The Powers Behind Systemic Evil

This sermon is based on chapter 2 of ‘Good and Beautiful and Kind’ by Rich Villodas.

In the previous sermon, the place of sin (thought of as a failure to love) in the fracturing of the world was explored. This is part of the problem but not the whole story. In addition to the problems in our own hearts, there are sinister forces outside of us that wreak havoc in our lives and seduce us away from the love of God. The Bible speaks of these forces as powers and principalities.

The world is more spiritual than many of us realise. When evil is rampant, and even viewed as ‘good’ by certain people, it can seem like we are being pushed and prodded along by something beyond the limits and logic of everyday human depravity. When the Bible speaks of ‘powers’, it is not talking of individual evil spirits per se, but rather a convergence of hostile spiritual forces hosted in individuals, systems and institutional structures. Villodas writes, “Powers and principalities are spiritual forces that become hostile, taking root in individuals, ideologies, and institutions, with the goal of deception, division and depersonalisation.” A big part of the deception is that our battle is against flesh and blood rather than against these systemic powers.

In Romans 8:38-39, Paul lists ‘powers’ as one of multiple spiritual influences that seek to separate us from the love of God. Some of the ways they do this are:

  • Deception – Satan is called the Father of lies. We must take responsibility for the lies we tell and the deception we exhibit. We must also recognise that we are acted on by the powers in a way where deception is rewarded and becomes a necessary means of survival. One of the ways they do this is by convincing ourselves to orient our lives around certain (often good) values to such a degree that we can only achieve them through deceit.
  • Division – The powers lead us to participate in the ‘enemy-making machine’, where we cannot disagree with another person without turning them into an enemy. We tend to see people as objects to avoid or to attack because of our differences with them.
  • Depersonalisation – We become formed to see generic groups of people rather than individuals, making it easier to forget their humanity and stop seeing them as sacred creations of God.

The church can also become a possessed power. It has done wonderful things, but has also perpetuated harmful and abusive things.

The keys to uprooting the powers are found in Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6. These instructions are often taught individualistically, but are actually a collective encouragement given to the church.

  • Truth – Accurately naming the powers pulls back the curtain on what is happening. It is a revelatory and liberating act.
  • Righteousness – Practicing righteousness (justice) in small daily ways shows that we are not in bondage to the lies of the world and pushes back the powers.
  • Peace – Paul is not just talking about the internal peace that the Spirit gives but also the commitment to carry good news of peace into the world of fragmentation. We resist powers by peaceful, nonviolent resistance to their dominion.
  • Faith – We overcome the powers not through trust in our abilities but confidence in God’s power. This is why prayer is such a powerful response to the powers.
  • Salvation – Includes liberation for others – extends to social, economic and political spheres. We announce and apply the gospel beyond privatised experiences of faith.
  • The Word of God – This is about two things: life orientated by careful integration of God’s truth and the victory already established in Jesus. The first in modelled in Jesus resisting the temptations in the wilderness. Additionally, it is trust in the cross where all the powers were defeated.

The issue has been settled at the cross and the powers are defeated. Christ is victorious. And yet it can sometimes seem like the powers have won. This is the mystery of the cross. The powers are conquered not by confronting them but resisting.

The victory of the cross does not mean we are not often under their grip, but we are saved from their dominion. They are not beaten by our own efforts. They are too strong to be conquered apart from God, so we are to place our hope in him.