By Jim Perkinson, re-post from Geez magazine
“Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy. We are Messenger.” – Karen Flyntz, An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans
“First bind the Strong Man.” – Mark 3:27
COVID-19 is a messenger. Unseen by us, it began, somewhere in the wild, as a mysterious particle—neither living nor non-living—riding bat wings! But now, it has become a Power. How such might be so is the subject of this writing. Under viral tutelage, we are made witnesses today to an “angel”, in biblical terms, “falling.” Right in front of our eyes! And its falling is essentially a matter of prodigality, of ballooning to unimaginable dimensions. But to see such, we need guidance. Water Wink of scholarly fame, a scant generation ago, ripped open contemporary vision to see behind the veil of “fake news” and political machination. Teasing out the varied meanings of an arcane discourse of “principalities and powers,” Wink unmasked institutional domination in a brand new (but very old) dimension. With his wisdom as counsel, we will track the way a rudimentary class of spirits he calls (quoting Paul) “elements” can be inflated into an overbearing regime of Domination. The “elementary” trope in New Testament use, ranges from angelic beings associated with new moons and zodiac signs to demonic creatures animating legal adherences or even natural forces exercising influence and pressure on human experience and decision-making. The piece to follow here will explore the recent advent of the coronavirus in human experience as just such a natural “element”—part of the winged world of bats for who knows how long a stretch of time, suddenly finding opportunistic opening to “work its magic” in searching for a new arrangement among a whole new constituency.
But stating my purpose such is already problematic for most of us. As modern humans, we are hardly predisposed to perceive the little COVID-strand under this Magus-emblem. We are much more likely to pillory the DNA-pirate under war images. Yet such may well have been its role in evolution and indeed even up through this contemporary moment as part of the continual search of the Mysterious Thrust of Life for adaptive resilience across the microbiome of the planet. There is some thought that the “virodome”—long, long before Genesis-time—may have kicked-started biodiversity on earth by trading RNA for nutrient proteins from the double helix of life, wherever it could find “trading partners.” The result has been continuous transfer of genetic material between hosts, compliments of these tiny invaders. But this “viral quest for exchange” may then beg recognition as ancestral impetus for what we have yet to achieve socially in this country: the flourishing of an ever-creative prolixity and plurality of living being. Here we may be stumbling upon the original “multi-cultural genius” orchestrating biochemical difference into fiercely interdependent mutuality. The conductor was a virus! And in consequence each of us as a human “realization” of this primal “flux and flex” now hosts some 380 trillion viral “riders” on our journey and sometime “contributors” to our own somatic viability. We are hardly “individuals” but rather living/walking ecosystems, symbiotically “break dancing” with all the other ecosystems of our given geographical surrounds by way of microbial communication and interaction. And the coronavirus is then, at one level, simply one tiny appearance of a shared ancestral inheritance, on constant mission to provoke and adapt to novelty.
But as conduits of diversity and provocateurs of novelty, viruses do not only “infect.” They can also reveal. Most immediately, what they reveal today is vulnerability. It would seem part of the tricksterism of wild nature that such a dwarf-being could upend a global economy. What seemed unassailable has now trembled. Rooted in nearly unthinkable algorithmic sophistication, undergirded by gargantuan extractive infrastructure, a world-armature of enslaved iron and corporatized digits has suddenly “coughed” and gone feverish. The machine has shown the degree to which it remains a being of flesh, subject to death and its fears. We are not yet quite a cyborg utopia!
But said more precisely, what the corona-novelty’s recent “Parousia” has most cogently revealed is monstrosity. It has hardly skipped across the world-stage with equal impunity. Rather, having leapt the strait of sequestration between winged “cave” populations and human concentrations in urban quarters, the virus has found re-tooling as a Power (or perhaps more accurately—given its appellation as a “corona” virus—a “Principality” since ironically these were typically depicted in Christian “angel art” as crown-bearing). It gains aim and focus as a weaponized consequence of our social stratification and political violence. And here Paul’s innovatory inventory of “titanic hierarchy” offers food for thought. Confronted with new iterations of routinized imperial violence in his day, the apostle articulated insight from multiple traditions to open up discernment and orient action. His litany of “Principalities and Powers, Thrones and Dominions, Heavenly Authorities and World Rulers” brought itinerary and organization and scale to the task of deciphering and confronting the spiritual interiority of Roman might. Though now archaic (and for many modern minds simply “weird”), this ancient conceit can also open questions for our own struggle to grasp COVID as not merely disease-enemy to be defeated by medical intervention, but simultaneously, Spirit-Omen from the Other-side, demanding hearing.
To wit. The realm of the Powers in the biblical corpus is hardly a central articulation, but rather shows up as a mere hint that glowers from behind the veil of apocalypse at odd moments when the mask is knocked off center. And no surprise that it is denominated in the plural (as assemblages of forces). If we pay close attention to what we read, we find a peculiar caveat when it comes to spiritual combat against organized political power, engaged by Jesus or his followers. Demons may be sent packing in their daily interaction with various individuals, but the large-scale Powers are typically not exorcised in the send-up of the text (though sending “Legion” into the herd of pigs does border on such a tactic). They are only “constrained.” Mark will have Jesus advert only to “binding” the Strong Man, when he looks down the road to his Temple action (clearing out the money-changers)—not actually “exorcizing” that particular Power (Mk 3:27; 11:15-19). In view is a kind of “re-straint” or “re-tying”—a constriction, setting a limit. That this also is the basic meaning of “re-ligion” as literally a “re-ligaturing” or “binding up again” will be deeply suggestive for what I am teasing out here! Indeed. If we have so far departed from what in indigenous practice is merely the some and substance of “gift-economy” living—continually recognizing ritually and feeding in kind the entirety of the created order that itself continually feeds and provides for us—then there may well be need consciously to name and keep foursquare in view the practice of “re-tying” the Powers. “Re-ligion” in its most primal practice! Indigenous communities had (and have) no need to engage in specifically “religious” activity because they never “untied” the Powers in the first place! And here lies a whole world of difference. But we should go slow, by listening to Luke for a stretch.
