Defining and Unmasking the Powers

Third in a series. Edited for electronic publication.

Last week, I ended the sermon by saying that few powers control us any more completely than the ideas we serve. We human beings are vain.  We think we own a plot of land, a house, and all that is in it, but we don’t. We just use them. Eventually, we die, and they belong to another. It is the same with ideas but more so. We don’t use ideas, ideas use us, and when we die, they use those who follow us.

Victor Hugo said, “More powerful than a mighty army is an idea whose time has come.”

It is a wonderful thing to be used by a great idea. Abraham Lincoln was used by the ideas of preserving the union and emancipating the slaves. Though President Lincoln did not live to see the fruits of his labors, he accomplished both of his goals. Historian Doris Kerns Goodwin writes that, now, when scholars study the United States, they are studying at two very different realities, the United States before Lincoln, and the United States after Lincoln. The difference is night and day, darkness and light, for it is the difference between a house divided, half-slave and half-free, and a house united in legal if not moral freedom.

It is a wonderful thing to be used by a worthy idea and a horrible thing to be used by a bad one. Lincoln had opponents, and some of his most effective opposition was found not in the southern generals but in the southern clergy and the ideas they preached. In the south, preachers of all denominations defended slavery with proof texts like Ephesians 6:5:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.”

These preachers failed to see that New Testament texts about slavery were conditioned by the times in which they were written. Take St. Paul, for instance. From his 1st letter to the Thessalonians, we know that Paul wrongly believed that Christ was coming back for his church very soon, maybe tomorrow, or the day after that, and certainly in Paul’s lifetime. Thus, Paul gave a higher priority to evangelism within the Roman Empire than to freeing the slaves, which would have incited Rome and put additional hardships on all the preachers of the gospel. Therefore, Paul and his followers encouraged slaves and slave owners alike to continue the status quo and relied upon Christ himself to put things right on his return. After all, “a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.” (1st Cor. 7:22) [Note 1]

Now the abolitionist preachers of the north make an interesting contrast to the pro-slavery preachers of the south. Though equally grounded in scripture, the abolitionists ignored proof-texts like Ephesians 6:5 and took their stand on the great ideas and themes of the Bible.  They preached: 1) that God created all people as equals and loves all people equally, 2) that Christ died for all people, red and yellow, black and white, and 3) that people for whom Christ died ought to follow the command of Christ, “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

We have been talking about ideas, but ideas are just one form of power. In his book, “Christians and Other Sojourners Living in a Strange Land,” the late William Stringfellow defined the principalities and powers as:

“…all authorities, religions, governments, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideas and ideologies, systems, sciences, and the like.”

And someone will say, “Worth, you said ideas could be good or bad. Well, all the things you just defined as powers can be good or bad, too.”

Someone would be exactly right, and that leads to my next point.  In Colossians 1:15-16, we read:

15 He (Jesus Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities (powers!) — all things were created through him and for him.

If the principalities and powers were created in Christ, they were created with the potential for great good. Unfortunately, the principalities and powers now exist in a dark and fallen world riddled, defined, and controlled by sin. Thus, the powers are not just capable of great good but also capable of great evil.

Today, we will look at just one more power, the corporation.  When people incorporate, they create a single entity out of multiple entities, whether individuals, groups, companies, etc. We are always stronger together than apart. Thus, we incorporate to accomplish what the individual elements of the corporation cannot accomplish alone.  For instance, in the United States, towns and cities incorporate to better serve the common good of their citizens. Winston-Salem was incorporated in 1913 when two towns, Winston and Salem, became one city. Fourteen years later, in 1927, Winston-Salem was, for one year, North Carolina’s largest city. Likewise, businesses incorporate, when they want to do more, are becoming too big for simple partnerships and need to protect their owners’ personal assets. Thus, the corporation becomes the responsible “individual.” By the way, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in many cases, corporations have the same rights and duties as individuals. [Note 2] That is downright Biblical and downright scary.

Now, in the kinder, gentler time of the 1980s, Alvin Toffler wrote that the best corporations have three things in common: 1) They produce a good product or service with very little downside. 2) They employ their workers and pay dividends to their stockholders.  And 3) they enhance the life of the communities where they are located.

I was always proud that many of the companies that sprung from the Hanes family were in Winston-Salem.  You know their names, Shamrock Hosiery, Hanes Hosiery, Hanes Knitting, the various divisions of Sara Lee, Hanes Brands, etc. When I was in high school, the comedian Soup Sales appeared in a series of TV commercials and declared, “Hanes has been supporting me for years.” Many people in Winston-Salem could say the same and mean it in a variety of ways. Hanes was not perfect, but it made a good product, gave many people work, and served our community. [Note 3]

Many corporations have done equally well, but others have not. Sometimes the same corporation can be good and bad, sometimes in cycles.

Consider Volkswagen.  Volkswagen was formed in the 1930s because Adolph Hitler wanted Germany to have a reliable, affordable people’s car. Hitler did not survive the war. The VW Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, did.  It achieved what Hitler could not, a world presence, if not world dominance.  In 1970 I bought my first new car, a VW Beetle.  It cost $2023.00, including tax, license, and fees. In the spring of 1973, Elayne and I drove that bug from North Carolina to Indiana to visit my parents and then to San Diego, California, where I had temporary duty with the Marines.  Then, in July, we drove from San Diego, California, to Morehead City, North Carolina, in just three days. When we crossed the desert, it was 110 degrees and more. We passed many big, fancy cars, which had overheated, and were either parked or abandoned by the side of the road. That little beetle just kept humming away. It was a champ. I also admire the Volkswagen of today. Elayne and I recently took a test drive in a Volkswagen ID-4 which is a plug-in electric. We decided it was too expensive and we were not ready for a totally electric car, but it was an interesting ride, and when it becomes cheaper, it may well be one of the people’s cars of the future. Volkswagen has not always been so benevolent. In 2015 regulators discovered that VW had falsified claims for the efficiency of its diesel engines. Those who track such things estimate that these lies cost Americans 910 million dollars in health care claims and resulted in 59 deaths in our nation alone. Of course, if you think VW is alone in misconduct like this, you would be wrong. Just think of the exploding gas tanks in Ford Pintos made in the early 1970s. Ford knew there was a problem, and they concealed it. As a result, 900 people died, and Ford Motor Company paid out hundreds of millions in civil suits.  I could go on to speak of similar failures by Toyota, GM, Chrysler, etc., etc. And the automobile industry is just the tip of the corporate iceberg.

Now one might reasonably ask, “How can corporations be so good and so bad?” I have been studying this issue since the early 1980s, and I want to answer that question in my own words. However, you should know that I am using ideas gathered not just from scripture, but from many theologians and thinkers including, Karl Menninger, William Stringfellow, Walter Wink, Oscar Cullman, Henry David Thoreau, and others besides.

A human being is an individual created by God; the corporation is an individual created by human beings. Like a human being, the corporation has a body. A human body has a few members, the corporation has thousands of hands, and feet, arms, and legs. It has eyes and ears and a kind of brain for it thinks, plans, acts, and remembers. It can grow to be huge and strong—think multi-national, and it can survive for many generations. Or it can become sick and die in less than a generation. It can do good or bad, it can kill or be killed.

There are those who say that when a corporation does evil it has no remorse and shows no pity for it has no conscience.

Henry David Thoreau and Karl Menninger both begged to disagree. Both wrote that though a corporation does not have a conscience, every one of its officers, board members, employees, and stockholders does. They must all work together to develop at least a moral code to which the corporation must adhere. (The role of a good “government” is to hold corporations to a moral code).

There are at least two reasons that a corporation sometimes fails to act according to a moral code.

Sometimes, a corporation fails to do the right thing because it puts profit ahead of everything else. This is a grave error.  As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24:

 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

If you suspect a corporation of doing the wrong thing and want to catch it out, just follow the money. Some people today laugh at primitives who worshiped idols of silver, and gold, and wood, and stone, yet they worship Mammon.

Sometimes, a corporation fails to do the right thing because the individuals that work for it are held down and held back by the corporation’s climate, culture, or spirit. In his book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that there is a major difference between an individual like you and me and a society or group like a corporation. An individual can sacrifice himself or herself for the good of others; a corporation cannot. The first rule of a society, a group, a corporation is self-preservation and the second is advancement.

In a case of corporate misconduct, individuals within the corporation may want to do the right thing, even if it is costly, and some will do. However, few are willing to incriminate others or harm the corporation itself. Sometimes this reluctance is from misguided consideration and loyalty but sometimes it is out of fear. Wherever there have been corporations, some of them have been guilty of injuring and even killing their customers, employees, and neighbors. Sometimes they do this directly, as when they commit murder or produce a dangerous product. Sometimes they do it indirectly, as when they do lasting harm to the environment that sustains us all. By the way in Revelation 18, it is only after Babylon (aka Rome) has fallen that it becomes “a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit.” A healthy environment is a benevolent power. A broken environment is a malevolent power that affects us all. This is a truth that many of today’s headlines about severe weather and climate change confirm.

Let me leave you with a question.  In Ephesians 6, the apostle defined the principalities and powers as “the world rulers of this present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” How do you think these two relate?



The Pastor

Note 1:  If you want to know what Paul really felt about slavery, read the one-page Epistle to Philemon.

Note 2: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Note 3: After the service, people asked me about R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, several of them,  like me, were former employees.  I will have something to say about R.J.R. later.  For now, I will simply ask folks to be patient and say that in the former “Tobacco Capital of the World”, “The Camel City,” “Winston-Salem,” “Tobacco giveth and tobacco taketh away.” Using Toffler’s definition of a good corporation, R.J.R. Tobacco Co. failed at the point of its product–though this was not always evident as it is now. A member of Fries in the 1980s had been a high-ranking officer of the company.  He told me that when the leadership of the company returned from World War II, they were ignorant of the harm done by cigarettes.  “We just wanted to do something great for Winston-Salem,” he said.  Though its chief product was eventually declared dangerous to a user’s health and life, the company did stunningly well in caring for its employees and stockholders, and equally well in enhancing the life of the city in which it was located. Did you know that R.J.R. Tobacco Co. made many of its line workers millionaires;  poured additional millions into Winston-Salem; and helped send thousands of our young adults, including me, to college; but also eased race relations by when it integrated its lunchrooms in the mid-1950s? It is hard to “bite the hand that feeds you.” It is hard to resist such an attractive power.


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