We primarily think about the problems we face today in terms of individualism, pointing fingers at persons who are making bad choices. However, the Bible speaks of the struggle against systemic issues, what are called “principalities and powers” that shape the structures of how we live. The unique call of Kingdom people is to focus our struggle against these systems, rather than against people.
The ideology of individualism leads us to focus on individuals’ choices. It works this way: If a person is in prison, on drugs, gets pregnant out of wedlock, robs a store, or lives in a poor neighborhood, they chose it. This is all that needs to be said. Within the framework of individualism, talk of talk of “systemic” racism is often seen as a liberal excuse so that people can avoid taking individual moral responsibility. For instance, because black people comprise 13% of the population but almost 50% of the prison population, individualistic thinking leads to the conclusion that black people just make the individual, free choice to engage in crime rather than to work hard and become successful within the law.
However, this way of thinking assumes people make free decisions in a vacuum. In reality, there are invisible forces that influence and shape people, who are themselves unaware of the influence. The Bible assumes individuals are morally responsible for their own decisions, but yet the Bible also sees individuals as parts of a larger whole. Who the individual is, is defined in relation to the group and vice versa. If we are thinking biblically, we shouldn’t try to understand any crisis situation by only assessing individual choices. Rather, we must also look at the historic and systemic context in which people’s decisions are made.
This biblical perspective is summarized in Ephesians 6:10-12. The reference to “Rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil” is found in about two dozen other places in the New Testament. When understood in their first century context, we can see that the principalities and powers are what some today would call arch-angels – high ranking divine agents who were originally entrusted to care for aspects of creation and of human society. Some of these principalities and powers rebelled against God and now use their authority over aspects of creation and society at cross-purposes with God. The world is engulfed by forces of evil, headed up by Satan. Demons afflict individuals, but principalities and powers affect structures – the systemic aspects of society.
We’re supposed to struggle with principalities and powers. If we aren’t resisting them, we’re conforming to them because the principalities and powers are always trying to unconsciously influence and shape us. The struggle is not with enemies of flesh and blood – that is, humans. We’re either resisting the powers that are trying to divide us by loving all people at all times, or we’re being played by the principalities and powers and tricked into thinking that other people are our enemies. This is why Jesus taught us to always love and bless and do good to our human enemies and to always refrain from violence against them.
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