Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why We Fight: Powers, Principalities & The Culture Wars

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was published October 9th, 2014 under the title "Why We Fight"To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

The latest bizarro piece of news from the Culture Wars: a school district in Nebraska has decreed that its teachers and its students may no longer use gender-specific terms  - like "boys" and "girls".  Instead, teachers must use alternative terms like "Purple Penguins" (I'm not making this up!) so that "all genders" will feel "welcome". [link] As absurd as it seems, this story shows just how far the assault on the Family, traditional morality, and plain common sense has come. It brings to mind the following scripture passage:

Put on the whole armor of God,that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the  powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. -Ephesians 6:11-20

   Every time I look at the news I am reminded that we are engaged in a Spiritual Battle, we collectively, and each one of us personally.  It has always been this way, and will be until Christ comes again in glory. The nature of the battle is constantly changing: for individual believers there is always a personal, internal struggle, but there is also a more external, public conflict which changes and ebbs and flows over time and in different places.  We can see this external spiritual battle raging all around, and picking up intensity, in the so-called “Culture Wars”.  A major theme of George Weigel’s authorized biography of Pope John Paul II is that the Pope understood that culture trumps politics and economics, and that culture grows out of religion, a given people’s understanding of God.  And acting on that understanding, St. John Paul the Great helped bring down the walls of that latter-day Jericho, Soviet communism.     
     If the cultural war is really spiritual warfare, then, who is the real antagonist?   This becomes tricky, not because we don’t know, but because saying so in our current climate is difficult.  Those of us of a certain age will remember the Flip Wilson Show.  One of the comedian’s most successful gags was a character called “Geraldine”, actually Wilson himself in none-too-convincing drag, whose most memorable laugh-line was “The devil made me do it!”  More recently, Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live always provoked uproarious laughter from the audience when she said “Could it be . . .(pregnant pause) . . . SATAN?!?”  For a long time now, the message in the popular culture has been that anyone who actually attributes anything to the Evil One is, well, ridiculous (interesting, by the way, that both of the examples above involve men dressed as women).  We are set up to be dismissed as unserious cranks if we see the hand of the Devil anywhere.     
     There are some who are still willing to speak out, however.  Just a few years ago, one South American cleric described a law legalizing same sex marriage as “a move by the devil, looking to confuse and deceive all children of God” [link] (interesting that this same cleric, who now has a rather prominent position in Rome, was recently named "Person of the Year" by the gay magazine The Advocate).  Closer to home, I was listening to a radio interview the other day with Joseph Bottum, who was arguing that one reason why it’s so difficult to make any headway with those who have left the faith and are now clinging to new enthusiasms like gay marriage, global warming, Marxism, etc. is that those beliefs have taken on a religious significance for them, and are occupying the place reserved in our hearts for God. Those other things, of course, are poor substitutes indeed for the Real Thing, the One who made us for himself, as St. Augustine tells us, and to Whom we can say “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te). For which reason they cling to their false spiritual consolations all the harder, in the unconscious hope that if they just try a little harder, they'll feel fulfilled; but such things do not ultimately satisfy.   We can see here where we get the word “Devil”, from the Greek Diabolos, the Divider, because he divides us from God.       
     None of us is immune to the temptations of Division. St. Ignatius of Loyola represented this internal battle as a conflict between the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Satan, and pictured it as Two Standards, as in Roman battle standards, around which the armies of each Spirit gather.  When we follow the Standard of Jesus internally, we serve in his army out in the world as well, and so it is in the case of the other side. As St. Paul tells us, our battle is with "spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places".  Those whom we take to be their foot soldiers here on Earth most certainly do not think of themselves in those terms.  Having spent many years as secular leftist, I know that the vast majority of those who serve in that camp are well-meaning, and honestly believe they are on the side of good and righteousness, not realizing that the breastplate of righteousness is part of the full armor of God. That’s the other message of Paul’s letter: we can’t withstand in the evil day without "the armor of God", without the "Gospel of Peace", without "all prayer and supplication". When we separate ourselves from God, or don’t avail ourselves of all the spiritual arms with which he provides us, we are helpless against the wiles of the Divider.  We need to remember this in our interactions with those who are on the other side.  We need to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and aim for the conversion of their hearts, and, ultimately, their redemption, not their destruction.     
     Finally, this is the reason why St. Paul asks that "utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak". Jesus rallies an Army of Love around His Standard. That’s why we engage in the culture wars: not because we like brawling (see Eph. 4:15 above), and not to inflate our egos (Scripture is chock full of warnings about getting “puffed up”), but to win hearts and souls for Christ.