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Resistance, Redemption, and “the Powers”: Applying the Sermon on the Mount to Corruption and Racism

Author: Alan Howell and Logan Thompson
Published: 2023

MD 14

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

In order for the church to flourish, disciples of Jesus must be trained to resist the evil “powers that be.” This is a challenge, though, because the people of God experience different cultural obstacles, and even their ability to resist is distorted by the powers themselves. The authors first explore ways of framing our understanding of the powers before presenting the Sermon on the Mount as a “resistance text.” Finally, they investigate the effects of the fallen powers in both Mozambique (specifically corruption) and in the United States (specifically racism), showing how Jesus’s teachings can help name the powers and provide practical strategies for resisting them in those contexts.

A discouraged Mozambican church leader opened up about his frustration: “It sure seems like evil is winning. And it’s not just the evil out there in the world—there is evil within the church, too. A fellow church leader is taking money that belongs to the Body of Christ and some church members are letting him get away with it! How is it that greed has possessed him and others in our community? How good is our good news if we can’t find a way to resist what is bad?” I (Alan) have heard many similar laments among the Makua-Metto people of Mozambique. But these conversations are certainly not unique to that part of Africa. Cries for a solution to the power of darkness in our lives can be heard all across the globe.

In Paul’s letters, he uses the language of the “principalities” and “powers” to describe what the body of Christ was up against (Eph 6:12). The Apostle uses this language to help the church see the ways that the good news of Jesus is at work in addressing the problem of evil and darkness. In short, the “powers” are divinely created spiritual forces at work in the world. They are “at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional.”1 Like human beings, they too are fallen. And, though it may surprise us at first, the bigger story of redemption to which Paul bears witness includes how God is working to redeem all of creation—even the powers that be. As N. T. Wright explains in reference to Col 1:15–20:

So where do the “powers” come in? . . . First, in the great poem . . . we find the vital starting point. All things were made in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. All things—including the “powers”! . . . God intended his world to be ordered, not random; to be structured, not chaotic. . . . What went wrong was that human beings gave up their responsibility for God’s world, and handed them over to the powers. . . . On the cross, Christ has defeated these rebel powers and stripped them of their ultimate power. Now he seeks to reconcile them, to create a new world, ordered by the power of the love of God.2

In this article, we will explore ways that the church should understand and engage the fallen powers. We believe that a first step is finding language to talk about the powers, learning to unpack a vocabulary unfamiliar to many. Although Paul’s letters are certainly helpful for this task, we suggest that the Sermon on the Mount interpreted as a “resistance text” against the powers is an underappreciated resource in framing the discussion. In the Sermon, Jesus gives us both language and strategies to help us flourish, even in enemy-occupied territory. In the second and third sections of the article, we will look at the effects of the fallen powers in two places: the problem of corruption in Mozambique and the challenge of racism in the United States. We will see how the Sermon on the Mount can help name the powers and provide practical strategies for resisting them in those contexts.3

Understanding the Powers and Unmasking their Strategies

Though many readers of the New Testament only consider two active entities within its pages, Fleming Rutledge reminds us that there are in fact three: “God the creator of the world, the Enemy who has invaded and occupied the world, and the human beings and other creatures who are held in captivity by the demonic occupier. Those are the three agencies in the New Testament scenario.”4 One significant problem, however, is that many Christians today are not sufficiently familiar with language about the powers to appreciate and understand the agency of the Enemy in the world today. For example, Westerners sometimes talk about “team spirit” or about a corporation that has been taken captive by (the power of) greed, but we rarely articulate the agency at play in such instances that works against the kingdom of God. To aid us in our exploration, we will rely on N. T. Wright, Walter Wink, Marva Dawn, and Charles Campbell as conversation partners before turning our attention to the Sermon on the Mount, setting the stage for the rest of the article.

Wright provides three guideposts for discussing the problem of evil using powers language. First, we need to remember the holistic nature of God’s justice.5 God is concerned with more than individual salvation; God wants the whole world to become the place it was intended to be when God formed it in the beginning and called it “good” (Gen 1:31). Second, we must recall that the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart. It would be inappropriate to think of good and evil as merely “us vs. them.” Instead, we must recognize the brokenness in each of us.6 Third, it is helpful to see the atonement as an event. God deals with the problem of sin, death, and Satan through decisive action.7 Wright notes, “What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, not a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.”8 These three guideposts allow us to find our bearings as we begin the journey of understanding and engaging the powers.

It is hard to overstate Walter Wink’s influence in introducing and shaping the way “powers language” is used today to speak about the problem of evil.9 Wink asserts that the powers “are at once good and evil, though to varying degrees, and they are capable of improvement. Put in stark simplicity: ‘The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.’ ”10 Evil, then, is not merely a personal issue; it is both “structural and spiritual” as individual actions are linked to massive systems that take on a life of their own.11 Wink calls this “overarching network” of fallen powers the “Domination System,” a web of corruption that is “characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical powers relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”12 The “demonic character” of these powers “rests not so much in their transcendent nature or personal agency, as in their capacity to control the imaginations and behavior of human beings, individually and communally.”13 Our goal, then, becomes even more ambitious than becoming “free from the Powers.” Instead, life in the Kingdom of God aims “to free the Powers.”14

Despite her misgivings about some of Wink’s conclusions,15 Dawn draws from his work and offers deeper insight into the nature of the powers in relation to the people of God. She observes that because human beings comprise the church, and because the line between good and evil cuts right through every human heart, even churches, who were made to have a “unique role” in redeeming the powers, can be impacted or hijacked by evil spiritual forces.16 She writes, “Our churches operate as fallen powers when the gospel is no longer a stumbling block, when the ‘foolishness’ and ‘weakness’ of God outlined in 1 Cor 1–2 are discarded in favor of status, position, wealth, popularity, acceptability to the modern or postmodern minds, or power.”17 Dawn suggests “the overwhelming pressures on church leaders to be successful” and the “reduction of the gospel for the sake of marketing” as two examples of this phenomenon by which congregations might participate in the Domination System.18 Tragically, we can also add examples of more systematic corruption in congregational leadership that have led to the exclusion and abuse of women, children, people of color, the poor, and the disabled. Indeed, until Jesus returns, even the body of Christ is not immune to the evil grasp of fallen powers. Though this reality could lead us to despair, Dawn believes that the church still has significant reason to hold onto hope. First, God continues to tabernacle among God’s people by the power of the Spirit, despite human weakness.19 Second, as she so confidently reminds us: “Always we must remember that the powers can be changed . . . because Jesus Christ already is Lord over them.”20

Our survey thus far has remained mostly theoretical. Perhaps the best way for us to grasp the nature of the fallen powers’ work in the world is to take note of their various tactics. Charles Campbell describes nine different strategies that the powers have used throughout human history to sow seeds of corruption and disunity:

  1. Negative Sanctions
  2. [Supposed] Rewards and Promises
  3. Isolation and Division
  4. Demoralization
  5. Diversion
  6. Public Rituals
  7. Surveillance
  8. Language and Image
  9. Secrecy21

One could identify additional tactics that the powers use, but Campbell casts a wide net. Much of the evil we see in the world today is connected to one or more of these nine strategies. Although the powers have implemented their strategies in new ways over time, the underlying principles of corruption remain the same—from Jesus’s day until now. In the first century, the Roman Empire publicly scourged and crucified anyone who defied Caesar’s dominion (Negative Sanctions, Public Rituals).22 In the colonial era, Europeans removed African peoples from their homelands and isolated them from their family members in order to keep them enslaved in the Americas (Isolation and Division).23 In the digital age, corporations distract consumers with entertainment and advertisements, keeping the masses blissfully unaware of the unfair business practices to which their spending contributes (Diversion, Language and Image).24 We could list many more examples. The centuries of success that the fallen powers have had using these nine tactics are overwhelming. Such continuity, however, also means that the most powerful methods of resistance throughout church history can be effective against the Domination System today. We can, therefore, look to the New Testament for guidance on how the twenty-first-century church might work to overturn systems of corruption and injustice.

The bedrock of Christian ethics—of how disciples of Jesus ought to live in a fallen world and resist the powers that be—is the Sermon on the Mount.25 These chapters (Matt 5–7) form the most comprehensive block of moral teaching in the Gospels. As we will show, the Sermon itself is a resistance text (a point amplified once we take note of the narrative context in which the Sermon is placed).26

Claiming divine authority, Jesus calls his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount to a way of living that is, as Jonathan Pennington puts it, “topsy-turvy and dissonance creating . . . Jesus’ wisdom and way for human flourishing are not portrayed as the natural outflow of human thinking and reflection. It is an irruption into this world.”27 Jesus’s sermon is an affront to the powers and systems of this world; he presents a yoke of flourishing that stands in contrast to the yoke of oppression that the powers have to offer.28 Wink reminds us that Jesus “repudiated the very premises of the Domination System: the right of some to lord it over others by means of power, wealth, shaming, or titles.”29 Jesus’s yoke empowers his disciples to reject the world’s binary of choosing between participating in violence or passively accepting it as one’s fate, and he calls us to embrace a non-violent “third way.” For example, Jesus’s exhortation to go the second mile is not encouraged “in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire,” offering a way “in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”30 Jesus’s instructions for contextualized resistance “are, of course, not rules to be followed legalistically, but examples to spark an infinite variety of creative responses in new and changing circumstances.”31 He trains his followers to resist the powers in ways that reveal their brokenness (shining light on their strategies) and open up the possibility of their future redemption. Interestingly, after Campbell describes the powers’ nine corrupt strategies, he also moves to the Sermon on the Mount.32 In the next two sections, we will explore how the Sermon on the Mount provides alternative strategies for resisting the fallen powers in two places: the problem of corruption in Mozambique and the challenge of racism in the United States.

The Powers and the Makua-Metto People:
Naming and Resisting Corruption in Mozambique

In Mozambique, conversations about power dynamics are salted with the word aproveitar (Portuguese for “take advantage of”). People at every level of leadership or power assume that they should aproveitar their position for personal gain. This kind of corruption severely limits development. It was not uncommon for my [Alan’s] Makua-Metto friends to express frustration because attending nurses at the hospital might refuse to treat a sick child unless they were given a “tip.” Bus drivers would have cash on hand for traffic officers in order to keep themselves from being held up at road stops. We also knew high school students whose teachers would expect a “gift” in order for a student to pass their class, regardless of the quality of their schoolwork. How should disciples of Jesus respond to everyday experiences of corruption and abuse of power?

