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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of White Supremacy—Ephesians 6:10-20 (Robert Williamson)

Although the Apostle Paul’s discussion of our struggle against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places may strike many readers as a relic of a primitive cosmological outlook, it is fiercely relevant in our own day, where white supremacy functions as just such a power. Ta-Nehisi Coates has spoken of the illusions and lies undergirding the American Dream and, with the Apostle, calls us to awake to and struggle against the forces and ideologies that bind and enthral us.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

This week’s epistle lectionary may be one of the most frequently misinterpreted passages of the Bible. The claim that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh” (6:12) but rather “against the wiles of the devil” (6:11) leads many interpreters to conclude that the passage is about a spiritual struggle on the part of individual believers and has no connection to the political realities of the world.

Yet a closer reading of the text shows that, in fact, it is concerned with spiritual realities precisely in their relationship to political realities. Ephesians 6:12 contrasts the “enemies of blood and flesh” with the true enemies, using a five-fold repetition of the word “against” (Gk. pros):

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh
                                  but against the rulers
                                         against the authorities
                                         against the cosmic powers
                                         against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places

While the first use of “against” describes those whom the struggle is not against, the remaining four uses describe the actual enemies against whom Christians are called to struggle. These four references move from the earthly realm to the heavenly, connecting the political realm to the spiritual. The terms “rulers” (archas) and “authorities” (exousias) are common terms in the New Testament and usually refer to human rulers and the authority they wield (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:24; Ephesians 1:21). The third term, “cosmic powers” (kosmokratoras), is understood by most scholars as referring to a supernatural power, moving us from the political realm into the spiritual. Finally, “spiritual forces” (pneumatika) refer explicitly to nonhuman forces, which are said to be not on earth but “in the heavenly places” (en tois epouraviois).

Taken together, these four terms describe “enemies” that span both the earthly and heavenly realms—transcendent, spiritual realities with earthly, political manifestations. The verse recognizes that earthly power relations are animated by spiritual realities that transcend any specific “flesh and blood” person or ruler. To struggle only against “blood and flesh” enemies fails to address the root issue, which is the cosmic, spiritual force itself. The believer is therefore called to the greater struggle against the cosmic forces that threaten the world, here referred to as the “wiles of the devil.”

For most modern readers, the idea of spiritual warfare manifesting itself in political realities may seem antiquated and irrational. Yet I want to suggest that, especially for white progressives such as myself, it is imperative to recognize that we ourselves are often motivated by spiritual forces that transcend our own “blood and flesh” and yet are ultimately inseparable from us.

While one could no doubt identify numerous such spiritual forces that animate our political reality, in this month marking the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, I want to speak specifically of the spiritual force of white supremacy—the belief (conscious or unconscious) that white life is more valuable than black life.

The term “white supremacy” has usually been invoked in reference to vile and violent acts of racism, and most of us would rightly deny that we are engaged in white supremacy in that sense. Yet in his recent memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that white supremacy in its most dangerous forms may appear to be quite innocuous or even attractive to those of us who benefit from whiteness. It is the white supremacy of liberal progressives, but it is white supremacy nonetheless.

Coates writes of white Americans existing in a dreamlike state: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Yet if we were to wake up, Coates insists, we would recognize that “the elevation of the belief in being white…was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various acts meant, first and foremost, to deny [us]…the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

What Coates refers to as “The Dream” bears a striking resemblance to what Ephesians calls “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.” It is an immaterial force that transcends any particular person, yet it asserts itself in power relationships that privilege whiteness at the cost of black lives and livelihoods. It is a darkness that permeates white consciousness, convincing us of our innocence while concealing the violence and dehumanization that underlies our way of life. It is an enemy that appears to be a friend, a comfortable lie against which we may not wish to struggle.

This passage from Ephesians calls white Christians into the struggle against the spiritual power that is white supremacy—the cosmic power of death masquerading as legitimate earthly authority. It calls white Christians to relinquish the traditional armor of privilege and power and to replace it with righteousness, faith, and truth. It calls us to attack the Dream of white supremacy with the Word of God, which demands justice for all and not privilege for a few. It calls us to take off the boots we have used to trample down others and to strap on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” It calls us into the struggle against our own white privilege, which smells like peppermint but smacks of death.

Coates concludes his memoir with a final instruction to his son: “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do no struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

Ephesians calls upon the Dreamers to awake. Ephesians calls us to take up the struggle.

One thought on “The Politics of White Supremacy—Ephesians 6:10-20 (Robert Williamson)

  1. Robert, while I’m with you in your political/racial analysis of white supremacy, you didn’t work very hard to link it to the passage. You gave a good introduction to Paul and the Greek, but the connection to the politics was too thin, too tenuous.

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