Empowerment and authoritarianism and the armor of God, with shout-out to the Black Panthers

Here is one way I might translate Ephesians 6:10-17 (emphasis added):

(10) Henceforth, (y’all) be empowered in (the) Lord and in the strength of his ability. (11) (Y’all) put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil; (12) because the wrestling, for us, is not toward blood and flesh, but toward the rulers, toward the authorities, toward the world-rulers of this darkness, toward the spiritual things of evil in the heavenly places. (13) On account of this, (y’all) take up the whole armor of God, in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day, and, after accomplishing everything, to stand. (14) Therefore, (y’all) stand, after girding y’all’s loins in truth, and after putting on for yourselves the breastplate of justice, (15) and after shoeing the feet in readiness of the good news of peace, (16) in all things taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil; (17) and (y’all) receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is a word of God.

As you may have gathered from the italics I added, I got interested in what these verses have to say about power. In particular, I thought it was interesting that the Greek word δύναμαι tends to be translated a bit more weakly than it needs to be.

δύναμαι is used three times in the eight verses above, so it seems pretty important. On top of that, a closely related word, ἐνδυναμόω, is used in v. 10 (also italicized above).

In most translations, δύναμαι is rendered here as “can” or “is able.” In the NIV, for example, the relevant phrases read:

  • “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11)
  • “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (v. 13)
  • “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

I’m not saying I think this is a bad translation, but I am interested in the fact that δύναμαι could alternatively be translated not just as “can,” or “is able,” but as “is strong,” or “is powerful.” It’s the word from which we get our English words dynamite and dynamic.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to translate δύναμαι as “is dynamite,” as fun as that might be―boom!―but I do think it’s interesting to try to incorporate this idea of power into the translation. Thus, we might have:

  • “for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil” (v. 11)
  • “in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day” (v. 13)
  • “taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil” (v. 16).

I’ll add another one, just for fun, from the closely related verb in v. 10 (ἐνδυναμόω): “be empowered in the Lord and in the strength of his ability.”

I think sometimes Christians have the idea, even if we might not quite put it this way, that all power is reserved for God―and this means that we as humans aren’t meant to have any. We are meant to be small, and powerless, and weak, and frail, and all-around worm-like in every way.

But the God I believe in―and the God Paul believed in, back in the day―is not an insecure political leader who hoards power for himself and tries to keep others as small and powerless as possible. 

The God I believe in does not hoard power, but shares it. God’s ego is not threatened by the thought that ordinary humans might learn to stand and walk in their power. God wants to empower people. 

God wants people to be powerful―powerful to pursue truth (the belt), and justice (the breastplate), and peacemaking (the shoes). Powerful to stand up to evil and to resist unjust schemes. Powerful to hold onto faith like a shield and extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil. 

I think Paul wants people to know that this is what God is like. Paul wants the average, everyday churchgoers in the city of Ephesus to be empowered (v. 10). He wants them to put on God’s full armor so that they can be powerful (v. 11). 

Paul hopes that, in the “evil day”―in the times when the presence of evil is particularly obvious and oppressive―these ordinary people might be powerful to be part of the resistance (v. 13). And Paul has every confidence that these humble unassuming ordinary people will in fact be powerful (v. 16). 

I find this idea of empowerment via the armor of God particularly striking in the context of Paul’s immediately preceding words. Right before this passage, Paul speaks directly to both wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-33), both children and parents (Eph 6:1-3), and both slaves and householders (Eph 6:5-9). 

Whatever else we might say about these passages (and feel free to click the links above for some of my thoughts), at the very least, it is clear that Paul writes to a church full of all kinds of people, with all sorts of different amounts of power in the structures and systems of our world: husbands, who had a great deal of power in their marriages, and wives, who had very little; parents, who had a great deal of power in their relationships with their children, and children, who had very little; householders, who had a great deal of power in their homes, and slaves, who had very little. 

And now, when he writes about the armor of God, Paul makes no distinctions among any of these groups. He writes to the whole church, to everyone in it: I want you to be empowered by God. Whether you have all the power in the world or none of it, put on God’s armor, and be empowered. Stand up to evil. Resist oppression and hatred and deception and greed, wherever you see it. Truth, justice, peace, and faith belong to you. 

I am reminded of a slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All the power to all the people.” 

(I just learned this recently, from a documentary called The First Rainbow Coalition, which follows the story of alliances formed among the Black Panther Party and other working-class community movements in Chicago in the late 1960s or so, including a Latino group and a group of southern whites.)

I think sometimes (white) Christians are afraid of things like this. Not only because we tend to be racist―which we absolutely do―but also because we get nervous about the idea of people having power in general. Sometimes this is for good reason, as we have seen powerful people abuse their power and do a great deal of harm. Sometimes we want to limit power to the tiny group of people whom we think have really earned it.

But perhaps God knows that power can be so dangerous and awful precisely because it tends to accumulate in the hands of just a few―because, when we get a bit of it, we tend to hoard it for ourselves. 

Perhaps if power were actually distributed more evenly among more people―among all people―we would see less in the way of authoritarian abuse of power, and more in the way of ordinary people rising up to work together for the health and wellbeing of the community. 

I don’t think God wants us to think we are worms, weak and gross, always groveling for mercy and thinking we’re the absolute worst. I think God wants to empower us to figure out how to live in a way that honors God, other people, ourselves, and the natural world. I think God wants us to be powerful to be fully ourselves. Powerful to be about truth and justice and peace and faith and healing. 

This is not an easy thing. Often it’s easier to be small. 

It’s hard to stand―that’s why we need the “full armor of God” for it. But it is good. 

So, be empowered in the Lord. God shares God’s power―God’s awesome, good, truth-exposing, justice-seeking, peace-making power―with us. All the power to all the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *