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Center for Action and Contemplation
Evil Is a Social Reality
Evil Is a Social Reality

Taking the Powers Seriously

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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Theologian Walter Wink (1935–2012) dedicated his scholarship and life to uncovering the biblical meaning of structural evil: 

The writers of the Bible had names that helped them identify the spiritual realities that they encountered. They spoke of angels, demons, principalities and powers, Satan, gods, and the elements of the universe. Materialism had no use for such things and so dismissed them.… “Modern” people were supposed to gag on the idea of angels and demons. The world had been mercifully swept clean of these “superstitions,” and people could sleep better at night knowing that they were safe from spirits.…  

If we want to take the notion of angels, demons, and the principalities and powers seriously, we will have to go back to the biblical understanding of spirits in all its profundity and apply it freshly to our situation today.  

Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers,” not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures, and systems. But the Powers … are not just physical. The Bible insists that they are more than that (Ephesians 3:10; 6:12); this “more” holds the clue to their profundity. In the biblical view the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly, and heavenly, spiritual, and institutional (Colossians 1:15–20). Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality…. Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation … as having a spirituality, but they do. The New Testament uses the language of power to refer at one point to the outer aspect, at another to the inner aspect, and yet again to both together. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. 

Wink considered systemic powers as a mix of good and evil that, like humanity, needs redemption: 

If evil is so profoundly systemic, what chance do we have of bringing [institutions] into line with God’s purpose for them? The answer to that question hinges on how we conceive of institutional evil. Are the Powers intrinsically evil? Or are some good? Or are they scattered all along the spectrum from good to evil? The answer seems to be: none of the above. Rather, they are at once good and evil, though to varying degrees, and they are capable of improvement.  

         Put in stark simplicity:  

         The Powers are good.  

         The Powers are fallen.  

         The Powers must be redeemed.…  

They are good by virtue of their creation to serve the humanizing purposes of God. They are all fallen, without exception, because they put their own interests above the interests of the whole. And they can be redeemed, because what fell in time can be redeemed in time.  


Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999), 22–23, 23–24, 31, 32. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Exercise in Grief and Lamentation credits from left to right: Jessie Jones, Jennifer Tompos, Jenna Keiper. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

On retreat, the CAC staff used watercolors to connect to our collective grief. This is one of the watercolor paintings that came from that exercise. 

Story from Our Community:  

In 1954, at the age of 21, I entered a Trappist Abbey, where I remained for 15 years as monk, cellarer, and hermit. During those two years of total hermitage, I came to understand that there is only one reality: God is not separate from all else.… You, me, and all that is, are that singularity which is called God. When I look at the moon, I see it, when I look at the face of another, I see it. My only prayer for the last 60 years has been “yes.” I wake in the middle of the night with yes on my lips. I wake each morning, surprised at still being alive, with yes on my lips. I go to bed each night, not expecting to be alive the next morning, with yes on my lips. Death is always at my side and I am at peace, with “yes” on my lips. —Frank C. 

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