The Machine: A Tale of Racism, Power, and Secrecy in Alabama

The Machine: A Tale of Racism, Power, and Secrecy in Alabama

The devil took an Alabama student to a very high mountain and showed her Bryant-Denny stadium, and said to her, “All this I will give you…well, not all, but I will give you mediocre seats this season."

"Must I fall down and worship you?" she asked, certain her church-going parents would disapprove.

"No child," the devil laughed. "Just vote for white SGA candidates, don't give any bids to little black girls, and let's keep the homecoming queen white too, for good measure."

"Well, George Wallace, is that you?" she asked, hands on her hip, grinning.

"No, no. These days, Down here in Tuscaloosa, they just call me The Machine."

­­I stumbled across this story about racism, power and secrecy at the University of Alabama. It’s a dangerous story to share in the South, where SEC football is king, and racism is still hard to talk about. Even in Memphis, separated from Tuscaloosa by over two hundred miles, you can almost hear a collective sigh ripple across the city when Alabama loses.

Around here, folks pledge their allegiance to football powerhouses and the universities that produce them.

Yet, the story deserves to be shared.

First of all, it is excellently reported and brilliantly written. Take some time, sit down, and read through “A Shifting Tide?

But more importantly, the story is an enlightening illustration of how the principalities and powers institutionalize and exert influence in our world. We’ve been considering this phenomenon in the series Churches, Prisons, and the Powers that Be. In our prisons, violence has become a self-replicating and oppressive power, dominating inmates and prison staff alike. I will conclude that series next month.

In the meantime, we might consider this example—taken from the arena of higher learning—as a supplemental study in the powers that be.

To understand what follows, it is important to know a little background. In his influential "Powers" trilogy, scholar Walter Wink does an exhaustive study into the biblical terms related to power—terms like principalities, rulers, authorities, powers, thrones, and others. He determines that the biblical authors, for the most part, use these terms interchangeably to refer both to spiritual and physical realities.

So, he presses us modern folk to disregard our standard dualism. Stop thinking about "the powers of this dark world" (Eph 6:12) as trident-wielding demons with horns. Stop thinking about governments, corporations, and movements as random human organizations. And most of all, stop thinking about the two—spiritual forces and earthly authorities—as unrelated.

Instead, we should pay attention to the spiritual "interiority" of earthly powers.

For example, a business that is bent on making money at all costs, even by exploiting low-wage workers, has an interiority. We might label that interiority the "power of greed." We would struggle to draw this power on a piece of paper. Horns and red tights certainly wouldn't do. And yet, greed functions in the same way that we see the demonic at work in the New Testament. It possesses the business. So much so, that good people cooperate in exploitation for the sake of profit, rather than challenging greed's grip on the organization. Greed has taken on a life of its own within the business.

In a similar way, in our series on prisons, we've seen how violence has become the operating power in many corrections facilities.

Now we can talk about the University of Alabama and The Machine. The article above tells of the rise of a secret and racist organization that controls student government elections (among other things) at Alabama by bribery, threats, and occasionally terrorism. The secretive group isn't called The Skulls, unfortunately. Although it does seem like something out of Hollywood.

No, this clandestine power is known at Alabama as The Machine.

So, how does a group like The Machine assume an interiority, what happens once it does, and can it be stopped?

Well, in this story, racial prejudice gets the ball rolling. At first, the prejudice is individual, present in the hearts of individual Alabama students long ago. But as these students join together, their individual biases compound. A group forms—The Machine—to solidify their prejudices into a corporate force.

At this point, their prejudice has institutionalized and gained power. Prejudice has become racism (the power to enforce racial bias) and racism now controls The Machine. The Machine, in obedience to this interiority, leverages its power to control Student Government elections and protect the interests of racism.

Fast forward nearly 100 years, and for some reason Greek sorority girls are still tipping their hats to this institutionalized and empowered force of hatred. None of them would likely admit to being a racist.

They would say things like, “I have black friends.”

And yet, they continue to submit The Machine’s demands. Does this mean these sweet sorority girls are complicit in the rebellion of the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12)?

Wink is helpful here. He says:

This is the paradox of moral maturity: we are responsible for what we do with what has been done to us. We are answerable for what we make of what has been made of us. Our capitulation to the delusional system (of which The Machine would be an example) may have been involuntary, but in some deep recess of the self we knew it was wrong. We are so fashioned that no Power on earth can finally drum out of us the capacity to recognize truth. However long it must lie buried, or however severely it has been betrayed, truth will out. (Wink, Engaging the Powers, 98)

Truth will out, he says. But will it do so at Alabama under the watchful gaze of the Machine?

I hope so. I like to believe that “the delusory web spun around us can be broken” (Wink, 98).

I pray that Alabama students will pull back the curtain, revealing The Machine for what it is. I pray they will refuse its dominion once and for all. I pray that they will make the manifold wisdom of God known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph 3:10) circling upon Alabama’s campus.

“Powerlessness is never an empirical fact… A sense of powerlessness is always a spiritual disease deliberately induced by the Powers to keep us complicit. Any time we feel powerless, we need to step back and ask, What Principality or Power has me in its spell? No one is ever completely powerless” (Wink, 103).

Header image by Karissa Herchenroeder. Galesville, Maryland. October 13, 2014.

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