1: Power & the Monster

Grapes of WrathI am starting a mini-series on “power”.  I don’t know how long the series will be, but it comes from my reading 3 things in close proximity to one another.  First, I re-read “Naming the Powers” and “Unmasking the Powers” by Walter Wink (books 1 & 2 of a trilogy).  Given that these books were written primarily with an eye toward the relationship of “the powers” to violence, I wanted a different perspective.  In preparation for a sermon I preached in March 2013 on “The Cross of Christ”, I read Marva Dawn’s fabulous book “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God” that deal with power & weakness from the angle of the churches witness. And finally, I read Hendrik Berkhof’s classic (and very brief) book “Christ & the Powers”.

For a long time, I have desired to be able to communicate the notion of powers to people who haven’t thought much about them.  It is perhaps among the more difficult biblical ideas to communicate well.  You usually end up alienating those that are easily offended, or you over-intellectualize about them and no one gets what you are saying.

This blog series will seek to communicate some themes well, while staying true to the biblical notion of power and how God engages with power structures.

I would love to give a definition of power, but that is not possible.  To quote Walter Wink, “The reader of this work will search in vain for a definition of power.  It is one of those words that one understands perfectly well until asked to define it.”  But I do think it is important to show my hand a little at the outset.  So here are four “understandings” I have of power in scripture.

(1) There is such a thing as “principalities and powers” that are a real force at work in this world.

(2) The principalities and powers are established by God for the good of the world, but they are fallen.  They seek to perpetuate the brokenness of the world, and have situated themselves so that they benefit from such brokenness.

(3) The principalities and powers have a spiritual pole and a physical pole.  That is they are made manifest concretely in this physical world, and they are governed by a force unseen (though still present – like “heaven” and “God” in scripture, invisible does not mean “somewhere else”).

(4) The demonic is closely linked to the power structures named by scripture.

So, now to the task of trying to communicate power in an intelligible way.  I will start with a excerpt from one of the greatest pieces of literature in American history, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.  The following is conversation held between the share-croppers and the land-owners, as the dust-bowl situation deepens and worsens in Oklahoma.  It’s a little long, but hang in there – I think it is worth reading if you want to begin to wrap your mind around a proper understanding of “the powers” in scripture.

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for awhile, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust. In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children—cornheaded children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent. 

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.

Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.

Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long
enough, God knows.The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes, they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.

The owner men went on leading to their point: You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.

The squatters nodded—they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land. 

Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.

Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.

But—you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.

The squatting men raised their eyes to understand. Can’t we just hang on? Maybe the next year will be a good year. God knows how much cotton next year. And with all the wars—God knows what price cotton will bring. Don’t they make explosives out of cotton? And uniforms? Get enough wars and cotton’ll hit the ceiling. Next year, maybe. They looked up questioningly.

We can’t depend on it. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.

Soft fingers began to tap the sill of the car window, and hard fingers tightened on the restless drawing sticks. In the doorways of the sun-beaten tenant houses, womensighed and then shifted feet so that the one that had been down was now on top, and the toes working. Dogs came sniffing near the owner cars and wetted on all four tires one after another. And chickens lay in the sunny dust and fluffed their feathers to get the cleansing dust down to the skin. In the little sties the pigs grunted inquiringly overthe muddy remnants of the slops.

The squatting men looked down again. What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop—we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.

And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. 

Something’s happened to the monster. 

But you’II kill the land with cotton.

We know. We’ve got to take the cotton quick before the land dies. Then we’ll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land.

 The tenant men looked up alarmed. But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?

You’ll have to get off the land. The plows’ll go through the dooryard.

And now the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An’ we was born here. There in the door—our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised. 

We know that—all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The tenants cried, Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land. Maybe we cankill banks—they’re worse than Indians and snakes. Maybe we got to fight to keep our land, like Pa and Granpa did.

And now the owner men grew angry. You’ll have to go.

But it’s ours, the tenant men cried. We—

No. The bank, the monster owns it. You’ll have to go.

We’ll get our guns, like Granpa when the Indians came. What then?

Well—first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.

But if we go, where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We got no money.

We’re sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don’t you go on west to California?

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