By Hannah Bowman
September 29 marks the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, when the Church celebrates “Angels, Archangels, and all the company of heaven” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 362). “Michaelmas,” which still marks the beginning of the academic term at Oxford and Cambridge, feels like a decidedly medieval holiday. What role do angels play in the life of faith in our time?
Recent thought, especially in religious activist circles, continues to identify spiritual “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12) as representations of structural sin. Too often, however, these are not taken seriously as spiritual realities against whom we struggle but are demythologized into helpful metaphors.
Professor and author Richard Beck writes in Reviving Old Scratch (Fortress, 2016) of the “disenchantment” of our modern age, and the loss of a sense that the world is “filled with magic, spirits, and supernatural powers” (p. xvi).While this may be a natural consequence of modernity, he identifies it as a danger for faith as well, leading to “a dry, overintellectualized faith that marginalize[s] emotion and experience to focus on ideas, reading lots of books and throwing around theological terms like ‘eschatological’ and ‘soteriological’” (p. 51). This is a faith that “has lost its fighting spirit” (p. 26). He offers a rousing call for a return to an understanding of spiritual warfare that goes deeper than the typical progressive identification of systems of oppression with powers and principalities.
I wouldn’t have agreed about the reality of the demonic as more than a useful symbol for structural oppression until I started volunteering in jails and prisons. Everything about a correctional facility is designed to provoke anxiety and misery. In some facilities it’s simply the oppressive lack of windows, so that prisoners go months or even years without seeing the sun. In others, it’s the sheer desolation of individual cells, unlit except for fluorescent light spilling through bars from the hallway, where the imprisoned “sit in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons” (Ps. 107:10).
Sometimes, it’s the intentional dehumanization of a panopticon, in which dayrooms and cells are arranged so you can see everything inside, although the prisoners can’t see each other, giving you the disconcerting feeling that you’re looking at humans in a zoo, invading privacy in a way destructive of human dignity. In each of these places, the sense of wrong is palpable. There is something that can only be described as an evil spirit, produced in a real way by the degradation we acquiesce to in the name of justice.
In the popular NBC sitcom The Good Place, four people wake up apparently in heaven, but — spoiler — it turns out that they are instead in “the Bad Place,” where the ironically named demon Michael has been trying a new form of torture on the four: sticking them together to let them torture each other.
The dehumanization in our jails and prisons is something we inflict on each other, but that doesn’t make it any less demonic. The “powers and principalities” we contend against for justice have an ontological reality. To fight systems of oppression, we must recognize their spiritual reality. To say these places are demonic is not only a symbolic statement, but a naming of the threat we face.
The cult of compliance — which leads police to feel justified in torturing suspects and shooting black men, even in their own apartments — is demonic. The culture of our immigration enforcement and border patrol agencies — which leads them to shoot border-crossers, prevent detained children separated from their parents from hugging and comforting one another, and remove water and survival supplies left for immigrants crossing the desert — is demonic. It is especially pernicious when demonic forces act against immigrants, given the injunction in the letter to the Hebrews to “entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2, KJV). The spirit of casual callousness that causes elite students to make cruel jokes at the expense of a classmate is demonic. The thoughtless acceptance of capitalism that makes each of us comfortable putting workers in dangerous and harsh conditions for our own convenience is demonic.
Not just political systems of oppression, these cultures are a corrosive spiritual reality. The reality of the demonic shows in the way the actions of police or immigration officers or students or consumers, or any of us, cause harm regardless of our intentions. Whenever the culture of agencies and systems causes those who live and work within them to be drawn from the love of God and to participate in the corruption and destruction of the creatures of God (to paraphrase the renunciations in the BCP’s baptismal rite), this is demonic influence.
If the demonic is really present in our world, what about angels? A friend of mine once said, when I confessed my persistent doubts about the existence of angels: “I have to believe angels are real, because I know demons are.” To believe in demons but not angels is to give in to despair and cede the world to the forces of evil.
Although the Archangel Michael is best known from Revelation 12, his first biblical appearance is in the Book of Daniel, where he contends on God’s side (10:21) and then is the forerunner of the resurrection of the dead that Daniel foresees: “At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. … Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:1-2).
Jürgen Moltmann writes of Daniel’s prophecy of the resurrection of the dead that it is not about the afterlife or even about the promise of eternal life with God, but instead about justice:
As Daniel 12 shows, in apocalyptic expectation the expectation of a general resurrection of the dead was an integral part of the expectation of God. God will raise the dead in the last days. But why? In the apocalyptic expectation this was no longing for eternal life. “Resurrection of the dead” was not an anthropological or soteriological symbol, but a way towards expressing belief in the righteousness of God. God is righteous. His righteousness will conquer. As the righteousness of God, it cannot be limited even by death. So God will summon both dead and living before his judgment seat. But that is only possible if he has raised the dead beforehand, so that they can identify themselves with the deeds and omissions of their earthly life at his judgment. In the judgment God returns to the past life of the dead. Hence the notion of a general resurrection of the dead arose logically from thinking through to the end the irresistible and victorious righteousness of God. (The Crucified God [Harper & Row, 1974], p. 174)
The promised resurrection is the vindication of God’s righteousness and justice.
The angels who appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 were messengers of God’s promise and of judgment. Perhaps Michael, the militant sword-bearing angel, is the messenger of God’s judgment for us today. As a real spiritual being, Michael promises justice, not only as a hope for the future, but with spiritual power here and now.
To believe in angels is to believe that our fight for true justice is not only or even primarily a human endeavor. When we strive, we do not strive alone, but with the assembled might of the host of heaven. Angels remind us that God’s justice is not a goal but instead a present spiritual reality in which we participate.
Angels are a challenge to our modernism. They are also a challenge to our tendency to give up when progress toward justice seems further away than ever. When we draw on the powerful symbolism of angels, we remind ourselves that our materialist worldview is not sufficient to express reality. To believe in angels is to be open to God’s mysterious action, which goes beyond what we can see or do. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, God tells us “my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways” (55:8-9).
But even more important, to believe in angels is to proclaim our faith that God’s justice is already present and active in the world. As Isaiah continues to relate God’s words to us: “[My word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:11).
In light of this promise of the reality of God’s justice, we can see angels not as a relic of an earlier, more enchanted age, but rather as a real spiritual necessity for today’s world in its desperate need. We know that angels go before us to announce and bring about God’s vindication of the righteous. And so we can truly say that whenever we raise our voice for justice we are joining in the eternal hymn of “all the company of heaven.”
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons. She volunteers as a chaplain in the LA County jails with Prism Restorative Justice.