I want to take a moment and make sure our readers make a distinction between the essentially colonial and racist notion of the Noble Savage and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) idea of “natural man” with which it is often confused.
Rousseau, unlike Lao Tzu, did not trust in the goodness of human nature. Whereas the Taoist “natural man” follows the watercourse way of humility, patience, and wei wu wei (non-coercive action), Rousseau’s “natural man” can be very violent and dangerous. Rousseau only argues that concepts such as sin, wickedness, and lawlessness cannot apply to “natural man” because such terms only makes sense in an artificial society based on the imposition of law. On the other hand, and more closely parallel to Lao Tzu, Rousseau does argue that humans are driven by amour de soi, a positive self-love which society corrupts into amour-propre, pride. Pride, he says, leads to comparison between people which both he and Lao Tzu say leads to fear as those with more work to keep the lesser down and those with less seek to bring down those with more.
I think the truth lies somewhere in between, though I would side with Lao Tzu, Rousseau, and from what you are saying, with Paul that there is something systemic to social constructs that leads us toward greed, violence, fear, etc. This, I take, to be what Paul means by “the powers.”
With regard to these “powers,” I am very attracted to the teachings of Dr. Walter Wink, Professor emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. In his book The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, he defines the powers as “the corporate personality or ethos of an institution or epoch” (p. 27); “the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life;” (p.28) and “the soul of systems” (p. 29). For him powers are the “ism” and “ologies” that shape our thinking and our lives. Some of these powers can be positive, but many are evil. He sees Jesus as calling us to confront the evil powers such as racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism, militarism, and the like.
Obviously if we are called to confront these powers we must have the capacity to do so successfully, otherwise the mission is futile and suicidal. Yet, as you said, the game is rigged. The House always wins, and the House is rarely on the side of the people. In Jesus’ day the House was Rome and the Temple aristocracy, and we know how that turned out. Even when Rome was rebranded as the Holy Roman Empire, and Judaism came under the sway of the far more liberal rabbis, the House was still plagued by “powers” that fed off of and into human evil. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold out the hope that in the end God will win—Mansion trumps House—but I am not so sure.
I do my best stand up to the powers, but I do so without St. Julian of Norwich’s conviction that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”