Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to Ephesus, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)
I remember reading Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness in the mid-1980s. The title for that novel came from the Scripture passage cited above, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against...the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” As an Amazon.com review describes it, “Nearly every page of the book describes sulfur-breathing, black-winged, slobbering demons battling with tall, handsome, angelic warriors on a level of reality that is just beyond the senses.” Looking back, the book seems maudlin; but when I first read it, Peritti’s Christian thriller provided a lens to view reality. Things happening in the world of the senses were linked with the doings of an unseen realm.
For those of us concerned with issues of justice and compassion, the past months have been frightening and, at times, have felt almost apocalyptic. We read articles trying to explain how prejudice and scapegoating combine to create this perfect storm of intolerance. Yet it still seems surreal.
I awoke recently with the Ephesians spiritual warfare passage running through my mind, and the thought “Pray against the spiritual powers of oppression.” Was that my irrational mind taking control? My synapses having a flashback to my more-Fundamentalist self of three decades ago? I reflected a bit, and concluded it was not those things. It makes sense.
Before going further, I need to throw out a few caveats. First, I don’t wish to “demonize” those with whom I disagree politically. In a metaphorical sense, we “demonize” others when we see them as abstractions of evil—“enemy” and “opposition,” rather than fellow bearers of the Divine image. In a more literal sense, there’s a long and sad history of religious leaders calling their opponents “the devil.” I’m sensitive to this, having been on the receiving end: a fellow local minister once referred to me from his pulpit as “Satan’s insidious scheme” to ruin our community (his theology being more conservative than mine). But in fact, I believe the perspective which I am presenting here helps us not to demonize others—to see them as fellows, caught up by the same forces.
Neither must we fall into the literalism of “sulfur-breathing, black-winged, slobbering demons.” We can consider the reality of “cosmic forces” without having to picture them like actors in a production of Faust. And we can also evade the error of seeing a demon behind every bush. As the great Oxford thinker C. S. Lewis wrote,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Contemporary physics presents us with the possibility of overlapping dimensions, and the perennial wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions populates these near-yet-invisible realms with entities. Today’s mythologies portray these beings as “Dementors” (in Harry Potter) “Ringwraiths” (in Lord of the Rings) and “Sith” (in Star Wars). Perhaps our need to portray such powers in both new and old mythologies reflects the archetypal remembrance of real spiritual forces.
The late Walter Wink was a Progressive Christian theologian and seminary professor whose writing sprang from involvement in civil rights and from deep reflection on the Bible. Wink wrote much about “the powers” mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the Ephesians passage and in Colossians. The Powers in our world today are “institutions, structures, and systems” yet they are more than that. “In the biblical view the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional” (from The Powers That Be, page 24). Wink notes that the Powers—though they transcend individual mortals in power and scope—are in another sense like humanity: they are created by God, they have fallen, and they must be redeemed.
As we see the rise of hate crimes in America and in Europe, see the harm done by travel bans and immigration crackdowns, and perceive the way that governmental forces seek to overwhelm citizen movements, it seems plausible to envision the forces behind these trends as psychological, institutional, and, yes, spiritual as well. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo offers the One Ring to Gandalf, who demurs saying, “Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it… I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.” The Ring is another symbolic representation of the Cosmic Powers; power corrupts, and the Powers are corruption on steroids.
The Apostle Paul, in his call to resistance against the Powers in the Letter to Ephesus, concludes “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” There are embodied aspects of the Powers that must be resisted by tangible means; yet there are also spiritual dynamics that must be spiritually confronted. The Powers are fallen yet redeemable, and spiritual practices contain the potential to convert the Powers back to the good.
Celtic Christian practices of the Early Middle Ages inform my spirituality because they are surprisingly relevant to contemporary challenges. One of those practices is spiritual resistance to the Powers through prayer. As I wrote elsewhere:
Fully a third of the recorded miracles of Saint Columba involve evil spirits. On one occasion, Columba was fasting alone on Iona. In a vision, he saw a wave of black creatures holding iron darts, attaching and striking down the monks of his monastery…. Protected by the armor of God, Columba spent the entire day in violent combat, taking on the demonic forces singlehandedly, a true warrior of the Spirit. When the exhausted saint returned to the monastery, he informed his fellows that they had been spared from the plague, due to his spiritual warfare on their behalf. (Water from an Ancient Well, page 206)
One benefit of praying against the powers is that it helps us not to demonize our human opponents, because we recognize them as sharing common humanity, caught up as we are by the Powers. I recall an incident of extreme conflict that I was involved in; another person became the identified opponent and emotions reached nuclear meltdown. Later, an unexpected encounter with the opponent served to unmask the illusion; the “opponent” was little different from myself. Reflecting some time later, all the actors in this drama felt they were caught up in greater forces—influences that drove the situation and seemed to take on a frightening life of their own. Viewing similar examples of conflict, it enables healing when we realize that both sides can be swayed by the Powers.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of resistance-by-intercession is the way that prayer provides hope. In the current struggle for justice and human rights, many activists feel overwhelmed. What can mere citizens do against the Empire? Yet the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity abound with examples of prayer’s efficacy against the Powers.
In The Powers That Be, Wink affirms that prayer “creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by an unholy necessity…. A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in even one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world.” Wink concludes, “History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being…. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being” (The Powers That Be, pages 186-187).
So may we continue to march, visit and call our elected officials, and provide safety for our marginalized neighbors. Let us persist in action. And…pray. Pray for the transformation of spiritual Powers that energize the politics of hatred. Prayer is neither an excuse for inaction nor is it wishful thinking. Even as Progressive believers in the twenty-first century, we can credibly believe what Paul wrote in another Epistle: “the weapons of our warfare are not of earthly nature, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
Kenneth McIntosh is the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life and Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock's Tail Feathers. This post is adapted from Water from an Ancient Well.