark spiritual forces, which are often in battle. And human beings can be taken over, or ‘possessed’, by these dark forces. We can also align ourselves with the light forces, as we’ll talk about later.
The New Testament writers use many different words to speak about these dark forces, words such as principalities, powers, authorities, dominions, world rulers, thrones, princes, strongholds, spirit of the air, lion, dragon, beast, and many more (1). Although the Romans are the face of the brutal domination system that ruled in Jesus’ time, the New Testament writers are more interested in looking past imperial Rome to the spiritual forces of darkness that rule it. That’s where true battle lies. In the gospels these dark forces also get personified in the character of the devil, who tempts Jesus with the dark side. When the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says they can all be his if only he serves him, the devil says that he can give them to Jesus because they’re already his (Luke 4:4-6). The thrones of this world are already beholden to the forces of evil. That’s the pit that we’re trying to dig out of.
It’s possible that we’ve gone to church for years and not really heard too much discussion about the principalities and powers. The Bible is a big book and certain eras in history are going to highlight certain things, while others fade from view. It was a man named William Stringfellow who brought the discussion of the principalities and powers back into the theological discussion in the 1960s. Stringfellow was a very interesting guy. He was lawyer and an activist and a lay theologian. He was also gay and “half out” in a time when that was dangerous (2). And although only a lay theologian, the towering figure of Karl Barth once called him the greatest theologian in America, probably prompting many people to say “Who?” As an activist lawyer Stringfellow worked with oppressed and impoverished peoples in places like Harlem, and through this work he came to see a brutal system that had systematized racism and oppression. To make sense of the cold and harsh reality he discovered, he turned to the New Testament writings on the principalities and powers to understand how a system could become so ruthless. The reason the system was so inhuman, he discovered, was that nonhuman forces were driving it. Stringfellow’s rediscovery of this dimension of New Testament teachings reverberated into mainstream theology and has continued to this day. I learned about him my first year in seminary, and I’m grateful I did.
We can turn to another example to see these nonhuman forces at work in the world. Take World War 2. This is what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1932 while living in Germany- “How can one close ones eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over the rule of the world, that is the powers of darkness have here made an awful conspiracy” (3). Bonhoeffer saw that something very dark had seeped into Europe and his country, and he drew from Ephesians 6 to describe it. Bonhoeffer was later killed by the Nazi’s for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. If we want to hear the accuracy of Bonhoeffer’s theological analysis, we can listen to a letter from a German soldier named Joachim Veetter, who fought in the horrible Battle of Stalingrad. That battle lasted for five months in 1942, and during the carnage close to two million people were killed or wounded.
Veeter wrote this in a letter that got sent home to Germany: “Now faced with the imminently impending final catastrophe [the battle of Stalingrad encirclement], the question about the sense of what was happening that plagued me so often during the war seized me again with cruel force. Hundreds of thousands of flowering human lives were suddenly being senselessly snuffed out here in Stalingrad. What an immeasurable wealth of human happiness, plans, hopes, talents, fertile possibilities for the future that were thereby being destroyed forever. The criminal insanity of an irresponsible war management, with its superstitious belief in technology, and its utter lack of feeling for the life, value and dignity of man, had here prepared a hell on earth for us. Of what importance was the individual, in his uniqueness and distinctiveness. He felt himself as if extinguished, and used up as raw material in a demonic machine of destruction. Here war showed itself in its unmasked brutality. Stalingrad appeared to me as an unsurpassed violation and degeneration of the human essence. I felt myself to be locked into a gigantic inhuman mechanism that was running with deadly precision to its own dissolution and destruction" (4).
When we survey the terrible carnage of the twentieth-century, with its wars and gulags and genocides and holocausts, maybe it’s not just superstition to think that there are more than human forces at work in our world. Have you ever heard that famous line, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”? I think that’s what happened in our time. We were fooled by our overconfident belief in reason and progress, so we dismissed the reality of the spiritual forces of darkness. But what if they’re real? What if we reintegrate this New Testament understanding of the principalities and powers? And more importantly, how are we supposed to deal with this frightening reality?
The answer to that question is in the rest of our passage from Ephesians. The cosmos might be filled with the spiritual powers of darkness, but it’s also filled with the spiritual powers of light. And as it says in John 1, “The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it” (John 1:5). To do spiritual battle with the forces of darkness we need to walk in the light. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever walks with me, will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12). How do we walk in the light? In our passage from Ephesians Paul uses a series of military metaphors to describe what walking in the light means. He says, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”. Truth, justice, peace, Spirit, faith and prayer- if we use these spiritual weapons the forces of darkness cannot defeat us. They will be repelled from our world and our hearts and our institutions and our communities. The principalities and powers might be Legion, but in the face of the light they’ll be driven over a cliff to perish.
So to answer the question we began with, I do think our stories about evil villains are pointing at something real. Tolkien knew this. He fought in World War 1, he saw the carnage, he saw the bodies strew across the fields. He saw that something dark was involved in that war. But that didn’t make him a pessimist about life, because he also knew the light and its powers. He wrote this in a letter to his son in 1944, in the middle of both WW2 and his writing of The Lord of the Rings- “Evil labours with vast power and perpetual success, but in vain, preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in”. The forces of evil constantly try and capture our hearts and our institutions in their quest to spread their darkness. But there’s a light deep within us that cannot be overcome. We see this depicted in the movie Return of the Jedi. Luke believes that even though his father had turned so far to the dark side, there was still a kernel of light within him that could shine again. Maybe that’s the part of us that’s made in God’s image. In the climactic scene of the film, Luke refuses to fight Darth Vader or the Emperor. He drops his weapon and says to his father, “I feel the good in you, the conflict”. Vader responds, “There is no conflict. You underestimate the power of the dark side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny”. Yet despite these defiant words, the love in Luke’s heart got through to his father. The light within him was activated, and Vader picked up the Emperor and destroyed him. And then he abandoned his allegiance to the dark side forever. If we bring the light, the light wins.
So friends, I don’t know what the future holds. It may reveal things that are hard to swallow, or it may not. But what I do know is that if we put on the armour of Godthrough prayer, through faith, through love and through truth telling- the flaming arrows of darkness will never pierce us. If we walk in the light together, the principalities and powers don’t stand a chance. So grab your shield, and let’s march into the glorious new morning that awaits us.
May it be so. Amen.
“This is your sword, this is your shield
This is the power of love revealed
Carry them with you wherever you go
And give all the love that you have in your soul”.
- Bruce Springsteen, ‘This Is Your Sword’
Endnotes (1) Charles L. Campbell, The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, Ch.1.
(2) Nathan Schneider. “The Biblical Worldview of William Stringfellow”. Religious Dispatches. http://religiondispatches.org/the-biblical-circus-of-williamstringfellow/
(3) Quoted in: Bill Wylie-Kellerman, “Not Vice Versa. Reading the Powers Biblically: Stringfellow, Hermeneutics, and the Principalities”, Anglican Theological Review 81, 4(1999):671.
(4) Joachim Veetter letter from: Dan Carlin, Hardcore History 27, ‘Ghosts of the Osfront’. https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-27-ghosts-of-theostfront- i/