Friday, January 5, 2018

The Beginning of “Spiritual Warfare”

Tomorrow (Jan. 6) is “Epiphany” on the liturgical Christian church calendar. Among other things, it is a celebration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. That “Visit of the Wise Men” is told in Matthew 2:1~12. Matthew continues with “The Escape to Egypt” (2:13~15) and then with “The Massacre of the Infants” (2:16~18).
The “War” against Christ
In recent years there has been much talk, especially by the Christian Right, about the “war on Christmas.” But Matthew’s Gospel tells about the war on the Christ-child.
Properly understood, the attempt of Herod to destroy Jesus was the beginning of “spiritual warfare” seeking to destroy the one born to be the Savior of the world. Or to use different words, this was the beginning of the attempt by the “principalities and powers” to destroy the Christ.     
"The Flight to Egypt" (c. 1650) by B. Murillo
“Principalities and powers” are often interpreted as being “invisible” forces of evil that war against people of faith. But those words most likely refer to concrete, visible forces—such as King Herod.
The spiritual warfare that began soon after the Magi returned to their homes “by another road” was not just nebulous activities by unseen powers. No, it was the slaughter or massacre of the baby boys that was intended to include Jesus.
Stringfellow’s Explanation
In my Nov. 15 blog article, I briefly introduced William Stringfellow and his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973). A major theme of that impressive book is the author’s elucidation of the meaning of “principalities and powers.”
According to Stringfellow’s deep understanding of the Bible, the “principalities and powers” are not some esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm. Rather, they are “all authorities, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideologies, systems” and the like (p. 27).
Such principalities and powers inevitably reside in those, such as Herod, who have abundant possessions, power, and prestige – and, according to Stringfellow, they “are legion in species, number, variety, and name” (p. 77).
“Thus,” he avers, “the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are all principalities” – as are capitalism, humanism, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism etc., etc. (p. 78)
Stringfellow even suggests that we should “perceive the President as a victim and captive of the principalities and powers (p. 142). (This was written when Nixon was in the White House but is certainly applicable to the current occupant as well.)
The Victory of Christ
The New Testament later testifies to the victory of Christ over the principalities and powers by his resurrection. That important emphasis is found in 1 Corinthians 15, which prognosticates “the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority [principality] and power to an end” (v. 24, CEB).
The eventual victory of Christ, however, began on the cross. As Brian Zahnd elucidates in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), “Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers” (p. 100)—embodied in the religious and political leaders who colluded to put Jesus to death: Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate.
BZ goes on to state, “Paul says the cross heaps shame on the rulers and authorities that preside over structural sin. ‘In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities [principalities]. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross’” (pp. 106-7, citing Colossians 2:15, NLT).
The struggle against principalities and powers continues. In this new year let’s deliberately and definitely choose to be on the side of Christ, who will finally win through sacrificial love and unconquerable truth.


  1. Leroy,
    I was most interested in this blog posting about spiritual warfare. I have recently begun a book project tentatively entitled Spiritual Warfare in the Age of Trump and the Religious Right: As if Earth Matters. I appreciate your once again lifting up the work of William Stringfellow, who greatly influenced Walter Wink, author of a three-volume work on the Powers in the New Testament. Wink then influenced Greg Boyd, who has written a lot on spiritual warfare in the last 20 years. His most recent work is The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols.). A nice summary of Wink's and Boyd's work can be found in Understanding Spiritual Warfare: 4 Views, ed. Beilby & Eddy.

    The thesis of my book is that spiritual warfare is both personal and political, and at both levels, nature is a factor. Nature shapes the "cosmic conflict" within the recesses of the human soul, and it shapes it at the highest levels of government. The book will focus on biblical exegesis seen from an "eco-psychological" perspective. According to the website of the Naropa University (where they offer an MA in the field), eco-psychology "brings psychology and ecology together to create a healing context for and new understanding of the human-nature relationship" (
    The book will also feature poetry and art (a product of my own personal spiritual warfare), as well as political commentary (a product of my reflection on spiritual warfare in the contemporary spiritual sphere).

    My book centers around three questions:

    (1) What "spiritual warfare" language is being used in contemporary politics? How does interaction with the environment, natural world, help shape this language and this politics? Perhaps the best example is a new organization called the "POTUS Shield." (

    (2) How is this kind of language used in the New Testament: synoptic gospels, Paul, Revelation?

    (3) How does this language describe what is going on in my own soul?

    I would be glad to dialogue with you or any Thinking Friend about this book, which is still in the early phases of production.


    1. Michael thank you so much for responding to this article. I was hoping you would do so, for you know more about this subject that I do.

      I know you read and admired Walter Wink. I have read him to a degree, but did not have room to include him in my 600-word article. I keep hearing about Greg Boyd, but have not read him at all.

      I was most interested to learn that you are now writing a book about this general subject. I will be looking forward to seeing the finished work. I don't know much about "eco-psychological" perspectives.

    2. Michael, perhaps you can help me in finding a suitable response to a question I received from a Thinking Friend this morning. She wrote, "How do you integrate Ephesians 6:12."

