“Outside the mine we are Catholics, and when we enter the mine, we worship the devil,” so says Grover, a supervisor at the silver mines deep beneath Bolivia’s Cerro Rico.
According to Catharina Moh’s article “Cerro Rico: Devil Worship on the Man-Eating Mountain,” Cerro Rico has been a profitable silver mine for five centuries. While it was once a money-maker for the Spanish Empire, it is now owned by multiple corporations and employs 15,000 Bolivians. Some of these employees began marching into the mountain at age 10.
Danger is everywhere for these young men. With a 40-year average life-expectancy, miners are exposed to poisonous gases and cave-ins, making death an ever-present possibility in Cerro Rico. In an attempt to protect themselves, the miners make offerings of cocoa and cigarettes to El Tio, the deity of the mines. It’s no wonder statues of El Tio are stationed throughout the mines by the companies who own the mountain. Every day, the Catholic Bolivians descend into the earth and worship the devil.
While Moh offers an incredibly sympathetic picture of the miners who live and die in “The Man-Eating Mountain,” she makes one descriptive move I take issue with. She describes the worship of El Tio as “superstition.” By doing so, she’s saying what El Tio stands for is not real or that the miners’ offerings to him make no difference in their lives. I suspect she is wrong about this and the miners of the Cerro Rico are pointing us towards a profound theological truth we have lost touch with in contemporary Christianity.
The author of Ephesians claims―in chapter 6, verse 12―Christians are at war with “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In my experience, modern-day Christians do not really know what to do with this passage or other passages describing “powers and principalities.” I can assure you sermons are rarely taught about what Paul meant by these concepts. We are much more likely to skip ahead to parts concerning the armor of God later on in Ephesians 6.
This blind spot was noticed early in the 20th century by theologians who were wrestling with understanding and responding to the rise of nationalism across the world. Heinrich Schlier was one such theologian and he wrote his influential Principalities and Powers in the New Testament, in part, as a reflection on his experience as a pastor in the Confessing Church in Germany during World War II. Through his research, Schlier came to believe “powers and principalities” referred to the organizing principles of human existence: time, space, culture, habits, among others.
In other words, Schlier discovered what first-century Jews had already understood, what modern-day critical theory would call “ideology.” Furthermore, the author of Ephesians identified the dominant ideology of the age as the enemy. This was one of the main insights of Louis Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and The Ideological State Apparatus. Althusser sought to understand why it was that people, particularly people who were outspoken critics of capitalism, brought themselves to work everyday.
What Althusser and the writer of Ephesians articulate is human beings are born and raised in a set of practices and beliefs.¹ The institutions we move through constantly reinforce these practices and beliefs. Furthermore, these practices and beliefs exist to ensure the institution itself continues. The repetition of these things shapes who we are and what we think is the “right” thing to do. Under normal circumstances we would never think to question these ideas or habits; they are just “the way things are.” They make what is socially constructed appear natural. For both thinkers, ideology itself is not evil. Rather, ideology becomes a problem when it perpetuates dehumanizing circumstances.
A contemporary example of ideology gone wrong has to do with the way poor folks are thought about and related to. In popular rhetoric you will often hear one of two stories: The first is the poor are poor because they are lazy and therefore should be made to work harder. The second is the poor are poor because they are victims and should be rescued by a provision of resources. Both of these narratives are inaccurate and self-serving. The first absolves us of complicity in systems which impoverish people. The second allows us to maintain our position of giver while denying agency to the receiver.² Both, as ideologies, allow us to avoid asking difficult questions of a system which produces and maintains a class of impoverished people. Both allow us to feel like good people without challenging the institutions which require people to exist below the poverty line.
The writer of Ephesians and Althusser take aim at these beliefs and practices as root problems of human existence and make it clear that those of us who want to make a better world should seek the overthrow of these harmful ideologies.
While the writer of Ephesians and Althusser share beliefs on this topic, the writer of Ephesians and the miners of Cerro Rico have a leg up on Althusser and other critics of capitalism because of how “superstitious” they are. In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink describes one of the most important aspects of his work combating apartheid in South Africa: the personification of apartheid and its systems. This personification is the beginning of superstitious activity, as superstition personifies structures of power by making them characters in a story. The activists in South Africa described and identified the systems in place in South Africa as “demons.” They understood these systems had habits, traits, and goals; they understood these systems seek only to preserve and perpetuate themselves, asserting their power regardless of the cost paid by those who live in them. They outlined what these demons made people do and how they made people feel. They designed worship services that ritually addressed these effects and prepared people for civil disobedience. These rituals and beliefs (“superstitions”) offered a counter-ideology to Apartheid.
The ability to identify demonic powers and, through ritual, confront them seems far more effective at moving people to combat pernicious ideologies than the thousands of scholarly articles about “Late Capitalism” and “Neoliberalism.”³ These articles seem to point to something massive and deeply wrong about our shared life, but are not helpful in pinning down exactly what is wrong and certainly not what we might do about it. In fact, they might ultimately function the same way the corporately sponsored El Tio statues are intended to function in Cerro Rico: by allowing us to feel our angst (but without offering solutions), they give an outlet to relieve emotional pressure so we will go back to work. Superstition turns out to be more effective by personifying these outlets and transforming these mechanisms of oppression into entities which can be resisted by empowering rituals and narratives.
While we might be surprised at the lack of pragmatic implications on these topics coming from our intellectuals, we should not be surprised Bolivian silver miners and Jews living in Roman-occupied Palestine are able to identify the demonic forces that shape their lives. It is easy to see the monster when it is putting you in its mouth. This is one of the crucial insights of liberation theologies. In order to properly understand and theologize about the latent dehumanizing forces in the world, we ought to go to the people who are being crushed by them. Those on the margins are not blinded by the ideology of those who are made to benefit from them. When we look at a necklace made from the silver of Cerro Rico, we are not likely to see we have made a deal with the devil.
What should surprise us is we have missed the incredible gift our religious tradition has given us in naming and personifying the powers and principalities. When we begin to see the religious dimension to our systemic problems, when we begin to get a little “superstitious,” by naming systems as demons and devising ritualized resistance, we expand our imagination and our problem-solving abilities.
One example of this potential imaginative resistance can be found in the ritual of communion. While it is hard to imagine a revolution being born from communion as we have it today, it is clear the ritual was culturally disruptive in the first century. In his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, Paul chastises the churches for segregation during their shared meal (communion began as a potluck of sorts). In Corinth, the rich refused to eat with the poor, and, in Galatia, the Jews refused to eat with the Gentiles. In Galatians, Paul makes it clear this shared meal is meant to confront powers and principalities. He claims “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These organizing principles, or powers, are meant to be addressed by the sharing of food, and the segregation of the meal undermines this effort.
As we look at communion today, we might ask ourselves what Paul would say about our ritual. Given the racial and economic divide that occurs on Sundays, I suspect Paul would be outraged. Maybe we should be too. Maybe we should re-imagine communion as a possible site for the struggle against the demonic powers of racism and classism. Like the activists in South Africa, we may find it useful to ritualize our resistance, to embrace some “superstition” for the sake of our shared life together.
1. It should be noted that ideology in the sense Althusser intends is not a synonym for a particular philosophy or worldview. Althusser actually intends to turn the common understanding that ideas lead to actions upside-down.
2. Paulo Freire takes this particular way of thinking to task in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
3. See Annie Lowry’s recent Atlantic article about the proliferation of these terms.
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