The Sermon on the Mount includes some of Jesus’s most practical teachings on the way that disciples ought to deal with everyday expressions of the problem of evil.33 His most challenging instruction, though, may be that of “nonviolent resistance.”34 Jesus’s teaching in Matt 5:38–42, given to a people living under an oppressive Roman regime, also speaks to the situation of abuse and corruption in which the Makua-Metto people find themselves.

Although a full cultural and rhetorical analysis of this passage is outside the scope of this article, a few observations about this text should be noted before we address its application. First, Craig Keener notes that “turning the other cheek summons disciples to neglect their honor and let God vindicate them when he wills.”35 Jesus does not instruct his disciples to become the proverbial “doormat;”rather, he provides a radical example of openhanded generosity to teach the principle of active nonresistance and non-retaliation in response to the backhanded blows and insults from those enslaved to the powers of evil.36

Second, in societies shaped by honor and shame, like the Mediterranean world of the New Testament as well as the Makua-Metto context,37 “a disciple must be so secure in his or her status before God that he or she can dispense with human honor. Such a person need not avenge lost honor because this person seeks God’s honor rather than his or her own (5:16; 6:1–18). If their lives are forfeit when they begin to follow Jesus (16:24–27), they have no honor of their own to lose.”38 Although the Roman soldier uses power and “forces” one into service, “ ‘going the extra mile’ is not only a case of submitting to unjust demands but also of exceeding them—showing love to one’s oppressor, although one’s associates may wrongly view this love as collaboration with the enemy occupation. It is bending over backward to show that one loves and takes no offense.”39 Jesus put this Kingdom ethic of engagement with evil into practice as he “supremely modeled this attitude in the passion narrative.”40

Third, Keener summarizes the rhetorical flow of Jesus’s argument this way: “If nonresistance means disdaining one’s right to one’s own honor (5:38–39), one’s most basic possessions (5:40), and one’s labor and time (5:41) when others seek them by force, one must also disdain these things in view of the needs of the poor (5:42).”41 Keener’s point about generosity to the poor is certainly applicable, but what if v. 42 is normative for the way disciples of Jesus should engage everyone on the socioeconomic spectrum: not only the powerless, but also in dealings with the powerful?42 Hagner states that this verse furthers “the line of thought in the preceding verses by teaching a charitable response to all who may ask for something or who may ask to borrow. In these illustrations, it is no longer a matter of response to mistreatment, or even to forced conduct, but to straightforward requests.” Jesus’s ethic applies to both justifiable and unjustifiable requests; in either case, we are called to respond with radical generosity in a way that is “alien to the perspective of the world.”43

Though the Makua-Metto people do not have to deal with the exact same ethical cases that Jesus references, they do need the same kingdom imagination to map a response to everyday evil in their own context.44 The history of Mozambique in general and the province of Cabo Delgado in particular has been shaped by communist ideology.45 Following the trends of other nations, this means that “top-level corruption . . . [and] lower-level corruption, which occurs in the daily encounters between lower-rank functionaries and the rest of society is not only extremely wide-spread, but appears to be inevitable.”46 Corruption is a problem in Mozambique, an expression of evil that severely limits development and impacts everyday life.47

In order to understand that from the Mozambican perspective, I (Alan) conducted individual interviews (20–40 minutes) with four church leaders and then discussed these findings with small groups or classes of mostly men (thirty-seven participants total). After conducting qualitative interviews about engaging the evils of corruption in this context and triangulation of the principles gleaned from the data in small groups, it was clear that Jesus’s instructions in the Sermon on the Mount provided a helpful resource for navigating the problem of corruption. Our interviews began by summarizing Jesus’s teaching in Matt 5:38–42 and asking participants to analyze its application to the ethics of gift-giving, bribery, and extortion. Out of those conversations a flowchart was developed and presented to groups of church leaders as a potential framework (see below).

Interviewees appreciated how Jesus’s instruction deals practically with life under a corrupt rule, offering direction for people who are on the underside of power. We discussed different scenarios and how various areas of life are shaped by these dynamics—from police stops, to processing documents with the local government, to getting treatment at the hospital, to dealing with school teachers and administrators. We discussed the struggle to do Christian ethics and appropriately distinguish between different exchanges:

  • Bribery – “any gift or services given or promised by a client to a certain ‘power holder’ . . . in order to encourage him or her to violate a duty or moral obligation”
  • Extortion – “the power holder’s intention of obtaining any pecuniary gift from a client as a condition to dispense duty or services”
  • Gift-giving – Since, “prior to this modern bureaucratic system, most of the world operated on a gift economy that relied upon reciprocity and patronage, in countries where . . . officials are not properly compensated, there is a general understanding that they are permitted to look for compensation elsewhere, and the practice of what Western missionaries call ‘bribe’ is actually understood as part of their commission or a ‘tip in advance.’ . . . In reality, these . . . payments for services . . . do not fall under the category of bribes since in most cases they do not coerce officials to violate a duty (such as giving a visa without proper documentation), but only to ensure service.”48

