principalities and powers

Twenty-Seventh Day of Lent

READING
Luke 18:1-8
18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

REFLECTION
This is one of the few parables where an application of the story is supplied, possibly by Luke himself. In this case he describes it as a parable encouraging persistence in prayer. But this is not all there is to it I think.

Maybe you don’t remember the comic character Carol Beer, but you will remember her catchphrase which entered public consciousness during the early 2000s. Carol was played by David Walliams in the Little Britain comedy show. She worked variously in a bank, as a holiday rep and as a hospital receptionist, always face to face with customers. In response to even the most simple of requests she would type into her computer, slowly, deliberately and then read what was on the screen and say “Computer says no!”

It was funny because it was so frustratingly accurate. We’ve all experienced those occasions of being trapped in a “customer services” loop where no matter what we ask, an operative checks information stored on or generated by a computer and then makes decisions that defy common sense. Whether it’s the ads that pop up on our social media feeds or applications for credit we are all subject to anonymous algorithms and it’s hard to get to the human face of the big institutions. Government, health, education, financial, even church institutions can lose themselves behind an inhuman corporate wall against which a person can beat their fists and get nowhere.

So it’s significant here that the two characters are a widow, often poor, defenceless and powerless, and a judge, the symbol of the institutions of law and justice.The widow keeps on coming again and again looking for justice, but the judge is impervious. The widow has nothing by which she can move the institution to consider her plight and deliver a fair verdict. Again and again, justice is denied. Computer says no!

Yet even in our world, occasionally through sheer persistence like this widow, we can get through the bureaucracy and get to the human heart of an institution and find recourse to a good decision, someone who is willing to defy the algorithm or the say-so of the computer.

I wonder are there some important gospel values deep in this parable which are of relevance for us in our modern world. It might be in our banks which are closing down local branches in favour of online services. Or our broadband suppliers who offload customer services to a country where the labour is cheaper, or the EU which comes across as increasingly distant and bureaucratic. It might be the Brexit mess into which no-one seems to be able to insert any sense or wisdom. Or it might be our churches in which sometimes church polity and law takes priority over common sense or warm-heartedness.

The gospel value at stake here in this parable is the enduring importance of genuine human kindness and compassion. We should constantly be on the alert for those occasions when the institution denies justice to individuals; those times when the Law ignores the plight of a real, live, flesh and blood human being.

So that whenever Law results in unkindness to a human being, Christians must demand that the Law changes. Even if that Law suits us. Even if that Law is the Church’s Law. Whenever someone can hide behind an institution (or a helpline or a rule book or an algorithm) and fail to do the right thing because of it, we must protest it and resist it.

Whenever an institution demands the allegiance of someone to the extent that that someone must condone, defend or permit wrongdoing, that institution is a demonic power. Whenever the operative purpose and ethic of an institution is its own survival, such that it demands the ultimate loyalty of a person for that survival or will do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival, then beware, it is a fallen power. All institutions are subject to this, even local sports clubs and sewing bees. Even churches and denominations. When survival is all it will always be on the basis of human sacrifice. 

I love the writings of lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow who was active in the 1960s in the civil rights movement in the USA. He wrote extensively of principalities and powers and said, 

“transposed into contemporary language…the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.”

He says that the power behind every institution that demands our allegiance is Death. When an institution demands absolute allegiance, when it becomes an idol in our lives, we are serving Death, the power behind every principality. The challenge facing all of us in this world is to escape the power of Death. We think we can do it through our institutions, through establishing things in our name or whatever. We remain loyal even in the face of cruelty in the hope that the institution will remember us. But there is only one way of defeating Death.

As Christians we call it Resurrection. It is the power of God to listen to our pleas for justice and to respond with an immediate and effective remedy. And to the extent that we are responsive to the pleas of the powerless even, and perhaps especially, at the cost of our institutions we are living out of Resurrection power even while we live.

Stringfellow says,

“Resurrection…refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfilment of life before death... [Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.

PRAYER
Almighty, all-loving God
Author of life
Defeater of death
And upholder of the poor and defenceless

Grant to our Church
The power and authority
Of a human face.

Forgive us for our reliance
On rules and regulations
On impersonal interactions
And cold bureaucracy.
Forgive us especially
For the times we have 
Not done justice
For fear of damaging the reputation
Of the church

Give us the humility
To pray for the well-being of Your Church,
And to work peace, justice and equality
In the world
Even at the cost of the Institution.

Amen