      Before I posted my article, I wondered about how that verse can be harmonized with that I wrote (and what Stringfellow wrote). I have some ideas about how to respond, but I wonder if you have time to make a pertinent response.

    3. For the record, I did read some of Boyd's book "The Myth of a Christian Religion" (2009) and made reference to it in my Oct. 20, 2010, blog article.

  2. Stringfellow's book was an important influence on me during my time in seminary. (I heard him speak at that time at, I think, St. Louis University.) It's curious that I went on to become a sociologist, which, in terms of your blog, could be seen as a specialist in the powers and principalities. :-) As I recall, though, Stringfellow did not have the same angle on the issue that the N.T. epistles seem to have; i.e., the expectation of the imminent return of Christ. The spiritual and practical appropriation of this important insight into the tension between Christ and the powers and principalities is considerably more challenging when one doesn't believe in the imminent return of Christ or even in any literal return of Christ. One then wonders what concretely it will mean to get a final "win through sacrificial love and unconquerable truth."

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments, Anton. (I am a bit envious that you got to hear Stringfellow speak, but I never did.)

      While there is a vastly different perspective on the "end times" in the New Testament (Paul) and in Stringfellow's book, still, he wrote what he did seeking, it clearly seems, to interpret the biblical message for contemporary times. In the very first sentence of his book he says, "My concern is to understand America biblically" (p. 13).

      I may have said more than I know in saying that there will be a final "win through sacrificial love and unconquerable truth," but I think that is consistent not only with the biblical/theological understanding of N.T. Wright, about whom I wrote on Nov. 30, but also with the prayer "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Sometime, somehow, God's will, I believe, will be done and the Kingdom of God will be an obvious reality.

  3. From my book My Name Is Legion (p. 108): "At an ecumenical prayer gathering immediately before Richard Nixon's second inauguration as president in 1973, activist William Stringfellow concluded his sermon with a prayer of exorcism, in which he implored God to free Nixon from demon possession." I believe that I got that information from one of Wink's volumes on the Powers in the NT.

    1. Michael, thanks for sharing this. I don't remember hearing about Stringfellow's prayer in 1973 -- but, unfortunately, I guess his prayer wasn't answered.

  4. The war began very "early" in the story with the hosts of heaven, and continues. I have seen the direct conflict in many places, but also feel the effect in my life daily. Politics is a key place for this to play out - it is not a partisan thing, it affects them all.

    We get a story line of history from an approved perspective while growing up. (Thankfully, as an expat, I was exposed to other history perspectives in school and community.) Even now there are alternatives available which are worth reading (Stone, and Barton, and Marshall are good examples). I see little in DC from either party which is encouraging. But the same can be said for other countries which I follow in the news. Thankfully there some within our country who give us alternative histories of which we should be aware (such as Marshall and Barton and Stone). The only real positive we have is the First Amendment, granting us a freedom of religion.

    I like the blunt way Alinsky spoke of joining with Lucifer in the war against God. If only others could be so honest.

    1. Concerning the last paragraph, check out the following explanation about Alinsky's reference to Lucifer on (

      [In part] " . . . while it’s true that one of three epigraphs on an introductory page (not a dedication page) of 'Rules for Radicals' characterizes Lucifer as the 'first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment,' the book is neither dedicated to Lucifer, nor need it be read as an endorsement of devil worship or Satanism . . . .

      "This is the epigraph in question:

      "Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer. — SAUL ALINSKY

      "The name 'Lucifer' appears nowhere else in the book, nor does the name 'Satan.' The word 'devil' is used several times, but only in the generic sense of 'enemy.' By contrast, there are many references to Christianity — particularly early Christianity, the adherents of which Alinsky characterizes as 'revolutionary' and compares to the young radicals of his own time (the book was first published in 1971). And, though Alinsky’s book is a paean to neither Satanism nor Christianity, he does claim his principles rest on Judeo-Christian values:

      "Believing in people, the radical has the job of organizing them so that they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judaeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition. Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die." [Alinsky's words]

  5. Thinking friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky makes the following significant comment in harmony with an underlying point of my article:

    "Let us hope that we never give up this effort, Leroy. It looks like Republicans just passed a major tax bill favoring 'the principalities and powers.'”

  6. I do not think we have to "integrate" what Paul or Deutero-Paul said in Ephesians 6:12. That is a perspective which may include non-literal "principalities and powers" but certainly does not exclude literal ones, like governments, economic systems, ecclesiastical systems like the Church under Constantinian captivity; lower case "churches" that display national flags, sing patriotic hymns etc. are at least partially under the heel of Constantine. I have read Wink's trilogy. I need to review it.
    Charles Kiker posting anonymously to avoid the powers of the imposed password.

    1. Thanks, Charles, for your comments -- and I think you are correct in what you wrote. (And I also need to review Wink's books: I had a couple of them checked out, but did not get them read to the extent I wanted to--and then I had to return them to the library on Wed.)

      In "the powers are legion," a subsection of his book, though, Stringfellow lists Eph. 6:10-13 -- but I think that is the only time he refers to that passage and he makes no further comment on it there.

