A Tribute to Walter Wink

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2012

Walter Wink, one of the greatest peace theologians of the past half-century, has passed from the scene. He died in his home in Massachusetts Thursday, May 10, 2012. He was 76 and had suffered for some years from dementia.

Wink has been one of the thinkers who has influenced me the most. On two different occasions I wrote short summaries of what I found most profound in his thought. As a tribute to his life and work, I offer excerpts from each of these.

Engaging Walter Wink

[In March 2001, Eastern Mennonite University hosted a conference that featured Wink as the main speaker. My colleague Ray Gingerich and I gathered a number of the papers from the conference and published the resultant book: Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Fortress Press, 2006).]

Walter Wink is that rare, and much appreciated, cross-disciplinary scholar and committed activist who informs and inspires.  Trained as a New Testament specialist, Wink’s first publications in the late 1960s made still-cited contributions to the study of John the Baptist. John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition remains in print.  He began reaching a wider audience with his provocative The Bible in Human Transformation that forecast his broadening his concerns to psychological and ethical ramifications of how we read the Bible.  Transforming Bible Study emerged from Wink’s work as Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, work paying special attention to the study of the Bible among lay people.

Fortress Press published the first volume of Wink’s “Powers trilogy,” Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament in 1984.  As Wink recounts in that book’s preface, it originated as a book review, critiquing another book on the principalities and powers in the New Testament that Wink disagreed with.  Wink had been working on the theme of the powers for a number of years, originally stimulated by the pioneering work of the notorious Episcopalian lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow.

What eventually emerged were two additional full-scale books, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (1986) and the magisterial Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992), and several shorter works fleshing out the trilogy’s core insights.

The principalities and powers. Wink argues that the “principalities and powers,” in the New Testament (and he uses this term as shorthand for the various other terms that also expresses the idea) refer to the realities of all human social dynamics – our institutions, belief systems, traditions, and the like.  All of these dynamics, what he calls “manifestations of power” have an inner and an outer aspect.  “Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form – be it a church, a nation, and economy – and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world.  Neither pole is the cause of the other.  Both come into existence together and cease to exist together” (Naming, 5).

The New Testament offers a crucial insight that should govern how we think about all the Powers.  The Powers are simultaneously (1) a necessary part of the good creation, providing the ligaments of human social existence, the structure and even languages that we require to function, (2) part of creation as fallen, with a tendency to seek to usurp God’s centrality and pervert God’s purposes for the good of the whole, and (3) part of creation as the object of God’s redeeming work, seeking to heal and transform brokenness into wholeness.

“To put the thesis of these three volumes in its simplest form: The Powers are good.  The Powers are fallen.  The Powers must be redeemed.  These three statement must be held together, for each, by itself, is not only untrue but downright mischievous.  We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen.  We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation.  And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed” (Engaging, 10).

Wink sees the Powers motif as pervasive in the New Testament.  We must not be bound by simply looking for the terms “principalities and powers,” though they are plentiful in Paul’s writings.  There are many other terms that speak to power and hence speak to our theme.  Wink lists a number of examples.  “Rulers and great men (Mt. 20:25); those who supposedly rule and great men (Mk. 10:42); Kings and those in authority (Lk. 22:25); Chief priests and rulers (Lk. 24:20); authorities and Pharisees (Jn. 7:48); rulers and elders (Acts 4:8); kings and rulers (Acts 4:26); angels and principalities (Rom. 8:38); power and name (Acts 4:7); power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24); power and authority (Lk. 9:1; Rev. 17:13); authority and commission (Acts 26:12); authority and power (Lk. 4:36)” (Naming, 7).

We must recognize that in each of these cases, and all the others where the New Testament writers refers to various expressions of power, political and spiritual alike, both the inner and outer aspects in some sense are in mind.  All expressions of power have both.

In Wink’s view, this awareness is essential for us today if we are be able accurately to understand the world we live in and fulfill God’s calling that we be agents for healing in this world.  “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure” (Engaging, 10).

Awareness of how crucial the applying of the Powers analysis is to the Christian mission leads to Wink’s deep concern with addressing the questions of worldviews.  The worldview that people in Western culture live with inhibits our ability to be properly attentive to the inner/outer aspect of social life.  “Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its concretions can the total entity be transformed, and that requires a kind of spiritual discernment and praxis that the materialistic ethos in which we live knows nothing about” (Engaging, 10).

Wink’s Powers trilogy. So, with his Powers trilogy and related writings, Wink has undertaken several inter-related tasks.  He first describes in detail the New Testament teaching on the Powers, with close-grained exegesis – examining specific key words and New Testament passages.  Then he looks more broadly at the broader meaning of the language of power in the biblical world and in our own, addressing the key question of the places of worldviews in understanding that language and “the invisible forces that determine human existence.”  And, finally, with great effect, he provides a perceptive cultural analysis of contemporary North America, focusing on the role of violence in our culture.  Wink applies what we have learned through the exegetical and worldview discussions in his critique of the “myth of redemptive violence” and his profound proposals for how to combat that myth and help create “God’s domination-free order” that Jesus inaugurated.

The language of power in the New Testament includes numerous words (e.g., archon, arche, exousia, dynamis, kyriotes, thronos, onoma) variously translated as “power,” “authority,” “dominion,” “throne,” “name.”  This language is dynamic, unsystematic, impressionistic (Naming, 10). The key underlying understanding, in Wink’s view, may be summarized in recognizing that the spiritual Powers are not separate heavenly or ethereal realities but rather the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power.

“I suggest that the ‘angels of nature’ are the patterning of physical things – rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the ‘principalities and powers’ are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or system; that the ‘demons’ are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that ‘gods’ are the very real archetype or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious ‘elements of the universe’ are the invariances (formerly called ‘laws’) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationships with every other level and the Whole; and that ‘Satan’ is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values” (Naming, 104-5).

Wink’s exegetical work in Naming focuses primarily on writings in the Pauline constellation, largely because Paul and his close followers use “principalities and powers” language most overtly.  However, the underlying assumptions and theology reflected in Paul’s writings are paralleled in other New Testament writings.  This is most obvious with the book of Revelation’s symbolism.  However, as well, “the synoptic Gospels use the terminology of power almost as frequently as Paul,” only they speak more overtly of human or structural power than using spiritual terminology (Naming, 100). Given that in the New Testament, “spiritual” and “human” are not separate categories, though, the differences in terminology do not reflect theological differences.

The biblical worldview, in Wink’s understanding, allowed its writers to understand the spiritual nature of human systems and structures.  The language of demons, angels, spirits, principalities, et al, gave biblical writers a way to recognize that social life has both seen and unseen elements, and that both need to be taken into account genuinely to understand the dynamics that shape our lives.

That worldview fell by the way with the development of the modern consciousness, and it cannot simply be reappropriated.  The biblical worldview, Wink believes, “is in many ways beyond being salvaged, limited as it was by the science, philosophy, and religion of its age (Unmasking, 5).” However, the materialistic, modern worldview has proven itself inadequate to take account of the complexity of social reality since it cannot recognize the possibility that the Powers actually exist.  Among other things, as Wink makes clear, when we fail to respect the reality of the Powers we become most vulnerable to their manipulations, for example, being blinded to the pervasiveness of the myth of redemptive violence in North American society.

What is needed is recognition that we have the power and responsibility to adjust our worldview better to take actual reality into account.  To resist destructive myths we must acknowledge that myths do have power and reality does involve more than materialism allows for.  Wink challenges us to adjust our worldview in order to appropriate the profound insights of New Testament Powers thought.

“A reassessment of these Powers – angels, demons, gods, elements, the devil – allows us to reclaim, name, and comprehend types of experiences that materialism renders mute and inexpressible.  We have the experiences but miss their meaning.  Unable to name our experiences of these intermediate powers of existence, we are simply constrained by them compulsively.  They are never more powerful than when they are unconscious.  Their capacities to bless us are thwarted, their capacities to possess us augmented.  Unmasking these Powers can mean for us initiation into a dimension of reality ‘not known, because not looked for,’ in T.S. Eliot’s words….The goal of such unmasking is to enable people to see how they have been determined, and to free them to choose, insofar as they have genuine choice, what they will be determined by in the future” (Unmasking, 7).

Toward nonviolent transformation. Wink’s third book of the Powers trilogy, Engaging the Powers, both completes the series and transcends it.  Here he reiterates his learnings about the Powers in the New Testament, and provides a quite perceptive, if preliminary, account of possibilities emerging in our post-modern world for a worldview that will help us do justice to the multi-layered reality of which we are part.  The bulk of the book, then, powerfully applies the Powers and worldview insights to a powerful proposal for peace and justice activism.

