Making sense of ‘the powers’
By John A. Lapp
On my desk is Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice and the Domination System edited by Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, published by Fortress Press, 2006, 227 pages, $20.
For 50 years, a fertile theme in biblical studies has been unraveling the New Testament phrase “principalities and powers.” No one has dealt with this language as insightfully or comprehensively as Auburn Theological Seminary’s Walter Wink. His trilogy — Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986) and Engaging the Powers (1992) — are contemporary theological classics. He summarized and extended these ideas in The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (1998) and When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of the Nations (1998).
In 2001, Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., held a conference that elaborated some of the themes found in Wink’s writings. This book brings these excellent presentations together in 11 chapters plus an introduction.
In addition to the editors from EMU, other authors are Nancey Murphy and Glen Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary, Daniel Liechty of Illinois State University, Willard Swartley of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Wink himself.
Topics range from Wink’s elaboration of the “New Worldview: Spirit at the Core of Everything” to Murphy’s exploration of ethics and the social sciences.
In a helpful introduction, Grimsrud summarizes Wink’s contribution. Powers language, he writes, “refers to the realities of all social dynamics — institutions, belief systems, traditions.” Each of these has an outer form and an invisible character, “an inner spirit of driving force that animates, legitimates and regulates.”
In Wink’s well-known summary, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers need to be redeemed.” Wink then adds, “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.”
The focus on the spirituality of institutions and public life is taking place as the natural sciences, particularly physics and cosmology, have been sensing that a material explanation of these realities is incomplete. Wink and Murphy demonstrate useful comparisons of the biblical worldview and the worldview emerging in our time. Wink uses the term “integral worldview” to describe the universe “suffused with the divine.” God is not only “within us but within everything.”
This means “God will have to be included in our experience of the nature of things.” It also means “everything is interpenetrated with everything else.”
Thus, environmental care is not an option but an obligation for anyone concerned about the dwelling place of God and God’s creation.
While I am quite persuaded by Wink’s insight on the presence of God everywhere in everything, I wonder what this means for recognizing the “otherness” of God. God, as theologians are wont to say, is a complex reality.
Another tension in this book is the role and character of the church and its institutions. Are we prepared to admit that these powers are also fallen and need redemption? How does a redeemed church behave?
Swartley senses a difference between the pacifism of Wink and his own ethic of nonresistance — or, as he prefers, “non-retaliation.” Swartley speaks strongly for the Mennonite tradition of bearing witness as “both nonresistance and resistance, of whatever type, a way to witness to Jesus’ lordship over all, a way to overcome evil with good … a way to owe no one anything but love.”
Stassen emphasizes “that Jesus cared about covenant justice” similar to the Old Testament prophets. This justice is not the same as the popular notion of an even-handed or universal statement of principles. Rather, covenant justice is rooted in a community and a narrative proclaiming the reign of God.
I am not usually attracted to edited volumes by multiple authors. This one, however, fits together and reflects authentic conversation. Some readers may find the conceptual language difficult, but every chapter has important things to say.
A list of Wink’s writings and extensive notes to all the chapters add to the value of this important contribution to understanding the powers.
John A. Lapp of Akron, Pa., is former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee.