In the Epistle to the Ephesians, one can find (as many lectionary-based churches did this past weekend) the familiar command to “put on the armor of God.” I confess, this language almost always makes me nervous. Even a cursory look at Christian history will give countless examples of people twisting this text, and others like it, to justify physical harm to those who differ from their particular point of view. Violence done in the name of God is no stranger to any of the major world religions, yet this passage is clear that “our battle is not against flesh and blood.” Therefore, we need to think long and hard before taking up weapons (whether they be physical, verbal, or otherwise) to “do battle” with a human enemy.
Rather, the passage names the “rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers” as the real enemy in our battle. While I don’t want to discount the language or reality of “demons” or “Satan,” I truly believe that the late Walter Wink’s corrective is worth considering for many in the church today (especially those who are skeptical of the so-called “social gospel”). It is written in a more academic tone, but I believe it worth wrestling with for all believers today. For example, in a section of commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20, he describes the “rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers” this way:
Here once again we have what is essentially a series, a heaping up of terms to describe the ineffable, invisible world-enveloping reach of a spiritual network of powers inimical to life. The very intention of series such as this, as we have seen repeatedly, is to be comprehensive. We must include here, then, all [rulers] and [authorities] we have encountered, not only divine but human, not only personified but structural, not only demons and kings but the world atmosphere and power invested in institutions, laws, traditions, and rituals as well, for it is the cumulative, totalizing effect of all these taken together that creates the sense of bondage to a “dominion of darkness” presided over by higher powers. . . . We must not neglect to mention here the spirit of empire, which perpetuates itself through a succession of rulers and which was so powerful, in the case of Rome, that it was able to sustain the madness of three emperors in one century (Caligula, Nero, Domitian). Nor can we leave aside all forms of institutional idolatry, whereby religion, commerce, education, and state make their own well-being and survival the final criteria of morality, and by which they justify the liquidation of prophets, the persecution of deviants, and the ostracism of opponents.
So formidable a phalanx of hostility demands spiritual weaponry, for it is clear that we contend not against human beings as such but against legitimations, seats of authority, hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions which their human incumbents exercise and which transcend these incumbents in both time and power. It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institutions and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent. For the institution will guarantee the replacement of this person with another virtually the same, who despite personal preferences will replicate decisions made by a whole string of predecessors because that is what the institution requires for its survival. It is this suprahuman quality which accounts for the apparent “heavenly,” bigger than life, quasi-eternal character of the Powers. (Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, 86-87)
The bottom line is this: too often we engage in a fight of “symptom management” and never take the time to truly address the underlying disease. Too often, we preach a gospel of “sin management,” while neglecting the real need for total conversion and radical spiritual transformation. Too often, we settle for little victories against “human agents” while neglecting the real battle against “the powers.” Too often, we settle for putting bandaids on wounds, while neglecting the call to heal. Too often, our “gospel” is just too small for the real needs around us and we settle for so much less than God intends. Is it any wonder that many find the Church today irrelevant and anemic?
What about you? How would you name the enemy in your own life and in the lives of those you see day in and day out? Until we can truly identify the enemy, how do we really expect to be useful in the battle?