The Spirituality of Resistance

Progressive Christian Social Action

The Spirituality of Resistance

Sharon Delgado’s article, The Spirituality of Resistance, appears in the May 2018 issue of Sojourners Magazine.   It is a book review of Principalities in Particular:  A Practical Theology of the Powers that Be by Bill Wylie-Kellerman.   

For decades, pastor, activist, and scholar Bill Wylie-Kellermann has kept alive and furthered a theology of the biblical “powers and principalities” (Romans 8:38; Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 6:12), in the tradition of William Stringfellow and Walter Wink. Principalities in Particular is a compilation of his essays, rooted in applied struggle and practice, on these invisible but embodied forces that shape and often dominate human life.

Through stories of engaging specific principalities over time, Wylie-Kellermann brings an abstract concept to life. He explores racism, nuclear weapons, sports, family systems, corporate globalization, slavery, the drug powers, war, the Trump presidency, the global economy, and other principalities, immersing readers in a worldview that perceives not only their outer manifestations, but their inner realities as well.  One example is the corporate-friendly system of emergency management that has replaced democracy in controlling the author’s home city of Detroit and other black-majority cities in Michigan.

Wylie-Kellermann portrays local community struggles as fighting (nonviolently) for the soul of the city. He describes a statue called “The Spirit of Detroit,” which stands near City Hall, providing a focus and gathering place for community activists. In a similar vein, he tells of an interfaith group that drafted letters to “The Angel of Detroit,” calling the city back to its better nature and true vocation in service of life.

Wylie-Kellermann claims that “half of any struggle is a spiritual battle.” What is at stake is not simply a specific desired outcome, but also human healing and liberation. “We are complicit in our own captivity. … The healing of the planet and the healing of ourselves, inside and out, are one.”  Wylie-Kellermann challenges readers to stay awake, resist dehumanization by the principalities, work for liberation, and live in freedom.

Principalities in Particular inspires and equips readers to rise to this challenge. The author invites readers into a process of inquiry, especially related to principalities in one’s own neighborhood, and to engagement that may lead to both personal and social transformation: “The struggle before us remains necessarily two-handed or two-edged, fusing social analysis and institutional reconstruction with discernment, prayer, and worship-based action.” Such activism calls for discipline and creativity: “Prayer and fasting and public worship and singing and signs of imagination are among the tactics of any movement that knows it wrestles not merely with flesh and blood.” This book illustrates the difficulties, but also the triumphs, of such engagement.

One of Wylie-Kellermann’s insights is that we humans fall into the trap of seeking justification through the powers, rather than by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). For example, Christians may find identity and worth through their participation in and loyalty to a church. But as the author points out, the church itself is a principality, as prone as any other to seeking its own survival by enlisting human beings in its service. Consequently, churches may endorse belief systems, practices, or policies that further “the powers of empire.” On the other hand, “to be church as exemplary power in this present moment is to be freed of white supremacy, patriarchy, idolatrous patriotism, heterocentrism, mammon, militarism, consumer materialism, all the divisions and ideologies of domination.”

Particularly dangerous, warns Wylie-Kellermann, is justification offered through “the devotion of national populism,” currently exemplified by the presidency of Donald Trump. “Trump’s theology frames justification, mediated by the nation and its leader, as conferred upon ‘the patriotic people’… This justification … goes hand in hand with the unleashing of the dominating spirit. Notably, it is the offer of salvation without repentance.”

The motivation to refuse complicity and resist the powers is a spiritual effect of reading this book. Wylie-Kellermann challenges readers to stay awake, resist dehumanization by the principalities, work for liberation, and live in freedom: “Death appears to reign. But it is undone. Live in the freedom of the resurrection. In short, dear friends: Be not awed by anything but the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.”

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