I recently had a conversation with a highly intelligent 14-year-old about the virtues of incense, which she professed to enjoy.
“It makes a room smell sweet,” I said.
“Yes, and it keeps away the ghosts,” she said.
She knew I was a preacher and a fuddy-duddy. I thought maybe she was going for shock effect, so I decided to do the same. “I am sure it is effective against ghosts,” I said, “Ghosts are easy, but how good is it at protecting you from the principalities and powers?” Much to her relief and much to my chagrin, our conversation was interrupted. I promised myself that I would speak to her again about these things, in person or in writing.
Few of us pay much attention to the principalities and powers, but the powers are all around us. Some powers are good—like the families in which most of us grew up. Few people outgrow the influence of their families or lack of same, good, or ill. President Abraham Lincoln said, “All I am, I owe to my mother.” And President Theodore Roosevelt said, “My father was the best man I ever knew.” In her book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kerns Goodwin says that, like all great leaders, both men were shaped and prepared for greatness by their families. Some powers are good, like families at their best. But some powers are bad—like the ghosts, goblins, “witches,” and religious fanatics that terrorized people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.
And someone might say, “Well, except for the religious fanatics who burned women as witches in Salem, none of those things were real!”
And I would answer, “Things are real if people think them real.” If you erroneously believe that the Boston Strangler has moved into your neighborhood, and it keeps you from going out after dark, you have surrendered your freedom to the power of the threat. Likewise, if people believe in ghosts, and ghosts cause them anxiety—or keep them from sleep, then ghosts are real to them, and they have ceded them power.
The principalities and powers run from the sublimely evil to the seemingly ridiculously.
Consider the sublimely evil. When Ephesians was written, “the world rulers of the present darkness” included the government of Rome and all Roman officials, from Caesar and the Senate, to the governor of every province, to the least effective tax collector and the last man recruited by the Roman Army. If Ephesians had been written in the first decade of the 21st, “the world rulers of the present darkness” would include Al Qaeda and all terrorists and all the corrupt governments that harbor and support them.
Afghanistan is in the news. It is a nation with a long history. It has been called “the place where empires go to die.” The Median and Persian Empires, Alexander the Great, the Turks, Mongols, British, and Soviets all met the end of their ambitions in Afghanistan. We can add the U.S.A to the list. We have been in the fight for twenty years; the Afghanis have been in the fight for 1,000 years. In his book, “Caravans: A Novel of Afghanistan,” the late James A. Mitchener described three events that took place in Afghanistan in 1946. He witnessed two of them and saw graphic pictures of the third.
First, a woman was taken in the act of adultery. Her captors wrapped her in her garments head to toe, bound her with a rope, and tied her to a post hastily erected in the town square. She was stoned to death by the men of her village. Only the bloodstains on her clothing and her cries of pain marked her passing. Second, a man was caught stealing from his employer and tried by a panel of judges. Though the property had already been recovered, the judges ordered the man’s right hand cut off at the wrists. It was done. Third, a man’s son was murdered by another man. The father captured the killer, dumped him in the public square, bound him hand and foot, and then, as dozens of witnesses looked on, used a rusty bayonet to saw off the victim’s head. At one point, while the victim still lived, the grizzly task was interrupted at a photographer’s request. He asked the executioner to change sides so there would be better light for pictures. He complied, switching sides to finish the job.
In all three instances, there were people present who thought that what was taking place before them was a senseless atrocity, unworthy of a great religion like Islam, yet they would not speak up because the blood lust was upon the whole scene, and they feared for their own lives.
Today, certain leaders in the Taliban, including the head of the provisional government, say they are turning over a new leaf. They promise no reprisals against Afghanis who supported the American-sponsored government. They promise that women will receive increased respect. They promise that those who wish to leave Afghanistan will be allowed to leave, provided they have someplace to go. Unfortunately, as we have already seen, many rank-and-file members of the Taliban are more influenced by the power of history than by the power of the current leadership. They live like it is 1946, or 1146, and not at all like it is 2021. We have seen video of heavily armed Taliban fighters near the airport striking people with their rifle butts. And Al Jazeera reported that at least two people were killed by rifle fire from Taliban warriors when a crowd in Asadabad protested the new government. A week later, we know that ISIS has killed more than 170 people at the airport, including 13 members of our military.
We have singled out Afghanistan, but we might well ask, “What about the other nations that are equally important to the defeat of terrorism?” We would do well to study Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, and Israel. All are powers. Perhaps we ought also to cast a critical eye over the United States? The terrorists have called the United States “the Great Satan.” Few Americans will accept that appellation, but many of us are uneasy that in certain locales America is better known for Hollywood movies and how we have treated our own minorities than we are for the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, and the good work done by the Carter and Gates foundations. Every nation must take care to examine itself, especially the United States. We are, for the time being, at least, the world’s only Superpower.
