Institutions and Systems; Powers and Principalities
Christians confess humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27); they also confess God as One in Three and Three in One, One in relational unity (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, John 17:20-23). Thus humans are made for relational unity with God and with one another (John 17:20-23); humans, by their very nature, will seek out fellow human beings with whom to share in life and advance their shared purposes.
To this end we find the existence of collectives, institutions, and their systems fairly intuitive. We inhabit a world full of such collective institutions: for governing, the United Nations, individual nation-states, departments, provinces, or states within nation-states, counties or parishes, cities, townships, and villages, and neighborhoods, all with their departments and ministries addressing all sorts of issues and matters of state; for commerce, family or small businesses, corporations, co-operatives, guilds, and trade unions; for communities, for education, schools, colleges, and universities, and all sorts of voluntary associations like churches and other religious organizations, youth serving organizations, sports clubs and teams, groups for people of like ethnicity, geography, hobby, or passion; and families. We also have learned to navigate the systems which these collective institutions have developed in order to leverage their power and resources: everything from obtaining licenses from, applying for aid or redress from, or petitioning various governmental authorities, to the process of being accepted and participating in a group or a school or a corporation, to the seemingly never-ending automated options when attempting to get satisfaction from a corporation or government.
What humans often find more challenging is any sort of existence of a collective beyond the “inputs” from its constituent individuals. Is there anything more to “the government” than all the various individuals who work as part of that government, and the people whom the government serves? If the “General Electric Corporation,” just to use one example, were to eliminate all its employees and executives, and become owned by a completely different group of shareholders, would it still be the same “General Electric Corporation,” or would it become something completely different? Or can “the government,” the “General Electric Corporation,” or any other collective institution take on a life of its own? How would such work? What would it mean for those who participate in such collective institutions or are significantly influenced by them?
Many, on account of cultural and political commitments, immediately prove skeptical of the existence, or need for accountability, of anything beyond individuals. They believe any difficulties we experience on a collective institutional level derive from the moral failings of individuals participating in those institutions. Problems within the systems developed within these collective institutions, such a view would reason, are really the fault of those who work within those systems. If such were true, it would stand to reason, the elimination of the “few bad apples” that have corrupted such institutions and their systems would lead to relieved oppression, and everything would work the way it should.
If only the failings of collective institutions and their systems could be so easily resolved! And yet the reality remains far more complicated. Collective institutions have never been merely groups of individuals all maintaining their full autonomy and integrity in every way; collective institutions have always had a habit of developing their own cultures and attitudes. As humans have fallen into corruption and sinfulness, so the collective institutions and the systems they build reflect corruption and sinfulness. Collective institutions often exist primarily to provide advantage to its constituent members to the active harm of those who are not its members: witness “hate groups,” nation-states, and the like. Institutions often leverage their authority and influence to avoid death and accountability which would cause it to lose integrity, standing, authority, and influence. Participants in collective institutions most often have every incentive to defend the “bad apples” as opposed to expose them; those who have the integrity to serve as “whistleblowers” are rarely lauded and rewarded, but most often alienated and “shown the door.” Everyone in the collective institution has learned the lesson: us or them. Corruption and oppression thus continue.
Nothing in the previous paragraph has presumed any kind of moral agency beyond the level of the individual. And yet on what basis would we conclude collective institutions and their systems have no existence beyond the individuals which comprise them, and no moral agency whatsoever? We can see how they develop their own cultures which might well continue to exist even if all the people involved were replaced. We are painfully aware how individuals might seem reasonable, but often in groups people are able to justify participation in horrific evils. If we have ever found ourselves disadvantaged or oppressed by a particular collective institution or its systems, we rarely find the difficulty to have come from a particular person; the disadvantage is made to seem very impersonal and to cause the person involved to feel less than human.
The Scriptures do provide us with a way to understand how collective institutions and their systems might have existence beyond their constituent individuals: the powers and principalities. We are given no systematic treatise explaining the powers and principalities; instead, God has given us fleeting glimpses of spiritual realities most likely holistically well beyond our understanding but remain important for us to know they at least exist. Paul spoke of them as our true enemy in Ephesians 6:12; Jesus triumphed over them in His death and resurrection according to Colossians 2:15. We see something similar at work with the elohim whom YHWH condemned as insufficiently establishing justice in Psalm 82:1-8 and the “prince of Persia” who hindered an angel from visiting Daniel in Daniel 10:1-14. Not all spiritual powers work against God in Christ; angels might be considered spiritual powers, since “the angel of the church” is the specific addressee of each of the seven churches of Asia Minor in Jesus’ letters in the Spirit in Revelation 2:1-3:21.
If we are to understand each local congregation has its own angel given authority to oversee it, and each nation has its own power or principality likewise given authority over it, it is not difficult for us to imagine how each collective institution of humanity has some kind of power or principality involved. We have no idea what kind of contest goes on among these powers and principalities in the spiritual realm except for the changes and fallout we experience in our material realm as a result. There is more beyond our understanding than anything we can understand, yet it remains good for us to consider such things lest we deny their existence in our folly.
What could we say about such things? God might well empower a power or principality over collective institutions of humanity. Those powers and principalities might seek to accomplish God’s purposes in upholding justice and righteousness in part or in whole; they likely have free will and many have used that free will, as humans have, in ways which resist God’s purposes, and commit injustice and oppression. They rise and fall according to God’s judgment. If the “good” powers are angels, then the “bad” or “corrupted” powers are likely demons, seeking their own power and benefit to the active harm of others. Paul warned Christians about the pernicious influence of deceptive spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1); we can see how this has worked out in terms of all the false teachings and practices prevalent in “Christendom,” but are we willing to see how they have worked in cultures, societies, and collective institutions in general? When a whole group of people have seemingly willingly given themselves over to lies and deceit, is it not possible they have come under the spell of a demonic delusion?
Such concepts and discussions are new to many Christians; they definitely seem weird, and many may dismiss them as outlandish. Nevertheless, if we all recognize that the world has come under the power of the Evil One who has deceived many (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19), why would the collective institutions of humanity not also come under his sway, or at least prove able to be tempted by him to work against God’s purposes? Has not God revealed enough for us to at least be open to the possibility that collectives have existence above and beyond their constituent members?
Christians are called to resist the powers and principalities and stand firm in Jesus and His power (Ephesians 6:10-18). Christians should be aware of the corruption of collective institutions and their systems, and work to call them to account. Such forces are likely beyond the power of individuals, but the reformation of collective institutions and systems have only been accomplished through the tireless efforts and advocacy of those who would hold them to account, and they generally are those either outside of the collective institution or who have been alienated from and/or oppressed by the institution. If nothing else, Christians should not actively advance the oppression and injustice perpetrated by collective institutions and the systems they have developed, nor should they commend or justify them. In everything Christians must look out for the deceit and temptation of evil spirits, demonic forces, and/or the powers and principalities, and overcome them through their commitment to Jesus and the ways of His Reign. May we all resist the injustices and oppression of collective institutions and the systems they develop, and in all ways work to glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry