Here’s a question that’s worth reflecting on: are people primarily autonomous individuals who make themselves what they are or are they largely shaped by the societal structures in which they’re placed? Obviously, most of us wouldn’t be inclined to pick one to the complete exclusion of the other, however what I’d argue is that the degree to which we emphasize one over the other often shapes our philosophical, religious and political views in profound ways.
On the one hand, I really do think there’s something powerful about taking radical responsibility for our lives. As human beings we wake up in the morning and we have choices to make and it’s up to us, for good or ill, to make them as best we can. In the church we’re often prone to shirk this responsibility off to God: telling everyone that He’s whispered in our ears and so it’s not really us that’s making the decision at all. This mostly drives me crazy. At the end of the day we have to put on our big kid pants, make decisions, and live with the consequences.
And yet as a Christian I’m also very influenced by the idea that there are larger forces at play in our lives – something the Apostle Paul refers to as the Principalities and Powers. This is usually interpreted in one of two ways. My Christian friends take it very literally, with some notion of ghastly invisible demons flying around oppressing people, tempting them to take a drink of alcohol and engage in buddhist meditation. On the other hand, my secular non-religious friends laugh these notions off as just so much silly pre-enlightenment bunk. These concepts are the naive remains of a bygone era that we can’t move beyond quickly enough.
Might they both be missing the point?
There’s a story about a town that was deeply divided by racial and economic strife, and as if to highlight the issue geographically, a highway literally split the town in two. On one side you had a new shopping mall, nice roads, and a pristine high school, while on the other side (which was of course predominantly African-American) unemployment and crime had ravaged the landscape: no new roads, no upscale shopping malls, and no pristine high school. Furthermore, a handful of white upper-crust Christian folks had campaigned and gotten themselves elected to the school board at the African American school. Once in office, they had the gall to begin diverging what little funds the struggling school possessed over to the wealthier high school across town based on the notion that this was a more ‘prudent’ use of the cities’ finances. Upon hearing of this, a local African-American pastor stormed into the next monthly gathering of local church clergy, put his finger in the faces of the white pastor’s who’s congregants had run for the school board and proclaimed flatly that these parishioners were demon possessed by a spirit of racism and greed. He declared that they should be called to account for their actions by their local churches.
Of course, whether you believe in literal angels and demons is completely beside the point – the pastor was absolutely right. There were larger powers at play here, structures of exploitation that needed to be called out and dismantled in the name of the God who is love. I believe this is what’s “getting said” when the Bible talks of the Principalities and Powers. There is more going on than individuals making choices – we all unknowingly participate in systems and structures that perpetuate injustice and and as Christians we shouldn’t be blind to that fact. In conclusion, here’s a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that seems to strike at the heart of this dilemma.
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”