Interviewees and participants agreed that starting the interaction as friends opened doors for proper exchanges between the powerful and powerless, as gift giving is appropriate under the right circumstances.49 Asking, then, is in the mode of friendship. But when the powerful use force and manipulation to get what they want, that is extortion—an evil perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless. Bribery, on the other hand, is manipulation of the powerless. Here both parties are complicit—this is also a distortion of God’s image and is a reflection of the image of the corrupt power, Mammon. In practice, the difficulty comes in distinguishing well among these three in everyday life, as the lines between them are often blurred. We also discussed the role of the conscience and determined that certain interactions may leave us feeling “icky” because we have not done the right thing or because we have been abused. Our reading of Matt 5:38–42 speaks to those distinctions and provides a map or guidelines for Christian ethics and the powers among the Makua-Metto—giving to those who ask of you (treating them in friendly terms)50 and turning the cheek when the powerful have taken an abusive stance.51

Mozambique’s problems with corruption have arisen because the powers have overstepped their boundaries and human leaders have not reflected God’s glory. The struggle to discern appropriate strategies of engagement and proper use of power should be done with wisdom.52 In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:38–41), Jesus gives people who were under the corruption and abuse of Herod and the Roman powers a way to respond to gift-giving, bribery, and extortion that also fits this African context. His teaching is helpful for the Makua-Metto church’s work of naming and disarming the powers of evil today.

The Powers and Generation Z:
Naming and Resisting Racial Injustice in Memphis, Tennessee

In order to resist fallen powers, followers of Jesus must first name them. If the truth goes unspoken, then all of the fallen powers’ strategies remain at their disposal. For the church to expose the corrupt ways of the powers is to disarm them; this is the first step in tipping the scales and reversing the status quo for the downtrodden. Though truth-speaking is only the beginning of the long path toward justice, the journey cannot begin without it. After all, it is the belt of truth that holds the armor of God together.53

In the late spring of 2020, as the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd came to light, racial injustice came to the forefront of white Americans’ consciousness once again.54 Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a white father-and-son duo after they pursued Arbery, having suspected him of committing some crime.55 Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was murdered while she was asleep in her own home: several white police officers, searching for another suspect, forced their way into her residence and shot her eight times.56 George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed when a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes after arresting Floyd for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.57 Neither Arbery, Taylor, nor Floyd were proven guilty of any wrongdoing before their lives were cut short. In the wake of these killings, millions of Americans participated in marches and other demonstrations across the country in order to protest racial inequality and police brutality in the United States.58 The community of Harding University (our alma mater) was directly affected by such racial injustice in 2018 when Botham Jean, an alumnus of the school and a native of Saint Lucia, was murdered by a white police officer in his apartment in Dallas, Texas.59 Many Americans at the time expressed their outrage over the unjust slaying of Jean, but the nation’s response surged to a new level following the murders of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd.60

During the summer of 2020, at the height of these mass protests against racial injustice in America, I (Logan) was serving as a youth minister in Memphis, Tennessee—a city long-acquainted with the fallen power of racism and the hard work of racial reconciliation. Though current events should not commandeer the ministry of the church, its ministers must always follow the Spirit’s leading as their congregations seek to navigate the cultural storms stirred up by the powers that be. Thus, the squall of Arbery’s, Taylor’s, and Floyd’s deaths, which sparked millions of social media posts and nearly as many opinions,61 necessitated a response from our youth ministry leaders. What were American youth ministers called to do in order to guide teenagers through the cultural tumult around them?

Speaking the truth sheds light on corruption. It is vital for redeeming the powers, and it is the first step in living a virtuous life. Jesus makes this clear in Matt 6:1–21, the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.62 In this well-known section of the Sermon, Jesus lays out three scenarios in which hypocrites—who Matthew later identifies in ch. 23 as the powerful first-century Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees—abuse their privileged position as interpreters of Torah by corrupting the true intent of the Law and using it to their own advantage. In the first, the Pharisees announce their giving to the needy with trumpets in order to boast of their generosity (vv. 2–4). In the second, they pray loudly in public to put their supposed piety on display for others to see (vv. 5–7). In the third, Jesus describes Pharisees who fast and let it be known by their sunken faces (v. 16). All three scenarios show how, just as church leaders today can become co-opted by fallen powers, the Pharisees had become corrupted by the power of legalism.63 The Law, given by God to instill wholeness through humble righteousness, had been hollowed out by the Pharisees’ lust for power and the communicable disease of hypocrisy. Jesus condemns such behavior, not because the Pharisees “really do not give alms, pray, and fast, but because they do so without a whole heart.”64 Jesus condemned them as a cemetery full of whitewashed tombs (see Matt 23:27–28).

The good news of the gospel is that virtue, too, is viral.65 Just as Jesus sparks creativity in responding to corruption in the secular world (Matt 5:38–42), so too does he open up opportunities for redeeming the powers within the community of God’s people. In Matt 6:1–21, he sheds light on the void within the hypocritical heart and offers ways to cultivate a fruit-bearing life defined instead by humility and integrity: giving, praying, and fasting in order to gain treasure in heaven, not the fading reward of earthly praise (vv. 19–21).66 When disciples of Jesus name the work of fallen powers in the world and resist their corruption by together practicing the righteousness and justice they preach with integrity and Spirit-filled creativity, restoration begins to take place.67

