Principalities

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William Stringfellow

Remember, now, that the State has only one power it can use against human beings: death. The State can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, and execute you.

– from the transcript of the trial of the Catonsville Nine (1968), William Stringfellow

The state has always been the preeminent principality.  Every ruler, from princely, to fascist, to democratic, runs its affairs with a threat.  Cooperate and share in our success; non-cooperation will be met forcibly.  That force ranges from shaming to dis-reputation to slander to dis-crediting to seizing of property to the destruction of property to the disbanding of families and communities to isolation to banishment to torture to execution.  And even though this later term is also called the death penalty, these are all designed to be punitive in nature.  They all collude in one way or another with Death.

 According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

Terms that characterize are frequently used biblically in naming the principalities: “tempter,” “mocker,” “foul spirit,” “destroyer,” “adversary,” “the enemy.” And the privity of the principalities to the power of death incarnate is shown in mention of their agency to Beelzebub or Satan or the Devil or the Antichrist…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.

– An Ethic For Christians And Other Aliens In A Strange Land, Stringfellow

The degree to which they are besieged by these calls for loyalty by these powers is lost on most people.  Taken for granted.  Freely, even affectionately accommodated.  Followed without thought, these are, after all, not abstractions; anyone can participate.  Just line up and you’re in.  Everyone does so to one degree or another.  Humans search for meaning.  Since survival of the institution is the operative ethic of all institutions, those who associate themselves with the institution find a sense of belonging and consequently are prejudice against those who do not belong.

Allow me to give you an example from my own life.  While studying for my MDiv degree forty years ago, in my final year in seminary the president of the denomination came to address our class.  It was a Pep Rally of sorts.  He laid out the denominations grand history, tying it to our current identity, and the challenges that were on the horizon in terms of making the gospel relevant to future culture.  But there seemed to be a disunion between the denomination’s past in my mind and its future as he presented it.  If our forebears had devised what had been our identity while meeting the needs of the 19th century, then perhaps it would be more expedient to dissolve the denomination and reform it or to conjoin it with others so as to better respond actively to God’s leading in the future?  It was simply an honest question; his response was directed at me and was personally scathing.

Even churches are principalities.  At the end of the day, any principality’s goal will be to survive.  This means that the institution will do what it has do to survive. It will fire people.  It will protect its reputation.  It will behave inconsistently…even irrationally.  In the denomination in which I was raised it has treated others horribly to serve itself as a principality.  Why? Because it must persist. The power, through those who serve it, defends itself.  This power, not the people, is in control. The power existed before this generation and will survive it. It’s like an ant colony. No one person rules. Individual ants come and go. Live and die. What controls it all is an emergent spirituality that governs the survival response and keeps the power alive from generation to generation, acquiring new slaves and servants as it moves through time.  Three thousand years ago God’s people worshipped golden calves, today they worship money, and celebrity, and prestige, and nationalism, and denominations.  The great compromise of the church with the emperor Constantine served to begin to accommodate Christianity with the values of principalities and the preservation of power.

God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) was founded on humans being human and God being God.  Abraham may have devised the contract, but God accepted the sole responsibility for executing the contract, both then and forever; Abraham’s terms, God’s actions.  The dynamism of that agreement lay in the fact that God knew that humans would forever be consigning themselves and others to Death.  Always confused on what it meant to be human, they would always strive to take the place of God.  The confession of the early church that Jesus is Lord callsus back to our humanity.  This is the way of the Word.

In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst Babel, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, define the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death’s works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience.

An Ethic For Christians, Stringfellow

On one occasion when Dorothy Day was at Mass the organist began to play the national anthem of the United States.  Rather than jumping to her feet with the rest of the congregation, she went down on her knees.  The very act of praying inherently razes the houses that principalities build.

In every age Christianity has to start all over again in nonviolent resistance to the state and its consignment of death.   And we do it as Christians by simply being human.  Perhaps that most categorically means that we refuse to see ourselves as being saved or even religious,

To keep [the Word of God] close, to speak [and live it] afresh, to make it new…this is the way with the Word, which we name Christ.  The covenant keeps us who keep the covenant.

– William Stringfellow eulogy (1985), Daniel Berrigan

And today I wonder at the irony that in 1970 when Fr. Daniel Berrigan was being sought by the FBI for burning draft cards, that he was arrested at the residence of Anthony Towne and William Stringfellow on Block Island, whose home was named, Eschaton?

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