For some time I have been thinking about the issue of power and “the powers”.  These “spiritual” realities in our world are, as John Howard Yoder described them (in The Politics of Jesus), “an inclusive vision of religious structures…intellectual structures (-ologies and -isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race, and nation).”  Of these structures Willard Swartley (in Transforming the Powers) says: “Structures that are deemed good and that provide the basis for natural or social order that enables life… are turned into ultimate values, ends in themselves, and thus are elevated to the powers over one’s life and then worshiped as gods.”

To engage the powers (or transform them) requires us, first, to acknowledge their reality and then to describe their modus operandi in the world.  In other posts I will delve more into what they “are” but the Swartley and Yoder quotes suffice here to lay a foundation for describing a couple of ways in which they work.  The short podcast below articulates an important element of the operation of the powers in our world–how they speak.  The clip comes from a talk by Dr Eugene McCarraher of Villanova University given at “Faith, Film and Justice 2008 (and annual film festival and conference at the Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. See the 2009 program here: Film, Faith and Justice, 2009)

In his talk McCarraher is reviewing and commenting on two films to be shown at the festival: “Letter to Anna” and “US vs Al-Arain” (see full descriptions at the bottom of this post).  Though the clip features his comments on these films, it is not necessary to have seen them to appreciate what McCarraher has to say about the “dialects of power”.  He describes three ways they “speak to truth”:

  1. Via physical violence and intimidation
  2. Via obfuscation, duplicity and denial
  3. Via banality

I was reminded of these three as I read “The Guantanamo ‘Suicides'” in the March 2010 issue of Harpers.  Without a “whistleblower” the powers–in this case the US Justice Department and Pentagon–would have spoken in all three ways in relation to three prisoners who died at the US camp on the Island of Cuba.

As I listen to McCarraher I am reminded of how William Stringfellow in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land describes the tactics of the powers.  After challenging Americans (and especially Christians) to not be naive about the powers, Stringfellow lays out the following tactics that they use to acquire and maintain control.  It is interesting how many of them have to do with the way the powers “speak”.

The point in all of this is not to create fear or a sense of overwhelm but to deepen our understanding of how the powers work so that we might reveal them for what they are while calling them to the justice that is their God-given role in the world (see Romans 13–but only after reading Romans 12 and in light of Revelation 13).  More on all of this later.  For now, I close this with Stringfellow’s characteristics of the powers.

The Denial of Truth: In the place of truth and appropriating the name of truth are data engineered and manufactured, programmed and propagated by the principality. The truth is usurped and displaced by a self-serving version of events or facts, with whatever selectivity, distortion, falsehood, manipulation, exaggeration, evasion, concoction necessary to maintain the image or enhance the survival or multiply the coercive capacities of the principality.

Doublespeak and Overtalk: The preemption of truth with prefabricated, fictionalized versions of facts and events and the usurpation of truth by propaganda and official lies are stratagems of the demonic powers much facilitated by other language contortions or abuses which the principalities and authorities foster. These include heavy euphemism and coded phrases, the inversion of definitions, jargon, hyperbole, misnomer, slogan, argot, shibboleth, cliché. The powers enthrall, delude, and enslave human beings by estopping comprehension with “double-speak,” as Orwell named it.

Secrecy and Boasts of Expertise: An aspect of the delusive aura enveloping the demonic powers is the resort to secrecy. Secrecy in politics is dehumanizing per se; political secrecy begets a ruthless paternalism between regime and citizens which disallows human participation in government and renders human beings hapless against manipulation by trick or propaganda or other babel.

Surveillance and Harassment:Ancillary to secrecy in politics and commerce and in other realms is surveillance and the abolition of human privacy…  (T)he monitoring of shoppers and elevator passengers and similar, now commonplace, so-called security precautions affecting ordinary business; the everyday atmosphere of apprehension in which people have come to live…all have worked to enlarge greatly the tolerance of citizens toward political surveillance and the loss of privacy.

Exaggeration and Deception: In certain situations principalities act or overact so as to engender a belief that their conduct is warranted though no empirical justification exists. It is the audacity of the deceit, the grossness of the falsehood, the sheer excessiveness of the stratagem, the massiveness of the exaggeration which works to gain public credence or acquiescence.

Cursing and Conjuring: The demonic powers curse human beings who resist them.  I mean the term curse quite literally, as a condemnation to death, as a damnation…  In earlier times, American Indians were cursed as savages in order to rationalize genocide. Somewhat similarly, chattel slavery involved cursing blacks as humanly inferior.

Usurpation and Absorption: A somewhat more subtle tactic which principalities initiate against humans who do not conform involves the usurpation of human resistance in various ways.

Diversion and demoralization: There are numberless other diversions convenient to the demonic powers, some of which may be thought of as dividends which accrue when other ploys are at work. The relentlessness of multifarious babel in America, for example, has wrought a fatigue both visceral and intellectual in millions upon millions of Americans. By now truly demoralized, they suffer no conscience and they risk no action. Their human interest in living is narrowed to meager subsisting; their hope for life is no more than avoiding involvement with other humans and a desire that no one will bother them. They have lost any expectations for society; they have no stamina left for confronting the principalities; they are reduced to docility, lassitude, torpor, profound apathy, and default. The demoralization of human beings in this fashion greatly conveniences the totalitarianism of the demonic powers since the need to resort to persecutions or imprisonments is obviated, as the people are already morally captive.

USA vs. Al-Arian
Line Halvorsen—Norway—2007—98m—35mm—doc
In Arabic with English subtitles

A passionate, outspoken pro-Palestinian activist, university professor Sami Al-Arian was charged in 2003 with funding and supporting a Palestinian terrorist group and held in prison awaiting a trial for two-and-a-half years. USA vs Al-Arian is an intimate family portrait that documents the strain brought on by Al-Arian’s trial, a battle waged both in court and in the media. A tight-knit family unravels before our eyes as trial preparations, strategy, and spin consume their lives. This is a nightmare come to life, as a man is prosecuted for his beliefs rather than his actions. Director Line Halvorsen presents democracy in a new light—in a post-9/11 culture of fear, “security measures” trump free speech, and punishment is meted out in the name of protection.

Letter to Anna
Eric Bergkraut —Switzerland—2008—84m—video—doc
In Russian and English with English subtitles

Anna Politkovskaya was a brave and tenacious journalist for one of Russia’s only independent journals, Novaya Gazeta. Anna used her journalist platform to strongly criticize Russian military actions in Chechnya. On October 7, 2006, she was shot dead in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building. A few years before her untimely death, filmmaker Eric Bergkraut met Politkovskaya while making his documentary Coca: The Dove From Chechnya. Bergkraut filmed some powerful, frank interviews with the late reporter. In Letter to Anna these are interwoven with a tantalizing search for her likely killers and insightful contributions from colleagues and loved ones who discuss her work while celebrating the life of an extraordinary woman and mother, a fearless defender of the people, “the conscience of Russia.”

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