Like the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in Jesus’s day, racism in the United States will continue to exist so long as corrupt power structures remain hidden behind façades of righteousness and equality. As Jemar Tisby writes, “The festering wound of racism in the American church must be exposed to the oxygen of truth in order to be healed.”68 Of course, no single action will completely reverse racism in Memphis or in any other community today.69 Still, in the cultural moment that my co-minister (Fawn Taylor) and I (Logan) faced in the summer of 2020, we recognized that we had the responsibility to address racial injustice with our youth group in order to shed light on the powers that be. As two white youth ministers, our aim was to facilitate a conversation—to speak the truth by naming the fallen power of racism—and then to set an example by listening to the voices of students of color in our youth group. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic70 put obstacles in our path, but we found a way to gather together in the same room—masked and physically distanced from each other—with a small group of students. We invited everyone else in our youth ministry to join the conversation via online video conferencing. Fawn started the discussion by naming aloud the racial injustices so prominent in our culture: “Yes,” she said, “even fifty years after the changes brought about by the civil rights movement, people of color experience racism in the United States today.”71 For the next half-hour, we listened to students speak about how they had witnessed or experienced the power of racism at work in the world. Our conversation was sobering, as our truth-speaking revealed the ways in which injustice lurks, even among the students we love so deeply. Yet, because of our gathering that night, our youth group went home having been reminded of the Christian hope of redemption—even in the face of the fallen powers. Together, we made a mutual commitment to resist racism together: by listening to the experiences of women and men who face injustice due to the color of their skin, by working to educate ourselves and others on the history and ongoing reality of racism in the United States, and by publicly denouncing the fallen power of racism whenever it rears its ugly head in our churches or in our communities.72 The problem of racism in America is far from eradicated, but interpersonal commitments like these—in which Christ followers strive to be salt and light in their local communities—are necessary steps in exposing, disarming, and redeeming this fallen power.73

Historical instances of Jesus-followers engaging the fallen powers by living out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are helpful for Christians today. The work of Reverend James Lawson during the Civil Rights Era stands as an inspirational example of fallen power resistance. Lawson was an activist who played a pivotal role in the nonviolent protests of the 1960s. He recognized the importance of Christ-like radical resistance in the face of the fallen power of racism. The racial injustices in the United States at that time were clear to Lawson from his own experience as a Black American. He became a pacifist at an early age because of his mother, who encouraged that his every action be guided by love.74 After he spent three years in India learning Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance, Lawson returned to the United States and implemented these countermeasures against the strategies of the fallen powers in the American south.75 In 1959, Lawson began conducting workshops on non-violence, training protestors to resist racial injustice in creative ways: “In his workshops, small groups of students, [both black and white], engaged in role-playing exercises. Some played angry white racists pounding on protesters while calling them racist epithets. Lawson taught them to withstand the taunts, slurs, and blows of the segregationists and to protect themselves without retaliating.”76

In 1962, Lawson moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to become the pastor at Centenary Methodist Church, where he continued his civil rights efforts.77 Six years later, he led a committee focused on improving the unequal working conditions of Black sanitation workers in the city.78 The mayor at the time, Henry Loeb, refused to cooperate; as a result, the sanitation workers went on strike. Lawson organized nonviolent protests, including a sit-in at City Hall, where union members, ministers, and other justice-seekers were met with brutality by police officers who clubbed and maced the nonviolent protesters.79 Lawson then invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Memphis and speak in order to shed light on the injustice that the sanitation workers faced.80 It would be Dr. King’s last speech before his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Two weeks later, after pressure from President Lyndon Johnson, the Memphis City Council approved a measure recognizing the labor union, increasing the sanitation workers’ wages, and improving their working conditions. Union leader Jerry Wurf, reflecting on James Lawson’s role in the civil rights movement in Memphis, said, “What Lawson never understood was the degree to which he was hated in Memphis. They feared [him] for the most interesting of all reasons—he was a totally moral man, and totally moral men you can’t manipulate and you can’t buy and you can’t hustle.”81 In the heat of the moment, James Lawson never backed down from his commitment to nonviolence and creative forms of resistance. His integrity provided the necessary foundation for his church and his community to redeem the fallen powers that be. Just as salt and light transform the spaces they inhabit, Lawson brought about significant change in Memphis through his creative methods of resistance—from inequality toward justice, from racism toward kinship, from fallenness toward restoration. In following Lawson’s example, the church can live out its calling to be driven not by a spirit of fear, but by the spirit of Christ’s love.


We must remember the ultimate hope of the church’s resistance: redemption. As Paul writes in Eph 6:12, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” Therefore, our aim is never to vanquish. With Spirit-filled discernment and integrity, the church works to create opportunities for the fallen powers and those whom they have co-opted to repent and to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We are called to have, as St. Isaac of Nineveh writes, “merciful hearts,” that are, like God, aflame for all of creation: for humankind, birds, beasts, even demons—a list to which we may also add the fallen powers.82 The powers were created good; they have fallen; they must be redeemed. In their redemption is their transformation: from racism to kinship, from corruption to friendship.

A few years ago, the network of churches with which my (Alan) mission team worked in northern Mozambique experienced conflict centered around the behavior of a toxic church leader. After multiple attempts using a variety of strategies to address the issue, my colleague decided to try a different approach. He took a basin of water and a towel with him to a regional gathering, and there in the presence of many church members, he approached the man at the center of the conflict and offered to wash his feet. This church leader publicly refused to have his feet washed and, by all accounts, something in his authority and influence broke in that moment. His pride and commitment to retaining his own power at all costs were put on display for all to see. I was not present for this meeting, but in several interviews and conversations, the story was told in the same way. No one could explain the details of this power encounter or describe exactly what took place, but everyone was certain that something had happened at the spiritual level, impacting the dynamics of the group. A creative form of nonviolent resistance revealed the allegiance of this church leader to the fallen powers and opened up an opportunity for redemption and change within the corrupted system.83

The Sermon on the Mount has been and should remain an impetus for resisting and redeeming the powers that be. For example, the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12) has played a powerful role in the history of Christian opposition of racism,84 and Jesus’s third way of creative, nonviolent resistance in first-century Rome charted a path for dealing with the oppressive power of corruption.85 Christ’s Sermon, his kingdom manifesto, is a survival guide for disciples living in enemy-occupied territory. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’s “Rules for Radicals,” his “Rules for Rebels,” and a text that needs to be seen as our “Real Rules of Order.”86 By creatively applying Jesus’s teaching in ministry contexts like Memphis and Mozambique, God’s power is at work, even in our weakness—even when our best, most faithful efforts seem to fail and may end up costing us, like Jesus, our very lives.87 Even in death we can, like Jesus, be successful in naming and resisting the strategies of the powers, disarming them and working for their redemption in our churches and communities.

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three daughters resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team working among the Makua-Metto people. Alan (MDiv) served as the Visiting Professor of Missions at Harding University from 2019 to 2023 (Searcy, AR) teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of biblical studies, cultural competency, theology, and strategy. He is the Director of Church Relations at Mission Resource Network (

Logan Thompson (MDiv) has worked in full-time youth ministry since 2015. He is the youth minister at the Mansfield Church of Christ in Mansfield, TX, where he lives with his wife, Maryn, and their two daughters, Joanna and Noah Beth.

1 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee, 1999), 24.

2 N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 17–20.

3 In a previous article, we looked at how the lens of honor and shame allows us to see more clearly the multi-dimensional solution that Christ’s atonement provides. In this article we will zoom out in order to gain perspective on the scope of the problem created by sin, death and Satan working together. For more on the implications of honor and shame for theology, specifically the doctrine of the atonement, see Alan B. Howell and Logan T. Thompson, “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2017): 157–65.

4 Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 18.

5 See N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 64.

6 See ibid., 38–39. Wink, The Powers, 165, notes, “As we begin to love the enemy within, we develop the compassion we need to love the enemy without.”

7 “[The last supper] wasn’t a theory, we note, but an action (a warning to all atonement theorists ever since, and perhaps an indication of why the church has never incorporated a specific defining clause about the atonement in its great creeds). Perhaps, after all, atonement is at its deepest level something that happens, so that to reduce not to a proposition to which one can give mental assent is a mistake at a deep level” (Wright, Evil, 91).

8 Ibid., 93.

9 See D. Seiple and Frederick W. Weidmann, ed. Enigmas and Powers: Engaging the Work of Walter Wink for Classroom, Church and World, Princeton Theological Monograph Series 79 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), xviii.

10 Wink, The Powers, 31.

11 “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control” (ibid., 31).

12 Ibid., 39.

13 Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002), 356. See Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, Schaff Lectures at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 2.

14 Wink, The Powers, 199.

15 Wink’s work, though foundational, has been met with criticism. Dawn moves past Wink’s tendency to demythologize in order to build off of his helpful, core observations. She writes that “Wink is insightfully on target when he summarizes the church’s task in relation to the powers as this: ‘to unmask their idolatrous pretensions, to identify their dehumanizing values, to strip from them the mantle of respectability, and to disenthrall their victims’ (though he fails to mention the Church’s primary role in proclaiming Christ’s victory over the powers)” (Dawn, Powers, 16). “Ultimately,” Dawn notes, “Wink seems to have reduced the powers to the problem of violence (which is, of course, partly what they are), but the way of Jesus is much more than nonviolence, and the battle against the powers includes exposing many more diabolical methods and much larger forces. Wink’s collapse of the supernatural world of evil makes one wonder how much he has collapsed good and God” (ibid., 17).

16 Ibid., 120.

17 Ibid., 91.

18 Ibid., 75.

19 See Dawn, Powers, 44–45.

20 Ibid., 88.

21 See Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 33–43.

22 See ibid., 33, 37–39.

23 See Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 32–35; cf. 90–91. Tisby notes, “Of the more than 600,000 interstate sales [of enslaved people] that occurred in the decades prior to the Civil War, 25 percent destroyed a first marriage, and 50 percent broke up a nuclear family” (60). See also Campbell, The Word, 34–35.

24 See Campbell, The Word, 37; 40–42.

25 For an exploration of ethics rooted in the Sermon on the Mount see, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

26 Lindsey Paris-Lopez notes, “The Sermon on the Mount is a call to resistance. It has always been subversive and counter-cultural” (“The Sermon on the Mount: A Theology of Resistance,” Sojourner, February 10, 2017, The Sermon on the Mount is surrounded by language of power and authority. In the preceding chapter, Jesus successfully passes a power encounter with the devil (4:1–11), he begins to preach after John’s imprisonment (v. 12), and Matthew describes Jesus’s ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision for addressing the powers of darkness and death (vv. 13–17), Jesus calls disciples to join him in this resistance (v. 18–22), and then Jesus heals many people, including some who are demon possessed (vv. 23–25). After the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed at Jesus’s powerful, authoritative teaching (7:28). This is followed by three healing stories. The first one is about navigating Jewish social spaces and authority structures (8:1–4), while the second healing story deals with power and authority in Gentile spaces (8:5–13). The third healing story is personal for the disciples as Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, followed by more healings of the demon possessed and concluding with another reference to the prophet Isaiah (8:14–17). Even within the Sermon on the Mount itself, we see powers language present at the center of Jesus’s discourse—the Lord’s Prayer—in which disciples are taught to petition for deliverance from evil (5:37).

27 Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 270–71.

28 It is interesting to note the similarities between Matthew and the Didache, as well as the fact that the word teleios shows up in the Didache only twice. “In the first instance (Did. 1.4), it describes one who behaves in a way that accords with Matthew 5:39-42,” the part of the Sermon on the Mount we will look at in the next section of this paper. “In the second instance (Did. 6.2a) it is ascribed to the one who is able to carry ‘the whole yoke of the Lord’” (Pennington, The Sermon, 78n28).

29 Wink, The Powers, 65.

30 Ibid., 108.

31 Ibid., 110.

32 See Campbell, The Word, 48–51.

33 For more on the Sermon on the Mount and the topic of Jesus as teacher in Makua-Metto culture see Alan Howell and Robert Andrew Montgomery, “Jesus as Mwalimu: Christology and the Gospel of Matthew in an African Folk Islamic Context” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 35, no. 2 ( 2018), 79–87. Although a full discussion of the relationship between Torah interpretation and the Sermon on the Mount is beyond the scope of this article, it seems clear that Jesus was contextualizing Torah for his disciples to learn to live the good life even under Roman oppression. In this article, our attempt is to continue that trajectory and find pathways for wise discernment and creative resistance in relation to expressions of the “powers that be” today.

34 Wink, The Powers, 99–100, also makes this distinction.

35 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 197. This trust means that disciples are relying on God as the divine Patron. See Alan Howell and Robert Andrew Montgomery, “God as Patron and Proprietor: God the Father and the Gospel of Matthew in an African Folk Islamic Context,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 36, no. 3 (Fall 2019), 129–36.

36 “A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (‘tooth for tooth’ was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person’s dignity” (Keener, Gospel of Matthew, 197).

37 See Andrew Mbuvi, “African Theology from the Perspective of Honor and Shame,” in The Urban Face of Mission: Ministering the Gospel in a Diverse and Changing World, ed. Harvie M. Conn, Manuel Ortiz, Susan S. Baker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 281. While power-fear dynamics are rightly understood as important in shaping the Sub-Saharan African context, that should not “hinder us from seeing the significant presence and interrelationship” of honor-shame (Sandra Freeman, “Honor-Shame Dynamics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Mission Frontiers 37, no. 1 [2015]: 32–33). For more on honor and shame in Africa, see Ruth Lienhard, “A ‘Good Conscience’: Differences between Honor and Justice Orientation,” Missiology 29, no. 2 (2001): 131–41. Her descriptions of how Jesus “played the game” of honor and shame are especially interesting (138). See also Alan Howell, “ ‘Old Man” as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 11 (2020):

38 Keener, The Gospel, 198.

39 Ibid., 199–200.

40 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary 33a (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 131.

41 Keener, The Gospel, 202.

42 “The last verse of the pericope (v 42), although somewhat similar in form to v 40, seems to broaden the application beyond the initial statement not to resist evil. Here we seem to move to a general spirit of charity to anyone who asks or who wishes to borrow, not simply behavior toward those who have treated one unjustly or in an evil matter” (Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 130).

43 Ibid., 131.

44 Pennington refers to the need for “localized wisdom” as the principles Jesus offers to live by in the Sermon on the Mount must be applied to the realities of that context (Pennington, The Sermon, 197–98).

45 The province of Cabo Delgado, where most of the Makua-Metto people are located, is one of the more complicated political regions of the country. It, along with the neighboring province of Niassa, was the location of the post-independence government’s highest concentration of certain communist experiments. Sarah LeFanu, S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 6.

46 Maria Łoś, Communist Ideology, Law and Crime (London: MacMillan Press, 1998), 167.

47 According to the Mozambique Corruption Rank 1999–2021, Trading Economics, 2023,, “Mozambique is the 147 least corrupt nation out of 180 countries, according to the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.” The Mozambique Corruption Report states that, “Forms of corruption range from petty bribes to deeply entrenched clientelistic and patronage systems. . . . Corruption is particularly prominent in public procurement and the tax and customs administrations. Even though a relatively well-established legal framework is in place, many loopholes exist. For instance, the Anti-Corruption Law does not cover all forms of corruption (e.g., embezzlement is not covered). The judiciary is generally considered corrupt and is subject to political influence, impeding the effective enforcement of the law. Gifts and facilitation payments are common when dealing with officials.” (GAN Integrity, accessed January 2, 2023,

48 Following Jason Richard Tan, “Missionary Ethics and the Practice of Bribery,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47, no. 3 (2011), 278–82.

49 We are indebted to Asante Manu for this observation.

50 This then could be linked to the way of the Kingdom (asking, seeking and knocking) in Matt 7:7–8.

51 The messy process of doing theology and ethics is not a “once for all time” solution. As the dynamics and culture change, the church in Mozambique must continue to assess how to be faithful to God in resisting the powers in culturally appropriate ways.

52 For a helpful exploration of power and powerlessness in rural development, see Deborah Ajulu, Holism in Development: An African Perspective on Empowering Communities (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 2001), 99–134.

53 As Dawn, Powers, 138, observes in her exegesis of the divine panoply in Eph 6, Paul “lists truth first because it affects everything.”

54 For many or most Black Americans, racial injustice is always at the fore.

55 Tyler Olson, “Georgia Shooting of Ahmaud Arbery Spurs Outcry,” Fox News, May 7, 2020,

56 Kay Jones, “A Kentucky EMT was shot and killed during a police raid of her home. The family is suing for wrongful death,” CNN, May 13, 2020,

57 George Fitz-Gibbon, “Here’s Everything We Know About the Death of George Floyd,” New York Post, May 28, 2020,

58 Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” The New York Times, July 3, 2020, We should note, however, that despite the magnitude of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests following the death of George Floyd, civil unrest over racial injustice is not a new phenomenon in American culture.

59 “Harding University Dedicates Memorial in Honor of Botham Jean,” KATV News, September 29, 2021,

60 Buchanan, Bui, Patel, “Black Lives Matter.”

61 Monica Anderson, Michael Barthel, Andrew Perrin, and Emily A. Vogels, “#BlackLivesMatter surges on Twitter after George Floyd’s death,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2020,

62 As Pennington, The Sermon, 222, observes, the Lord’s Prayer is at the very center of the Sermon, and “we should expect that [it] has much to teach us about the whole.” In light of the reality of fallen powers in the world, the prayer’s opening petition in v. 10 (“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) takes on even greater meaning.

63 Some readers may wonder whether every sin is one of the powers. Although all individual sins or sinful attitudes are not powers, per se, they are influenced by the powers to some degree. In this instance, the power of the Law has been corrupted into the power of legalism.

64 Ibid., 236.

65 As Wink, The Powers, 75 notes, “Jesus regarded holiness/wholeness as contagious.”

66 As Pennington, The Sermon, 211, notes, throughout this section of the Sermon “the invitation to heart-deep righteousness is based on the appeal to gaining a lasting reward from the heavenly Father.”

67 At the end of the Sermon, Jesus highlights the priority of the interior life by offering the image of a healthy tree that bears good fruit (Matt 7:15–20). Visible evidence of the redemption of fallen powers always begins with the inward virtue of Jesus’s followers, flowering into expression and action in their communities.

68 Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 15. Erin Dufault-Hunter uses a “Screwtape Letters” approach, leveraging the language of the demonic to help highlight the seriousness and the nature of the problem of racism in American churches. Erin Dufault-Hunter, “A Letter from the Arch-Demon of Racialization to her Angels in the Churches of the United States: How Whiteness Secures our Success in Overcoming the Enemy,” in Can “White” People be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission, ed. Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Yong (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 318–25.

69 The fallen power of racism has spun a monstrous web in the United States, implementing myriad strategies to do so (see Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America [New York: Nation Books], 2016). Throughout American history, the powers have utilized all nine strategies to uphold a status quo based on the color of one’s skin. Many of these tactics come together in the phenomenon of scapegoating, in which people in power place undeserved blame on a powerless group or individuals in order to maintain a false sense of order (Negative Sanctions, Isolation and Division, Demoralization, Diversion, Public Rituals, Language and Image). For more on this concept, see René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 154–60. Scapegoating and the associated strategies listed here are particularly evident during reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (see Tisby, The Color, 88–110).

70 The fallen power of disease is undoubtedly part of the Domination System, too. See Wink, The Powers that Be, 39ff.

71 Tisby, The Color, 19, observes, “History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.”

72 Tisby, The Color, 192–212, suggests these paths of resistance and more in the conclusion of his book.

73 In his immensely practical book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), Jemar Tisby lays out three ongoing practices that are vital in reversing the effects of racism in our society—Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment—which together form the acronym “The ARC of Racial Justice.” Tisby writes that these three practices “need not exist in perfect balance [since] the goal [of the model] is to keep all three areas in conversation and tension with one another” (4–6).

74 Peter Dreier, “ ‘A Totally Moral Man’: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson,” The James Lawson Institute, June 26, 2017,

75 Ibid.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid.

80 Ibid.

81 Ibid.

82 Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, Cistercian Studies Series 175 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 42–43.

83 For a powerful example of another foot washing story, one that addresses racial divides in the Pentecostal churches in Memphis see Darrin Rodgers, “The Story Behind the Foot Washing at the 1994 ‘Memphis Miracle,’ ” Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, July 13, 2011,

84 Kendi, Stamped, 52, notes that in the influential 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery, “the inaugural antiracist tract among European settlers in Colonial America,” the Golden Rule is introduced into the argument and then went on to take an important place: to “forever inspire the cause of White Antiracists.” For more on the impact of the Golden Rule see ibid., 74, 208.

85 Wink says, “To such victims [Jesus] advises, ‘Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer to the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.’ ”

86 Here we are playfully adapting the titles of two very different texts: Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), and Henry M. Robert, Rules of Order (“Robert’s Rules of Order,”

87 Dawn, Powers, 131, highlights two essential paradoxes in resisting the powers: “The first is that to counteract the principalities and powers requires a battle, but one that is essentially and entirely nonviolent because it is against the powers and never against the people who might be aligned with them. The second is that the battle requires our active engagement, but it is always God’s work through our weakness.”

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