I just voted for myself, for the third time. I’ve now run in federal (2015), provincial (2018), and municipal (this coming Monday) elections. When I started studying theology, I didn’t anticipate this turn to politics. In hindsight, it seems inevitable.
There were two concepts that jumped out at me when I started reading systematic theology, ideas that keep coming back to mind both for being complex and for being simple, blindingly obvious once conceived. (I started with Bonhoeffer, and haven’t expanded much. He has a knack for prompting the kinds of questions that keep my mind busy.)
The first is that when God became a human being in Jesus Christ, he became the most humanest human to ever be human, the true human. This is a common notion in the doctrine of incarnation, but I first saw it in Bonhoeffer, and it was in Bonhoeffer that I saw the greatest emphasis on ethics as the distinction between being more human and less. I won’t try to splice ethics from morals here, but the point is that Christ is the true human, and it is in other people (the “ethical encounter”) that we encounter Christ, and it is in Christ that we find our own humanity. To the extent that we are becoming like Christ in our actions or ethics, then, we are in a very important sense becoming more human.
The second concept that jumped out at me in my first or second year of Seminary was a theological notion of social institutions. Bonhoeffer talks about them in Luther’s language of Divine Mandates, but I found a more comprehensive discussion of them in the theology of the Powers and Principalities, on which I eventually wrote my MA thesis. While Christians have traditionally conceived of evil primarily in personal, radical form (i.e., Satan, the devil, demons), the apostle Paul devotes a considerable number of words to describing evil in institutional form (powers, principalities, dominions, thrones, elements of the universe, all of which have been overcome by Christ in his resurrection). I wrote my thesis comparing these views, which exist in tension in the Bible but are rarely acknowledged in theology today, and concluding that in either case the Christian response to evil is expressed in a distinct ethical character (i.e., whether people are possessed/influenced by personal radical evil or oppressed by institutional evil, the way that we “fight” this evil is through radical love and virtue).
The theological theory of social institutions is not so different from the sociological view of social institutions: whether cultural or structural, they govern our lives in ways that can create order but can also cause great oppression. In theological terms, institutions can be fallen or even demonic. For example, a justice system meant to deter crime and foster repentance or rehabilitation can over time become a system of racial oppression, hurting those it was meant to help and delivering as much injustice as justice. Walter Wink, whose theology of the Powers is the most comprehensive that I’ve seen and formed the backbone of my thesis, referred to the culmination of institutional evil (wherein many different social institutions are fallen in ways that oppress people from multiple angles at the same time) as the “Domination System”, which he believed was personified in Scripture as “Satan.” He offered a kind of mantra: “the powers are good, the powers have fallen, the powers must be redeemed.” Redeeming the powers (through reform) is preferable to destroying them (through revolution), if the latter is even possible. A central point of this theory is that even though human beings hold positions of power within institutions, these institutions have their own character and power that is greater than whoever currently sits on the throne. Even if we tried to destroy a power by destroying the social structures or institutions (e.g., a government) through revolution, history has shown us that what follows is usually a nastier form of the same; at that point it doesn’t particularly matter if the fallen power has been destroyed or has simply survived the regime change, the fallen and oppressive nature of it is enhanced by the destructive nature of political or cultural revolution.
Redeeming the powers through reform feels impossible. As social institutions, they are bigger than any of us, and our impact on them is limited even if we are in a position of leadership or authority within them. For someone outside of a position of influence within the powers, we can combat their oppression by supporting the oppressed, offering love, generosity, peace, community. But for those who are in positions of power, we can redirect the powers through those same things, making an impact on the character of the social institution by the nature of our own character.
Today as I walked home after voting for myself I was reminded of the challenge before me. Getting elected is difficult, but not the true challenge. Having a character that will make a positive impact on the institution of our government is the true challenge. My personal ethics and character will determine whether or not I am successful, should I be elected, in bringing even small positive influence or reform. But what struck me today is that, should I be elected next week, I will have more feedback than most people about whether or not my humanity is deepening or dissipating. Am I becoming more like Christ – more human – or less? Most of us have to guess about this and hope we’re going in the right direction, but I will be able to read about it in the newspaper. What a blessing, but the thought of it leaves me in a cold sweat.
My insight today goes far beyond just me though. When we think of institutional evil we often juxtapose it with personal evil, either in a chicken-or-egg formulation or a downward spiral: do evil people make for evil institutions, or do evil institutions make for evil people? The traditional conception of evil as demons whispering in our ears supports the former; the theology of the powers aligns more with the latter. When it comes to what we are to do about it, it doesn’t particularly matter which came first; the important part is that we know how to stop the downward spiral – by being more human, more loving, more compassionate. But that also gives some insight into the question of which came first: could it be that the social institutions that are supposed to serve humanity have fallen not because we humans have fallen and thus made them evil, but because we as fallen human beings lack the authority to order the institutions that order our lives? If we were more truly human, would we be so impotent against the oppression of the powers, and would they so easily shift from their designated role as servants of humanity to become our lords? It’s a subtle difference, but important, and one Scripture makes much of.
Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Sociologists distinguish between authority and power: authority is obedience freely given, while power is compelled or forced obedience. These concepts exist in relationship with each other, so that a leader who relies on power loses authority, but a leader with sufficient authority need not use their power. Jesus Christ is the ultimate figure to show the distinction: as God he had ultimate power, and yet refused to use that power even to save his own life. The New Testament suggests that it was this ultimate refusal of power that resulted in him receiving all authority, so that in his unjust death at the hands of the powers and principalities he triumphed over the powers and principalities. It was in this authority that he cast out demons, and that demons were cast out by others in his name after his death; but an episode in Acts shows that while demons responded to his authority, they did not respond to the abuse of his name by those who would use it as a word of power.
So this is the question: if we actually became more like Christ, more truly human, would we have sufficient authority, whether moral or social or any other way you might look at it, over the powers? Would we not only look to direct them in more humanizing ways, but also have a greater ability to do so with more authority to draw on? Of course the answer is yes: that is the nature of authority. But why is this so hard to see when we look at our actual social institutions?
We must resist falling back into the dichotomy of personal vs social: we should not say, as many do, that the answer to all social evils is to look inward at ourselves; and we must not say that the answer to all of our own evils is the influence of fallen powers, either. Too much emphasis on either of these is dis-empowering and overwhelming. If the issue is my lack of character, well, I continue to be sinful and fallen despite my best efforts, so how can I possibly be an influence for good in our society? And if the issue is fallen social institutions that are so much bigger than me, how much influence can I possibly have even if I were perfect?
Instead, we need to flip that script. When confronted with a fallen power, when nobody else seems to be doing anything, we can say “but I refuse to let that change my character.” And when confronted by our own inner darkness and weakness we can seek the support of our community to find deliverance and light. And just like the chicken-and-egg view of evil, there is no clear answer as to which comes first, supportive community or personal character – but together they create an upward spiral.
By seeking election, I’m using my personal character to try to block the downward spiral of institutional decline. I pray that my character will survive the political process, and that I will become more human through it. But I will also rely on the support of my community to maintain and grow my character – and I’ve already found incredible support in my community at large, as well as my church community. From this, I hope that we can reform our local politics into something more positive, something that might have a positive influence on provincial politics too, and maybe from there to federal and international politics. It was theology that suggested to me that this was possible; I hope to see it happen soon. Pray that I will be human enough to have true authority over the powers.