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Posted July 9, 2005

The Church’s Kerygmatic Functions:
Broadcasting the Seizure of Power

Taken from The Secular City — Already posted on our website
An Excellent Reflection during these days of terrorism
and the bombings in London

The word kerygma means “message.” The church, like any avant-gard, has a story it is trying to get across. It is telling people what is coming, what to expect next. Employing political terminology, the church broadcasts the fact that a revolution is under way and that the pivotal battle has already taken place.

This broadcasting function of the church is crucial. It makes the church different from any other avant-gard. It has no plan for rebuilding the world. It has only the signal to flash that the One who frees slaves and summons men to maturity is still in business. It flashes this signal not in the form of general propositions but in the language of specific announcements about where the work of liberation is now proceeding and concrete invitations to join in the struggle.

In traditional language, the message of the church is that God has defeated the “principalities and powers” by Jesus and has made it possible for man to become the “heir,” the master of the created world. This sounds foreign to us now, but nothing could be closer to the center of human existence in twentieth-century urban society. These “principalities and powers” actually signify all the forces in a culture which cripple and corrupt human freedom. In various ages men have experienced these forces in different ways. Sometimes they have denied their existence, but this has not happened often. In the tribal era which colors much of the New Testament, they were perceived as demons, spirits, and astral forces. They were believed to be linked up with individuals and especially with rulers. Each person had his own “star” and astronomical symbols were often associated with kings. In the transition period to town culture these forces wre either denied or were reduced to regular movements and predictable patterns. Newton’s spheres and Adam Smith’s invisible hand are good examples. Still, the nineteenth century asa whole was skeptical about such forces, and only in our time have they been rediscovered under such concepts as the id, the collective unconscious, the dialectic of history, or even statistical probability. One could sum up all these fields of force insofar as they impair or imperil man’s free exercise of responsibility in the single word fate. When Proudhon claimed that the impact of biblical faith is to “defatalize” the world, he was right. What is meant by the kerygmatic assertion that Jesus has defeated the “principalities and powers” is not that they have been annihilated. Ids and economic pressures still roam through history. What is meant is that these forces do not have the power to determine man. Rather, man has the power and the responsibility to rule over them and use them in responsibility before God.

These principalities and powers, according to the New Testament, were originally intended to be a part of the world, to be dominated and utilized by man. But man’s freedom is so complete that he “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Man thus fell captive to forces over which he was intended to “have dominion.” Things he was meant to control controlled him. He had to be extricated. God’s action, which goes on all the time but was made known in Jesus of Nazareth, is to call man to freedom from the powers and principalities, and to summon him at the same time to responsibility over and for them.

This is no sequential story. Man is always tempted to surrender his freedom to the powers. God is ever at work making freedom and personhood possible. There is no neutral ground. Man either master and manages his environment or he is mastered and managed by it. The call to freedom is at the same time a call to responsibility. In terms of modern urban life, this means that we should never seriously ask “Is New York City governable?” or “Can nuclear war be prevented?” or “Can racial justice be achieved?” [Or can terrorism be overcome?] The fact is that man is placed in an environment of problems which he is called to master. God has not stacked the cards against man the way fate does in Greek tragedy or a Thomas Hardy novel. To believe the kerygma is to believe that man not only should but can “have dominion over the earth.” For the Bible, there are no powers anywhere which are not essentially tameable and ultimately humanizable. To deny this, in word or deed, is to “worship the creature rather than the Creator,” to open the door and readmit the banished furies, to genuflect before faceless Kismet.