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Walter Wink’s Blind Spot: Passivity as Resistance

I am sympathetic to what I perceive as Wink’s larger goal in this interpretation. He wants to remove the option of reading Jesus’s words as endorsing toleration of abuse. He is rightly aware of and duly burdened by too many examples in the history of Christendom in which the powerful have used a command like “do not resist evildoers” as a rationale for submission to injustice.

What does one say about Walter Wink’s contention that Jesus of Nazareth offered a “third way” of nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount? In my judgment, any discussion of Wink’s work must begin with a deep appreciation for Wink’s call for justice. I applaud his commitment to resisting “the powers” that oppress, marginalize, and kill the most vulnerable. As Ruben noted, Wink made his argument in a now famous trilogy, published from 1984 to 1992.[1]Scott helpfully summarized how Wink employed the first two volumes as preparatory for the call to action in the third volume, Engaging the Powers. Indeed, this third book was recognized as a timely and powerful invitation for organizing and advocacy. Its endorsements came from an impressive array of scholars and clergy. It also won three book-of-the-year awards. Wink’s work clearly had an important impact as a summons to action for social justice. I share his passion for a Christianity active in word and deed on behalf of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46).

In his call for a Christian commitment to justice, however, Wink has an idiosyncratic reading of Jesus’s commands in Matthew 5:38-42.[2] This is the section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where Jesus teaches that one should not follow the principle of an eye for an eye (v. 38). In fact, “do not resist an evildoer” (v. 39). Rather, offer the other side of one’s cheek when slapped, one’s cloak after the coat is taken, the second mile when forced to go the first, and one’s money when asked by a beggar or a borrower (vv. 39b-42). Wink focuses on vv. 39-41, arguing that Jesus is not simply commanding acceptance of mistreatment. Instead, Wink presents Jesus as offering a set of responses that surprise and disarm the powerful in their abuse of the less powerful. These responses also offer a means by which the abused exercises agency and regains the moral high ground. Accordingly, Jesus neither commends the violence of “fight” nor the cowardice of “flight.” Jesus offers a “third way.”[3]

I am sympathetic to what I perceive as Wink’s larger goal in this interpretation. He wants to remove the option of reading Jesus’s words as endorsing toleration of abuse. He is rightly aware of and duly burdened by too many examples in the history of Christendom in which the powerful have used a command like “do not resist evildoers” as a rationale for submission to injustice. In Engaging the Powers (189-193), Wink recounts cases in which Christians should counsel some form of resistance and self-protection instead of submission. Spousal abuse is one important illustration. No abused person should be told, “Do not resist evildoers.” Organizing workers to advocate for better working conditions and better pay is another crucial case. Exploited workers should not be made to feel that their exploitation is somehow God’s will. In these and many other examples, Christian clergy have far too often been complicit in maintaining the power of the abusers instead of being advocates for those with few options and resources. Too often Christians have employed Jesus’s words in Matthew 5 as an excuse for inaction. Wink is correct in his attempt to offer an interpretation that encourages agency for oppressed individuals and groups.

Yet, I find his reading of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5 to be unpersuasive as an historical interpretation. Indeed, as Kevin points out, Wink argues that he is recovering Jesus’s original meaning. This is evident in his reconstruction of Jesus’s first century context with details about ancient Jewish customs and specifics about Roman law (Engaging the Powers, 175-184). Wink even contends that Matthew changed Jesus’s original meaning of 5:39 by placing it in the context of “an eye for an eye” in 5:38 (“Neither Passivity nor Violence,” 116-117). If Wink had framed his argument as a modern re-appropriation in ethical and theological terms, that would be a different issue altogether. But this is not the path Wink chose. He is making historical claims.

In these historical claims, Wink erects a straw man when he presents passivity as one of the two options to be rejected. He only frames passivity in terms of cowardice and cooperation with evil. Unfortunately, he can cite many commentators who provide support for this framing. Still, this is not the only option available for interpreting passivity. In fact, Wink’s so-called “third way” is only a spin on passivity. They look the same from the outside. The difference is what he claims will happen when the abused responds as Jesus commands. Wink contends that the oppressor will be shamed. For instance, when the oppressed goes the second mile for a Roman soldier, Wink says, “The soldier is thrown off balance by being deprived of the predictability of his victim’s response. … If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not feel it today” (“Neither Passivity or Violence,” 111). Who is convinced by this scenario? Who believes this soldier will suddenly not know how to respond to someone voluntarily carrying his pack longer than required? What historical examples support this kind of situation? Similar questions can be raised about Wink’s other scenarios about the slap and the cloak. I concur with Sandra—they sound fanciful.[4]