In the latter’s re-narration of the gospel for a multicultural audience, Jesus at one point is accosted by the authorities about spiritual combat (Lk 11:14-23). Accused of casting out demons by “the Prince of Demons, Beelzebul,” Jesus emphasizes that the charge indeed has its import in opening up the question of spiritual hierarchy (hinted by the term “Prince”). He instantly begins mulling over the spiritual character of large-scale political institutions such as “kingdoms” (like Herod’s) or “houses” (like that of David now incarnate in the Jerusalem Temple-State complex controlling land-debt and tax-tithes). After musing about spiritual conflict and division at these higher levels of bureaucratic-demonic organization, he then delineates an imagined struggle between a “Strong Man” and “One Stronger.” The former’s “goods” will remain “intact” unless he is subjected to constraint (or “bound”). But if the latter “overcomes” the former by taking away his “armor,” then indeed his “palace treasure” may be disaggregated; the “spoil,” as it reads in RSV English, “divided” (Lk 11:21-22). But the Greek here is quite telling.
What is emphasized is neither total expulsion nor a complete annihilation of agency, but rather limitation and downsizing. The Strong Man’s “panoply” (panoplian) of defenses is “dismantled”—not destroyed—in order to “redistribute” (diadidosin) his “stash.” Spiritual combat at the level of “Principalities and Powers” is primarily a struggle over scale. At issue is the size and architecture and “aim” of a given stockpile of goods. The remedy imagined is primarily a matter of decomposition and redeployment, not obliteration.
We can elaborate. “Kingdoms,” “houses,” “nation-states,” temple-complexes,” etc., are effectively assemblages of materials coercively ripped from natural habitat that never entirely lose their spiritual potency or sacred “aura.” Even when removed from the symbiotic systems of wild reciprocity in which they originally came to be, and reconfigured to serve “in” and “as” unnatural systems of human domination, they continue to carry a charge of spirit. But that spiritual undercurrent accompanying their material aspect now thrashes in hungry captivity. Whether cut tree, mined metal, piped water, stripped leaf, skinned animal hide, or carved rock—all the accoutrements of imperial utility amassed and reshaped as palaces and chariots, ships and weaponry (or today as White Houses and Pentagons, computers and missile guidance systems, planes and bombs; or as the armature of transnational corporations; or the anatomy of megacities, etc.) are, from a more indigenous perspective, “living creatures” now enslaved. And they remain spiritually forceful—but no longer embedded in an eco-mutuality scaled to the kind of flourishing characteristic of biodiversity. Like human beings dispensed by violence and not properly grieved, the natural materials of urban architecture and imperial infrastructure alike are effectively “homeless elements”—out of niche bodies—raging in spirit as “hungry ghosts.” They are forced to function on a scale exceeding their natural reach or force, but also deprived of their natural contextual “kin.” We might discern their spiritual condition as one of a simultaneous hyperinflation and severe deflation—at once, more and less than their natural “wild” genius and ordinariness. As “golems” of Power, they are forced into a vocation of domination and then discarded as refuse.
But this imperial conceit that all else exists to serve elite human aggrandizement ends in a problem—now global in scale. There is no landfill for the interment of a decapitated (exorcized) “Principality.” The spiritual potency, as indeed the material body, does not just disappear. “Garbage” continues to recycle and has offspring both of matter and spirit. And thus, the gospel hint that exorcism is merely provisional and temporary! On the scale of Powers, the need is for re-covery of community and sustainability—a return of ourselves and all else to what can recycle in imaginable perpetuity in gift-economy circulation. How metabolize a war economy, a police culture of violence, a health-care system of privilege and profit? Can we bind the Strong Man and downsize the “goods” to their natural viability?
Perhaps a virus can teach. Mediator in the deep past, on quite successful mission of provoking biodiversity; messenger of the outback of late, warning of trespass on the part of a species careening towards self-destruction in overlord hubris; made functionally an oppressive Power in its immediate captivity to our policy routines of race and class inequity; this Not-Quite Living One might yet be embraced as Spirit, if we were to entertain its advent as omen. What it signals may be this. “Re-ligion” in the sense of re-tying and limiting what we have ballooned beyond recognition is now not an option. Not religion in the sense of a fundamentalist fetishizing of an Orange-Headed Strong Man here, or a Mask-Eschewing Wannabe in Brazil, or a Muslim-Banishing Version in India—hoping for “rapture” or some other in-group exceptionalism. But re-ligion in its most primal meaning of going back downscale and little, re-learning again how to live like indigenous ancestors and exemplars, within bounds and “binds,” seeing an entire planet of unfathomable complexity and inimitable beauty as the real heaven of destiny and the real ravager and consort of our desires, demanding respect and reciprocal embrace. It really is enough. There is no absolute ‘unbinding” promised anyone or anything—but only “liberation” into a sustainable give-and-take where everything limits and “binds” everything else in mutuality. And within that compass, the corona-queen of our hour might even provoke us into becoming a novel co-dweller on earth, in a biodiverse exchange with all else never quite anticipated before now. COVID-19 is indeed an “elementary angel.” Whether her message is finally “good news” or apocalypse is up to us.