In Ever-More Predatory and Beguiling Forms

BWKFrom Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s recent release Principalities in Particular: A Practical Theology of the Powers That Be (Oct 2017):

In the struggle for racial justice the recognition of “institutional racism,” that insidious structural element far beyond personal prejudice, was a huge step toward seeing racism as a principality. Ironically, however, the liberal preoccupation with its institutional character would prove progressively blind to its overpowering spiritual dimension. The African American freedom struggle, founded under SCLC’s early banner, “To Heal the Soul of the Nation,” tended to become more and more a civil rights movement with a largely legislative agenda. In the several decades since Stringfellow’s address, the legal apparatus of our American apartheid has been all but dismantled. End of racism, right? No. We ignore its spiritual reality at the peril of our national soul. And there is no force in our history that has proven more relentless or devastatingly resilient than white racism. It is empirically a demon which again and again rises up transmogrified in ever-more predatory and beguiling forms, truly tempting our despair. The frustration we suffer is not unlike that of the disciples who were gently upbraided by Jesus, “This kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.”

Generally, with respect to powers theology, the effort is often to convince theological liberals that institutional structures have a spiritual dimension that must be taken with equal seriousness, and then to convince theological conservatives that principalities are not airy beings waiting to swoop down on unprepared individuals, but that they invariably have their feet on the ground, being embodied and incarnated in social forms and cultural structures.

With respect to racism and social transformation, the struggle before us remains necessarily two-handed or two-edged, fusing social analysis and institutional reconstruction with discernment, prayer, and worship-based action. These may be held together conscientiously in parallel tracks or welded in a single spiritual-political act. It’s no tactical coincidence that in the best of the freedom movement, the church was “the place to go out from.” Prayer and preaching and knock-down singing were introit to action. And one with it. Under the charge of benediction, people would pour down the aisle and out the doors to march or sit-in or boycott. The powers of racial injustice to be confronted in the street had already been named and met and brought down before the sovereignty of God in worship. Their spiritual claim already shaken.

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