Now let’s look at the seemingly ridiculous powers that govern our lives. In Galatians 4, St. Paul belittles the congregation at Galatia for being slaves to the elemental spirits, saying, “You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!” Many of us are guilty of that. We avoid risky behavior on Friday the 13th, and some of us believe it is bad luck to start a journey on Friday. Recently, Elayne and I thumbed our nose at that superstition when we twice traveled on a Friday, both going to and coming from Boston. We thumbed our nose at Friday travel, but not at the power of the American government, the CDC, or American Airlines. Like all good travelers in the age of Covid, we covered our mouth and nose against the virus.
Some of us kowtow to superstition more than others. Many southerners think it is lucky to eat a New Year’s Day dinner of cornbread, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. It is all about the money. Cornbread stands for gold, collard greens for folding money, and black-eyed peas for coins. By the way, this custom started at the end of the Civil War when the Yankees left the people of the south with nothing to eat except these simple basics and perhaps a ham hock for the lucky ones to flavor their food. These customs and superstitions and others like them rule many. Some people I know will not walk under an empty ladder to pick up a hammer, they rather walk around it. Others will not leave a neighbor’s house by the backdoor if they entered by the front. And if they give someone a knife as a gift, they always give a coin, too, so that the knife will not cut the love between them.
If you think these superstitions are ridiculous, you should note how foolish I was as a schoolboy.
When I was a student at Philo Junior High—and Gray High, like everybody else, I struggled with coming of age. We challenged parental authority—especially about what movies we were permitted to attend, what music we listened to, and what time we had to be home on a Saturday night. Some of us even sneaked a smoke behind the barn or drank homemade wine in the basement of a friend. And we all shamelessly followed the herd, especially when it came to fashion. In my little band, we all wore Ban-Lon shirts in a rainbow of colors, and we all wore Gold Cup socks that matched the color of our shirts. The only time we did not wear Gold Cup Socks was when we wore white Converse Chuck Taylor basketball shoes. None of us would have dared to wear black Chuck Taylor’s, or yellow Gold Cups with a navy-blue shirt. This all sounds innocent enough, but I remember how conformists constantly teased and belittled one boy because he carried a briefcase, buttoned the top button on the collar of his oxford shirt, and wore black basketball shoes. He was not in my class, and I did not make fun of him, but neither did I offer to sit with him at lunch. Some people were even harder on a boy who moved to town. He wore the same clothes every day for multiple days, did not like to shower after gym class, and wore brogans without socks. Until the coach intervened with a timely gift of cleats, he even practiced football in his street shoes, without socks. More than 40 years ago, I heard that he had been murdered in downtown Winston-Salem. I have never forgotten, for I was deeply ashamed I had not done more to make him feel like he was one of us when I had the chance. Unfortunately, as a teenager, I had yet to learn that, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” That appellation falls on many.
Now, kids today dress, and act very differently than we did. Many think they are more original than their parents and grandparents, and more accepting. But, like my generation, they are still heavily influenced by their peers, and they still follow the herd. Today, perhaps more than ever, it takes a lot of courage to be different. And it takes a lot more courage to stand up for some else who is different, especially if it attracts the attention of the crowd. Perhaps the ultimate test of courage and character is to stand against the crowd for the sake of someone who holds a position opposite of your own. The amazing thing is that some brave kids are willing to do it. May their tribe increase!
It is time to close. If I could say just one thing to my grandchildren about their relationship to their parents (and their grandparents and all us oldsters who love them) I would say:
Your parents don’t want to run your life,
they just want to make sure that you do.
We know from experience that you make your choices, and then your choices make you.
And if I could say one thing to my grandchildren about their relationship with their peers, I would borrow a few words from Shakespeare’s Polonius as he advises young Laertes about how to behave at university. He says:
This above all: To thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to anyone.
I believe the Self to which we should be true is the Self that God designed us to be. The great psychologist Carl Jung rightfully compared our Self-image to the Christ-image and said both were an ideal to be achieved one internal, one external. That is exactly right. According to St. Paul, the “First Adam” was a man of the earth as are all human beings like you and I who have followed him. Indeed, his very name “adam” means “earth.” By contrast, the “Last Adam,” Jesus the Christ, was and is the man of heaven, for Jesus was and is the fully developed Self, the human being that God intended all human beings should be. Of course, in the good news of the gospel which we have received, Jesus Christ offers all of us a chance to be like him, and, in so doing, to be the complete and effective person we ourselves can be. Certainly, you have accepted your chance?