I’m reading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers again, in preparation for an upcoming project. I’m going to quibble with his identification of the powers, but I find his articulation of the social and institutional manifestations of the powers at times simply masterful.
On the need of the church to resist adopting the power strategies of the culture:
When the Roman archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor’s behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor’s power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power. Rebellion would have focused solely on the physical institution and its current incumbents and attempted to displace them by an act of superior force. But prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire’s “angel,” as it were, before the judgment seat of God.
Such sedition could not go unpunished. With rebels the solution was simple. No one challenged the state’s right to execute rebels. They had bought into the power-game on the empire’s terms and lost, and the rules of the game required their liquidation. The rebels themselves know this before they started. But what happens when a state executes those who are praying for it? When Christians knelt in the Colosseum to pray as lions bore down on them, something sullied the audience’s thirst for revenge. Even in death these Christians were not only challenging the ultimacy of the emperor and the “spirit” of empire but also demonstrating the emperor’s powerlessness to impose his will even by death. The final sanction had been publicly robbed of its power. Even as the lions lapped the blood of the saints, Caesar was stripped of his arms and led captive in Christ’s triumphal procession. His authority was shown to be only penultimate after all. And even those who wished most to deny such a thing were forced, by the very punishment they chose to inflict, to behold its truth. It was a contest of all the brute force of Rome against a small sect that merely prayed . . .
Wink concludes that the contemporary church must cultivate fresh strategies that will embody the gospel and also expose cultural idolatries.
This is not to suggest that in most circumstances prayer is enough, but in that situation it was the most radical response imaginable. Then, “Jesus is Lord” shook the foundations of an empire; in the “free” world today, “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers mainly occasion yawns . . . But there are countries where “Jesus, friend of the poor” can get you killed. Fidelity to the gospel lies not in repeating its slogans but in plunging the prevailing idolatries into its corrosive acids.
* Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, pp. 110-111.