Rarely, if ever, has a contemporary biblical scholar done so much to show the profound relevance of biblical teaching for social life in our current world.  This relevance, in Wink’s portrayal, lies not so much in particular teachings as in worldview shaping and consciousness raising.  Along with his cultural criticism, theological analysis, and powerful articulation of the cruciality of thorough-going nonviolence, Wink concludes his amazing book with some perceptive reflections on spirituality and hope for the person committed to being agents for peace in our violent world (obviously drawn from his own wide-ranging experiences).

Like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, Wink’s Engaging the Powers is a classic with a depth of meaning one never fully plums even after repeated readings.  Among other extraordinarily important insights that he offers, these are several that I believe have the potential to shape Christian thought for years to come:

1) His delineation of the revolution going on in our contemporary world concerning our worldview (a discussion expanded in chapter two below).  He helps us understand what worldviews are, how much they shape our perceptions of the world around us, and how important it is that we seek to revise our modern worldview if we hope to be able to appropriate biblical insights into human well-being.  Only what he calls the “integral worldview” will enable us to remain modern people while also recognizing the interconnections of all things and the spirituality that infuses all of creation.

2) He coins the useful term “domination system” to help us understand our present context.  Only with the aid of the analysis of the role of the principalities and powers in human culture may we make sense of why it is that our structures are so destructive of human well-being.  The domination system operates according to the myth of redemptive violence, and entraps us all in the amazingly self-destructive dynamic of violence responding with violence to violence and on and on.

3) Along with providing necessary insight into why we are so dominated by the forces of violence, Wink’s powers analysis also provides a crucial angle the provides an essential sense of hope and empowerment.  As we break free from the illusions of the domination system, we may be freed to recognize the biblical confessions that the powers are not only corruptible (“fallen”), but they are initially the good creations of God and, most essentially, they are redeemable.  So Wink’s analysis, sobering as it is, counsels not despair but hope and empowerment.  The powers can – indeed, must – successfully be resisted.

4) Wink then gives us a biblically based vision of a domination-free order based on the life and teaching of Jesus (a vision since developed in scholarly detail in his more recent book, The Human One).  Here Wink delights nonviolent activists with a thorough demonstration of how antithetical violence is to the vision Jesus gives us of genuinely authentic human living.   As if his biblical, theological, cultural, and psychological insights are not profound enough, Wink also displays some genuine tough-mindedness and honesty in discussing some of the main tensions and potential problems with nonviolence.

Wink helps us understand both the depths of our culture’s commitment to its very core to the way of violence (and why this is happening) and the depths of the gospel’s presentation of a viable alternative to that way of violence.  Anyone who might suspect that Wink’s preoccupation with the Powers has primarily esoteric significance surely would have to admit that he makes an irrefutable case for the practical relevance of the analysis he has constructed.

Wink’s work certainly deserves our deepest gratitude.  Few if any other Christian thinkers in recent memory have done so much for assisting people of faith to apply their convictions to real life.  And few if any have done so much to help us have courage and hope concerning the relevance of the gospel.

However, even more than deserving our gratitude, Wink’s work deserves our on-going attention.  He has helped unlock a world of theological and ethical resources from the biblical tradition that are needed in our world today.  But the work has only begun!  The best display of our gratitude for the Wink’s accomplishment is to converse deeply with it, to challenge his insights and to seek to continually test them and apply them in ever-broader spheres of life.

Walter Wink and Peace Theology

When Wink retired from Auburn Theological Seminary, the seminary hosted a celebration of his career. I was asked to share a short reflection on his work from the perspective of peace theology. This was consequently published in a collection of presentations from the celebration: D. Seiple, ed., Enigmas and Powers: Engaging the Work of Walter Wink (Pickwick, 2008).

A few years ago, I heard the folksinger Richie Havens in concert.  Prior to one of his songs, he said that he wished he didn’t feel he had to perform the following song, not because it wasn’t a good song, but because he wishes we could come to a point where it would no longer be relevant.  But we have not made it to that point yet.  So he proceeded with a passionate reading of the anti-war song, “Lives in the Balance.”

Maybe we could say the same think about Walter Wink’s theological analyses related to nonviolence and his critique of the myth of redemptive violence.  It would be nice to say that our world has changed so much since Engaging the Powers came out in 1992, that that book’s powerful articulation of a genuine peace theology based on the way of Jesus has lost much of its relevance.  Were it only so.

If anything, Walter’s work on peace versus violence is more relevant than when he first articulated it.  I say this with gratitude for the brilliance and farsightedness of this work, but also with a great deal of sorrow that our society and the broader world have, if anything, become even more under thrall to the powers of domination.  However, if the need continues, we may be grateful that we have Walter’s work to draw upon – just as Richie Havens expressed gratitude for Jackson Brown’s song, “Lives in the Balance.”

The term “peace theology” has been used in recent years of theological reflection that places at the center of its concern a vision for opposition to warfare and other forms of violence and the cultivation of alternative strategies of conflict resolution and the creation of communities of resistance to the injustices of our world’s trust in redemptive violence.

A very short, eclectic list of recent examples of such peace theology would include John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus; J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement; Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity; Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance; Gil Baillie, Violence Unveiled; Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes; Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution; Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses; Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery; and Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom.

Walter’s Engaging the Powers, along with the rest of his writings, ranks at the very top of any such list.  Every Fall semester, when I introduce my undergraduate students to Engaging the Powers. I am always gratified by the excitement with which many greet this new discovery.  I believe Walter has helped set the agenda for peace theology for years to come.  Among many extraordinarily important insights that Walter offers that have done this, I will mention just four that we need to keep working on:

Four central themes. 1) His description of the revolution going on in our contemporary world concerning our worldview.  He helps us understand what worldviews are, how much they shape how we perceive the world around us, and how we must rethink our commitment to the modern worldview if we hope truly to be able to appropriate biblical insights in our work for human well-being.

He helps us see how many elements characteristics of our modern, materialistic worldview reinforce domination – not least the tendency to view the world as constituted of discrete, autonomous entities.  The failure to see how all things are interconnected in itself underwrites a great deal of violence toward other humans beings and the natural world.

2) Walter coins the useful term “domination system” to help us understand our present context.  Certainly this is obvious in our the militarism of the United States finds justification in the ever-more violent efforts to dominate others in the world – most clearly right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, all kinds of dynamics in our lives reflect the domination dynamic, from the approach to nature (hence the language of “conquering” in terms of transforming “wilderness” into areas suitable for human settlement) to the spread of global capitalism.

His profound analysis of the role of the Powers in human culture helps make sense of why our structures are so destructive of human well-being, with their reliance on the “myth of redemptive violence.”  One of the great mysteries of modernity is how so many human efforts to bring about well-being have resulted in misery and injustice.  Even well-intentioned people so often end up causing damage rather than healing with their efforts “to do good,” and even more troubling, people will less-than-good intentions all too often end up being elevated into positions of power.  Walter helps us see that human institutions, in a sense, have “minds of their own” that all too often twist even the best of intentions to their own will.

3) Also, though, along with a basis for critique, Walter’s Powers analysis provides a sense of empowerment and hope.  As we break free from the illusions of the domination system, we may be freed to recognize the biblical confession that the powers are not only corruptible (“fallen”), but they are the good creations of God and, most essentially, they are redeemable.

He provides us with a powerful basis for affirming human beings, our structures, and the wider world as “good,” and as capable of transformation.  As he asserts, simply being disillusioned with the domination system itself is extraordinarily powerful in undermining its power.  So much of our bondage is self-imposed through our believing in the system.  When our beliefs change, our innate goodness may assert itself and transformation may result.

4) Walter then gives us a biblically-based vision of a domination-free order based on the life and teaching of Jesus.  In giving a positive vision, he provides a crucial sense of possibility that goes beyond simply the (extraordinarily important and profound) critique of the domination system.

Walter thoroughly demonstrates how antithetical violence is to the vision Jesus gives us of genuinely authentic human living.  And he provides us with a practical outline of creative responses to conflict, of the value from learning from our enemies, and of the importance of a vital spirituality for the task of nonviolent transformation.

Walter helps us understand both the depths of our culture’s commitment at its very core to the way of violence and the depths of the gospel’s presentation of a viable alternative to that way of violence.  He makes a powerful case for the practical relevance for our world of Jesus’ message of a domination-free order.

8 thoughts on “A Tribute to Walter Wink

  1. E. Knappenberger

    I am finding every day more relevance to this reading of Wink, and Wink’s reading of the scripture. The evils of the System are not inherent, and are an illusion, a fear. As we project onto our realities our fears, they become our evils, and the myth of redemptive violence is a childish response that is unsatisfactory. The myth of the absolute authority of the state is a blasphemy which directly contradicts not only God’s nature, but also the innate divine potentiality within man. The Kingdom of God will be the dispelling of these fears and myths, and the evil of the System will disappear as darkness to a light. It is beautiful. I am grateful to Wink and to Ted for this vision.

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