I logged onto facebook this morning (early in the week) in a spare moment. One of the first things that hit me was a post that said: ‘Remember Australia – a change of prime ministers means change your smoke alarm battery.’ (Another today said: ‘Only 3 Prime Ministers until Christmas.’) I couldn’t help but re-post it. It was funny but also pathetically sad as we experience yet another chaotic time of posturing for power and position in the halls of power in Oz. We’ve been through it all before – too often and in both parties. The worst of it is the sense of vengeance, payback, retribution or retaliation that seems to underlie everything. It was the ‘Yorkshire cat’ grin of Tony Abbott that made me feel almost as sick as the thought of Peter Dutton becoming Prime Minister after his complete lack of compassion and care towards vulnerable people. What is this all about? Policies that are important are retracted and used as political pawns to garner support from scared and anxious backbenchers who feel the pressure of their own precarious positions in the electorate. Fear, anxiety, power, revenge breaks these ‘teams’ open and creates havoc.
Whilst there may be particular people in the background and there is a face to the conflict, the machinations feel much darker and more mysterious. There are systems and psychology that fuel movements and ideas that grow in the spaces between people and escalate or amplify individual motives and capacity through a group-speak/action narrative. There is a spirit within a group or organisation of people that represents something bigger and more than the sum-parts of the individuals. This ‘spirit’ gives voice and expression to the collective and drives the whole towards an end – sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. We can think of the spirit inherent in Nazism and the way an insidious evil took control of people, groups, and a nation. It didn’t always appear dangerous or fully evil but grew into something so horrifically evil that it is hard to comprehend how human beings could be part of the actions perpetrated under Hitler.
We can also think of the spirit within movements building for the common good and human rights and justice – Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, or Nelson Mandella. We could also think of Mother Teresa and countless other leaders who have gathered people into movements of love, grace, compassion, peace and justice. Within these movements there has been a spirit of grace, love, courage and hope that has grown and flourished in a manner greater than the sum-parts and it drew others into a beautiful vision of community, inclusion, belonging and hope for all people.
There is a power, a force in groups that can be a profound force for good or evil. These profound forces are present in organisations, institutions, board rooms, parliaments, churches and anywhere people gather together or express power and authority. Theologian Walter Wink calls them the ‘Powers that Be’ and says:
“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them.”
He goes on to suggest that these powers are responsible for all manner of things, good and evil in human life – it is the stuff of the evening news. The processes that conspire to treat vulnerable human beings as second rate or non-human. The story of Munjed Al Muderis who appeared on Anh Do’s ‘Brush With Fame’ recently, is a profound example of Australian authorities treating very vulnerable people as second-rate humans. He was locked away in a detention centre that was disgusting, and dangerous because when people are treated worse than animals they lose hope and become desperate, depressed, angry and act out. His story is profound in hope and patience against all that the powers and authorities of this world, from Saddam Hussein to authorities in Australia and everyone in between. He is a world-renowned Orthosurgeon, specialising in prosthetics surgery. He had to fight, struggle and prove himself move than others. It is hard to overcome the Powers that Be and they can create devastation in human life, communities and our world (Hitler, ISIS, terrorism, hard-line political stances that are prejudiced, racist etc).
One of this week’s reading is from Ephesians 6:10-20. It is written 2000 years ago in the language and framework of the time. It speaks of spiritual powers in the heavens as powers against which we fight and struggle. Australian Biblical scholar, Bill Loader says:
When the author declares that our fight is not against flesh and blood, at one level that is simply being consistent with what has gone before: standing in Christ’s shoes, as it were, we reach out to people not to strike them or push them away, but to bring them the fulness of God’s goodness, which the author sees as God’s great plan: filling the world with love. At another level, the author is saying that there are forces at work which stand in direct opposition to this good news which are bigger than simply what individual [people] do…
…The notions [here] are vague, but they express the sense of vulnerability of human beings to forces far beyond their control. In the ancient world such experiences usually merged the world of spirits and the world of political or military powers which they were believed to control. Each ruler was said to have its heavenly angels or spirit…
…These, then, are the forces that divide, that create barriers, that discriminate, that set people against each other. We fail to appreciate the radical nature of these assertions if we reduce Ephesians here simply to worry about evil spirits and dark forces in the spirit world, unrelated to everyday life. Nor should we simply read our different understandings of such powers back into the text. We can identify with the vulnerability which their demonology expressed while articulating it in our different terms. We might speak of dynamics of power, systems at work through vested interests and political powers, destructive forces at work in humanity without needing to embrace a demonology.