The Myth of an Apolitical Pulpit

By Nestor Ravilas

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

This is a confusing time for Evangelical Christians, as well with people who observe them. Romans 13 grants them to engage in politics, but only to acquiesce and approve all the government’s policies and undertakings, both evil and good. Ephesians 6 on the other hand forbids to whiff even of slightest amount of political nicotine. Christians have no business with politics. The pulpit must not be politicized.

In the midst of political and social turmoil, where neo-liberal project is all on its force with its shock doctrine paving the way to what the libertarians call its social project as “individualization,” Evangelical leaders are encouraging their flocks not to politicize their struggle but to bring all these on their knees in prayer. One popular and influential preacher of a mega-church amplified this in one of his talks. As mentioned, Ephesian 6:12 provides basis for such engagement scheme. He said cosmic powers and spiritual forces can only be slain by prayer. “Howag mong dibdibin, tuhurin mo,” he said in Filipino. Sad to say, the preacher is not alone in this theological view, he represents the majority of Evangelicals who subscribed in the same way to the popular reading of Ephesians 6:12.

Although this brings discomfort among public theologians, what is clearly stated in the text crippled their hands to craft counter argument. Because of this, the continuing indifference of the Evangelicals to social and political problems will stay up to the coming generations.

Going back to Ephsians 6:12, I wonder where Paul did get such idea. I may be wrong on this, but in many years of my study, the notion of spiritual forces and cosmic powers interfering with human affairs are alien to Old Testament theology. We may not be aware of this, but such idea of cosmic world and spiritual powers actively participating in human life is not found in the traditional Jewish religion. I concede that there are appearances of angels in ancient manuscript, but this is minimal if not completely true that these are later interpolations as some scholars proposed. Was the idea original to Paul? Was it a product of personal revelation given to Paul? If the Old Testament is silent on such kind of tradition, what particular tradition did Paul share with to acquire such spiritual view of human activities?

Although the content of Ephesians 6:12 is not traceable to ancient Jewish manuscript, it does not say, however, that it is completely an isolated or an original Pauline theology. The idea of cosmic power and spiritual forces are actually common motif in what dubbed now of many scholars as apocalyptic literatures. With serious study now focused on these materials, Pauline notion of cosmos and spiritual forces are mere proof that apocalyptic hope captured the religious idea of the Jews from the book of Second Isaiah assigned during the exile up to 200 CE where books included in the collection of I Enoch were probably written. Paul, therefore, is influenced by the prevailing religious concept of apocalypticism which origin and source is now highly debated. Its Persian descent makes its suspect among scholars, and the very reason why apocalyptic study is hobbling its progress.

In one of the apocalyptic literatures, The Book of Jubilee, it narrates how God defeated the forces of demons and imprisoned them under the earth. Prince Mastema (Satan) begged God not to incarcerate all his demons but to retain ten percent of them and allow them to roam the earth to temp humans to sin. He argued that humans are naturally inclined to evil and could easily be seduce to evil by demons. Convinced by the argument, God agreed to the request of Mastema and thus the possible origin of the legend of demons roaming the earth to seduce humans to do evil was born. The Book of Jubilee, the Book of Daniel, and the Book of the Watchers of the I Enoch are considered as the first among the Jewish apocalyptic literatures composed during the Antiochus Epiphanes crisis and hence, might have determined the course of apocalyptic writings the followed right after them, including our very Ephesians 6:12.

What brings the study of apocalypticism to quandary is its notion of dualism that is totally strange to ancient manuscript written before the exile. The battling powers of demons and angel, God and Satan, are proof of Persian influence in apocalypticism. As to the reason why the Jews recourse to apocalyptic fantasy remains a subject of intense debate. What is apparent is that Paul has drawn his notion of cosmic and spiritual forces from the well of religious thoughts that, as agreed by scholars, emanated from oppressed and persecuted communities exemplified best by the Book of Daniels, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Book of Revelation, which all produced by communities in crisis. Whatever is the reason, this shift from prophetic eschatology to apocalyptic, with all the notion of cosmic and spiritual forces, cannot be separated from politics. The struggle of those alienated, persecuted, and oppressed people remains the struggle between good and evil, angels and demons, and God and Satan. I believe in the power of prayer, but nowhere it was recommended as the solution, or rather, as lone solution, in this cosmic battle of apocalypticism. To depoliticize the pulpit is to thwart the eschatological salvation of God, and will help evil to prosper!