    2. Ephesians 6:12 reads, "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." It seems to me that that is exactly what Stringfellow is talking about. It's a little surprising that he doesn't discuss the verse, but your statement, Leroy seems to me to be an accurate understanding of it. You wrote:

      According to Stringfellow’s deep understanding of the Bible, the “principalities and powers” are not some esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm. Rather, they are “all authorities, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideologies, systems” and the like (p. 27).

      Walter Wink echoes such a sentiment when he writes that the spiritual forces discussed in Ephesians 6:12 are "the interiority of earthly institutions or structures or systems." He continues that the Powers "are the inner and outer manifestations of political, economic, religious, and cultural institutions" (Engaging the Powers, pp. 77-78).

      It seems, then, that there is no need to "integrate" Ephesians 6:12 into your position (or Stringfellow's), for it seems that it was there from the start.

    3. Thanks for your response to my inquiry, Michael. The problem, though, is in the reference to "the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

      I think that Stringfellow, and Wink, are correct--and helpful--in their emphasis on the "this-worldly" nature of the powers and principalities. But this question is how does ​that ​harmonize with the statement about the powers being in "heavenly places." That sounds as if they are (also?) esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm.

    4. Let me go back to the Wink quotation. He writes that the Powers "are the inner and outer manifestations of political, economic, religious, and cultural institutions." The "outer manifestations" are what we see on earth, while the "inner manifestations" are what is going on in heaven. Wink, then, defines the Powers as "the interiority of earthly institutions or structures or systems." (Other places he calls them the "spirituality" or the "withinness" of various institutions.) In this way, the Powers are in heavenly places. Indeed, they are both on earth and in heaven. (I'm reminded of the Lord's Prayer, in which Jesus prays that God's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven," Matt 6:10).

      As they pursue injustice, the Powers call for ultimate loyalty; therefore, they are battling God. It is war in heaven and on earth. God continually calls the Powers to peace and justice, but they turn in on themselves and pursue violence and injustice.

      For Stringfellow and Wink, the Powers are not "esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm." Rather, they are quite visible, and they are available to all those with eyes to see. They can be found "within" the various institutions, whether they be governments or corporations or universities.

      A nice summary of Wink's approach to the Powers can be found at

    5. Thanks, Michael. This was very helpful.

    6. Oh, and thanks for the link to Ted Grimsrud's article about Wink. Ted is a Mennonite theologian, as you know, and I get his blog articles when they are posted. But I had forgotten that article from May 2012, the month Wink died.

  7. Here are comments/questions from my good Canadian friend and Thinking Friend Glen Davis:

    As I read this blog, I got the sense that all, or most, of the principalities and powers are seen to be on the negative side of the equation. But is that so? I.e. cannot some of them be a power for the common good? And is that why Paul asks us to pray for those in authority over us? Saving Herod’s world is part of the work of Christians, but cannot it not also be the work of 'redeemed' principalities and powers? What think ye?


    1. Thanks for your questions, Glen.

      Yes, you are correct in saying that the principalities and powers are seen in a negative light.

      On the other hand, Colossians 1:16 might have been cited: "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in [or by] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him."

      Of course, that may be where the idea of Lucifer and rebellious angels come in: perhaps they are fallen principalities and powers.

      There is also this in Ephesians 3:9-10: ". . . the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in[or by] God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [or powers and principalities] in the heavenly places."

      But then there's this version in the same book of Ephesians: "For our [or your] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (6:12).

      So I am still of the mind to say, No, we can't expect much good to come out of the institutions, systems, etc. who are largely under the control of people with power, possessions, and prestige.

    2. I do appreciate the balance of including the Biblical references to evil outside of our natural world. Others could also be noted from the Old Testament, as well as the Gospels.

      Other than a personal level, I don't see much in the Red Letters about an attack on institutions. Certainly not an attack on His Church. If anything, He was more inclusive about the Church, and demanded that they Love One Another, but He did leave open the door to disciple for specific bad behavior. I sincerely doubt that He would have attacked the United Methodist Church - that seems anathema. His positive discussion of wealth and business, and of Roman governing and military authorities leave those in good stead as well. He just doesn't fit in a box.

      But there is no doubt that humans have a distinct capacity to sin and destroy - even within the Church.

    3. It seems to me that a close reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus was constantly fighting against the principalities and powers--in both the religious and political worlds--in what he said and did. The "cleansing of the Temple," is one good example of his opposition to the religious establishment.

      If the reference in the above comment is about Stringfellow's listing of the Methodist Church as being one of the principalities and powers, that was only an example, and any other church organization with power, possessions, and prestige could have just as easily been listed -- just as General Motors could just as easily been his example rather than Ford Motor Company.

    4. Wink summarizes the thesis of his volumes in this way:
      The Powers are good.
      The Powers are fallen.
      The Powers must be redeemed.

      Thus he calls the third volume in the trilogy not "Comparing the Powers" or "Resisting the Powers" but "Engaging the Powers," because he wants to see them changed.

  8. Three cheers to you, Leroy, regarding the faux Stupid Bowl. Early in my life I decided I'd rather be intelligent than a sideline sports jockey. It paid off handsomely and I've never regretted my decision! The Olympics are a somewhat different matter, but again, I pick mind over matter, brains over brawn!