Powers, Principalities, and Structural Sin

I’m reading through Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and was struck by his chapter “Principalities, Powers, and People”. He revisits the uses of Paul’s language of powers and principalities, which have been generally interpreted as elements of a pre-modern worldview that really believed in angels and demons, and thus frequently demythologized and ignored in contemporary interpretation.

Newbigin, to the contrary, identifies them with the real(ly experienced) but intangible powers that govern our social structures: the powers that persons who are part of the structures — the government bureaucrat, the corporate middle manager, the customer service representative — feel themselves constrained by. Few people in such positions who take actions that comply with company policy and have harmful effects — who foreclose on a mortgage, or close a local factory, or refuse to accept liability for a defective product — are intentionally trying to cause harm. They don’t want to force a family out of their home, or put a hundred people out of work, or fail to help someone who has asked for help. But they feel constrained. Their hands are tied, it’s not up to them, they’re just the voice on the phone. They have no actual power to make anything different.

I’m intrigued by this identification because while I am thoroughly convinced that structural sin is a real evil that should be of real concern to Christians, I have yet to encounter a theological framework that provides any practical guidance or even a handle by which we can begin to understand how the awareness and repudiation of structural sin can be translated into a guide for Christian living. How can we repent of and refrain from sin that permeates the social structures of which we are a part?

The only approach I’m aware of is fairly narrow and available mostly to the financially privileged, and that is the choice to avoid buying products and patronizing or investing in businesses that are tainted by structural evils such as factory farming, unfair trade and labor practices, human trafficking, and so on. I do think these efforts are valuable and morally laudable, and the efforts to divest from firms that traded in South Africa during the apartheid years, for example, seem to have borne real fruit. But I am uneasy about taking this approach as foundational because it is available only to those who can afford to buy expensive products rather than the inexpensive but sinfully produced alternatives. The fact that it is based entirely on withdrawing from structurally sinful social entities also strikes me as a weakness. It’s one thing to refuse to do business with a structurally sinful corporation; it’s another thing to know what to do when one is employed by such a corporation.

And what about structural sins like racism and sexism that are not predicated on economic transactions? Or the sins of coercive military or economic power in which so many of our governments are complicit?

So I’m curious whether any moral theologians have taken Newbigin’s insight here and run with it.

I’m also reminded of the work of Rene Girard, who (if I remember correctly) in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, identifies the powers and principalities with the mechanism of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating that permeates human interaction. Newbigin’s comment that these elements of Paul’s letters are usually ignored by modern interpreters as irrelevant to a contemporary worldview also reminds me of a comment made by one of the presenters at a mimetic anthropology workshop I attended in June, who remarked that what attracted her to a Girardian hermeneutic was that it helped her figure out how to preach the whole Bible, including the parts that hadn’t been covered in the demythologized scripture courses at her liberal Protestant seminary.

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