On Monday this week, I read, from cover to cover, Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be. I meant to read it for some time now. Since N.T. Wright populates my entire reading list (I have finished five of his books since December), I decided to interrupt my Wright project with a little liberal theology, and I must say, I loved it. For the past few days, I reflected on this work, and these are my first few impressions about it.
This book represents a simple summary of Wink’s The Powers Trilogy. Essentially, Wink distilled his scholarly work into an accessible volume for laypeople. He fulfills what my professor Dr. Rob Wall calls his responsibility to scholasticism and to the Church by doing this. I appreciate his efforts.
First and foremost, Walter Wink is an activist. He makes this very clear by telling stories about his days in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60’s and his work against South African Apartheid. Like all writers, Wink responds to the problems he sees in current systems. More precisely, he writes to give theological weight to the solutions of these problems. With activism as his platform and theology as his instrument, Wink argues for the Church to commit itself to complete non-violence as a centerpiece of its faith statement. The lines of his argument are as follows:
The main problems Wink encounters derive out of his activist stance. He concerns himself with what stands in the way of the effective liberation of those who suffer. To Wink, the barrier to liberation is, what he calls, The Domination System. The Domination System is nothing new and can be seen all the way down through history whenever one group of people oppresses another for the sake of greed and self-interest. Wink realizes The Domination System is an evil, demonic animal which requires sustenance. The food of this beast grows in the corresponding corollary to The Domination System: The Myth of Redemptive Violence. The Myth of Redemptive Violence provides The Domination System with a narrative that can be reproduced in an infinite number of ways which convinces all involved in The Domination System (oppressor and oppressed alike) that without The Domination System the world would collapse and only the violence perpetrated by it can save us from this fate. The Myth looks roughly like this: a powerful being or system has caused harm or distress to a certain other being or group; from within the oppressed group, a powerful being or system arises to defeat and kill the oppressor, ending the reign of terror; as a result, the victorious protagonist becomes the ruling victor who creates a space in which the liberated can live free and in harmony; but eventually, the once righteous liberator becomes the dominating oppressor, beginning the cycle all over again. This Myth, seen from the Babylonian creation myth to today’s children’s cartoons, maintains silent ubiquity by coercing its adherents into believing it is normative. This omnipresence, Wink argues, is so pervasive it even infiltrated the way in which ancient Hebrews conceived of G-d; thus, it produced vast amounts of violence in the Hebrew Bible as the will of G-d. Jesus interrupts this Myth, and exposes it for what it really is: legalized immorality. He paints Jesus in an activist light as one who courageously revealed the truth about the one true G-d who has no part in The Domination System. Oppressive structures killed him for his insolence, and the early Church only half-way understood his purpose.
Hope, for Wink, in the face of The Domination System, comes in a two-step process. First, Wink holds the worldview that spirit infuses everything. From the Pentagon to a preschool, spirituality mediates within all structures. Thus, the spirituality of everything can, as all spirits can, be redeemed. Some of these things which can be redeemed, such as the law, need simple or complex recreation; some others, such as Nazism, sexism, or racism, require total abandonment. Our first step in redemption is clothing ourselves in what Wink deems an “Integral Worldview”. Once we recognize this worldview to be the case, the second step in the process of redemption occurs through Divine and human collusion manifested as direct non-violent action against The Domination System. This, after all, was what Jesus did and what later Christians would fail to understand as they drifted back into oppressive, demonic structures.
My reaction to Wink’s argument is both positive and negative. First, I fully affirm his view of a ubiquitous system of dominance that oppresses others for its own gain and sustains itself through the telling and retelling of an indoctrinating myth that convinces people of its indispensability. Furthermore, I 100% agree with the conclusion concerning non-violence. If we employ the logic of the Myth of Redemptive Violence against oppressors, we simply insert ourselves into the cyclical destruction of The Domination System. Meanwhile, we will fool ourselves into believing we are creating freedom or newness (just as the Myth prophesied we would). Hence, the only conceivable way to escape the Myth’s all-encompassing hold is to step outside its operating parameters and do what it least expects: non-violence. Jesus, in my perspective, demonstrated this way of life in the most exemplary way. Wink and I cohere at this point. Finally, I share Wink’s Integral Worldview. In general, Wink’s largest conclusions are those that I affirm.
My dissension with Wink comes in his nuances. Primarily, we disagree in the extent to which The Domination System must be abandoned. He states clearly Nazism represented a spirit which should not be redeemed but abandoned. Whether or not you agree with his worldview, nearly everyone would agree with him on this point. Nonetheless, the government in the U.S., which has committed genocide against dozens of tribes, afflicted entire people groups under slavery and then Jim Crow, cripples the poor beneath the military-industrial complex, and fights multiple explicit and secret wars around the world, belongs in the category of redeemable which he makes clear by insisting he is a devoted patriot. I cannot agree with Wink here. If the purpose of the nation-state exists to defend its artificial borders from would-be assailants, we can see, by observing the U.S. and its hyper-militarized fetish, where such logic takes us. Nationalism and the good of the state must be abandoned. Subversive love of G-d and neighbor must replace it. Secondarily, Wink’s biblical scholarship is inconsistent and jumbled. He writes off the Epistle to the Hebrews as complicit in The Domination System, yet he maintains the authority of some Pauline texts. He exegetes gospel passages, yet he limits their interpretation to his own agenda. As a result, Jesus looks less like G-d’s decisive act in history to deal with sin (or The Domination System) in its fullness via non-violent activity and more like a failed social activist like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi who at least understood what the latter two had in mind during their movements. Consequently, he denies the Trinity, and damages his argument in the process. Even though I still agree with his final conclusion, by refuting Jesus’ divinity, Wink only allows Jesus to be one who teaches us how G-d is. Instead, by holding Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, we see, in his non-violent, direct action against the powers that be, the very way in which G-d chooses to reveal G-d’s self. Not only, then, would this add theological substance to Wink’s argument; it would add an ethical mandate for Christians to follow suit.
Finally, Wink believes the future of Christianity does not lie in debates about salvation and justification but in our ability to live out G-d’s all-embracing love through peaceable means. I believe this to be half true. All the bickering about who is in and who is out creates a dynamic in which we forget Jesus is Lord, and we recreate him as life-jacket. Jesus is the King, and it is time we started living by his kingdom edicts. However, we must have faith that Jesus is Lord. Faith and obedience are therefore two sides of the same coin which is the Gospel.
How we live this out will eternally be under argument; Wink gives us a useful guide tool. The Church’s days of domination are over. Time has come for us to pick up our crosses and follow the Lord. Peace!