Did you catch the allusion to Ephesians in former U.S. president Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis? He said at one point, “What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion. This idea that any of us ordinary people…can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No. This isn’t right. This isn’t true. This isn’t just. We can do better.'”
Some might find it strange to use such language when racism is a human phenomenon. But I think Obama’s allusion is theologically significant and appropriate. I think Walter Wink would say that things like racism, something that transcends any one individual as can hold an entire culture in its grasp, is what we should think of as powers and principalities today. The racists are not our foes as though we would be justified in repaying their dehumanization in kind. We struggle against the powers that hold them in their grasp. Some humans willingly align themselves with the powers, others are blind to their diabolical influence. But either way, our struggle is not against these flesh and blood opponents, but something larger and more powerful and spiritual in nature.
As anyone will know who has discussed the idea of “powers” in the letters attributed to Paul, they are said to have crucified the Lord of glory. Mythicists like to claim that this meant something that happened in a celestial realm rather than on Earth. But far from it, if talk of powers and principalities emphasizes that our struggle is not against humans but against something greater that holds human beings in its grip, it is not shifting attention to some other domain unconnected with the human sphere. The powers may be first and foremost spiritual powers (in demythologized terms we can say culture, values, and the like) but they are what we struggle against precisely because they find expression in the human realm. That is the whole point. Those who dehumanize their opponents who first dehumanized others get entangled in the trap of a powerful force that can corrupt the soul and twist the moral fiber of a social justice warrior every bit as much as that of a racist. Those who treat the important matters as entirely disconnected from political, economic, and cultural realities fall for a different but equally diabolical deception. The battle against discrimination and for justice cannot be fought only in the celestial realm which is not where it resides nor where it finds expression. Neither can it be fought with the very tools and weapons that are used to spread hatred and oppression.
John Lewis and others who struggled for civil rights struggled with sin to the point of shedding their own blood, to the point of bearing the battle scars in their own flesh. The powers work through flesh and blood opponents. The pain they inflict is real, and I am in no way seeking to detract attention from those agents of evil, much less to excuse their culpability. My point is that overcoming evil requires repaying evil with something other than evil. That is what I take to be the point of the language in Ephesians, which I think Barack Obama understood, and John Lewis would have understood and did understand during his life, just as Martin Luther King and others who struggled against hatred by repaying it with love and struggled against violence by standing against it without resorting to violence. Those are spiritual weapons, and they are effective in combatting real-world problems precisely because they engage the earthly powers with their aim fixed primarily on the transcendent powers that hold those human agents in their sway, and can potentially grip us if we fight as though those people are our enemies, something less than human beings like us, as though we are incapable of being gripped by hatred and prejudice in the way they are.
John Lewis fought the good fight by making good trouble and encouraging others to go and do likewise. I found Barack Obama’s words to be a fitting tribute. The echo of Ephesians was only one of many references and allusions to the Bible. Read the complete transcript of the eulogy to see more. See too the article that just appeared in Christian Century about idolatry and hatred leading to discrimination. And for those who were wondering: