It can be painful to watch my granddaughter, old enough to take so much in but too young to talk, use hands to communicate. Whenever she sees something to interact with, she waves. This includes cars and trucks and, increasingly, people, especially children. Grandma took her to a playground. She waved and waved at potential playmates. No response across the COVID-19 barriers. She burst into tears.
Her hands speak her longing — and highlight the distances traumatizing our world these days.
Those hands yearning take me back to books I encountered as a 1980s seminary student: Principalities and Powers by G.B. Caird and Christ and the Powers by Hendrikus Berkhof. I’d not heard of either 1950s book before.
But I had heard the Apostle Paul’s references to powers in letters to the Romans, Ephesians and Colossians cited ceaselessly when I was growing up. My vague sense was that they were satanic forces of evil, fearsome yet in ways not hugely pertinent to my youthful realities.
Caird’s and Berkhof’s were the first treatments that called me to attention. Both wrestle with whether Paul ultimately believes literally in angelic or demonic powers and both shift at least some emphasis to what Berkhof calls “structures of earthy existence.” Here the focus includes patterns and systems that make up our cultural, political, social, legal and military realms, and more.
Particularly, Berkhof taught me to see such structures as both evil and good. They are evil because they demand loyalties only God deserves, as when a nation commands us to pledge allegiance in ways that clash with obeying God.
As a Mennonite raised to believe in two main realms — one the world’s, one God’s — and to be loyal to God over world, I got the evil part. This is why when I turned draft age, I registered as a conscientious objector choosing God over then-President Nixon and the military he commanded.
But for Berkhof the powers are also good. Commenting on Paul’s conclusion in Col. 1:15-17 that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” Berkhof says: “Diverse human traditions, the course of earthly life as conditioned by the heavenly bodies, morality, fixed religious and ethical rules, the administration of justice and the ordering of the state — all these can be tyrants over our life, but in themselves they are not. . . . They are the dikes with which God encircles His good creation, to keep it in His fellowship and protect it from chaos.”
That takes me back to my granddaughter’s longing hand. For that hand to touch other hands, it needs powers that protect her from chaos.
On the nights when it looked like U.S. powers were on the cusp of unleashing direct military intervention against protestors for racial justice, some among the military powers to which I still conscientiously object rose against such domination. Here and there in politics and government, as some leaders reveal what demonic worship of the powers looks like, others, humbler in ego and role, protect us from chaos.
I’m on the downslope of my years on Earth. My children and grandchildren are on the upslope. Along with Mennonite World Review and The Mennonite creating the new Anabaptist World, that’s one reason this will be my last “Unseen Hands” column. But I’m grateful to have had the privilege to write for MWR and pray that in coming years many hands, seen and unseen, will build dikes against chaos and clasp my granddaughter’s outstretched hand.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.