Now, to be sure, some ancient leaders were persuaded when Jews protested peacefully in the first century, as Wink illustrates (Engaging the Powers, 177). But those were leaders in the public eye, concerned about political perception, not one-on-one encounters as portrayed by Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42. The abusive slaveowner, spouse, overseer, or whoever will rarely be affected by the nonviolent response of the one under their power. We know this human pattern from recent history. Violent racists in the segregated South had no problem killing civil rights protestors under the dark of night. It was the political leaders who were concerned about public perception when violence would be recorded by photography and/or television cameras. If I am on the right track here, Wink’s alleged third way is a figment of his imagination.

Further, the dignity Wink rightly wants to uphold is from within the person attacked. The agency is internal to the victim; it is not dependent on the response of the victimizer. Wink effectively acknowledges this when he moves to modern examples (Engaging the Powers, 190).

What in fact looks to all the world like passivity may in fact be the third way. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers pressed this intently competitive athlete to agree that for three years he would take whatever abuse was heaped on him without a word. Robinson finally said, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

In my judgment, this powerful illustration completely undermines Wink’s portrayal of passivity. It shows that one can be passive and emotionally strong. Consequently, it is more accurate to say that there is a passivity that is cowardly, but there is also a passivity with inner strength, dignity, and self-worth. The difference is in how the encounter is interpreted and internalized by the oppressed, not the oppressor.

This leads to a much larger issue that is an unaddressed elephant in the room. In my judgment, the scholarly case for Jesus as a first century Jewish apocalypticist is overwhelmingly persuasive.[5] It certainly passes the criterion of dissimilarity with flying colors—it is unlikely to be the creation of the early church. One can see E.P. Sanders or Dale Allison in this regard. If this is so, Jesus teaches a passivity that is in fact a form of political resistance to human evil because God’s intervention is imminent. God will soon usher in redemption and justice. Thus, one is resistant by maintaining one’s faith, by not succumbing to the outlook of the empire. One resists in the short term until God’s kingdom comes. This understanding of apocalypticism as political resistance is argued extensively by Anathea Portier-Young in Apocalypse against Empire.

By contrast, Wink, like Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg, and many others, apparently rejected the argument that Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist who believed the end was imminent. Accordingly, he can only see passivity in negative terms. His presentation would have been more transparent if he had at least informed the reader of this alternate understanding.

In sum, sinful, self-serving readings in favor of the powerful must be resisted by better interpretations that follow the model Jesus offers in the gospels. When faced with a citation of Scripture that placed some passage over human well-being, Jesus repeatedly countered and corrected such readings. The debate about the Sabbath is one excellent case in point (see Mark 2:23-28). Jesus refuted harmful readings with a focus on the love of God and the love of neighbor as the proper interpretive framework (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37). Accordingly, any reading of Jesus’s words that is used to counsel submission to mistreatment is a clear violation of what we repeatedly learn from Jesus. This would certainly apply to any reading of Matthew 5:38-42 that would be used to keep the vulnerable at risk of harm. But we should already know this to be true. The history of biblical interpretation and appropriation should have already taught us these hard lessons—from arguments about a delayed parousia, debates about slavery, the use of the Bible for racism, disputes about divorce, contentions about the equality of women, and more recent discourses about sexuality. Thus, with the utmost respect for Wink and his important work, we do not need his doubtful reading of Matthew 5:38-42 to handle the Holy Scriptures faithfully.


[1]In the preface (xiii) for Engaging the Powers (1992), Wink also mentioned his book, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way (1987). Wink later developed portions of this 1987-volume into an introductory text for the Fortress Facet Series, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (2003).

[2]For a recent reference to Wink’s “third way” by a prominent Bible scholar, see Amy-Jill Levine’s book on The Sermon on the Mount (40); see also her work with Mark Zvi Brettler on Jewish and Christian readings of Scripture (203).

[3]Wink makes his most extensive exegetical argument in his essay, “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’ Third Way (Matt. 5:38-42)” in The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament (1992), 102-25. This material is edited and supplemented in Engaging the Powers, 175-193. It is also presented briefly in Jesus and Nonviolence, 9-28.

[4]Space does not allow for a fuller assessment of Wink’s treatment of the verb anthistēmi. Suffice it to say, Wink conflates the verb with its contexts. It does not mean “to resist violently,” as Wink claims (Engaging the Powers, 185). The verb does not have an inherently violent aspect in its meaning. That comes from context. On this relatively typical confusion, see James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Literature, 129-140.

[5]Dale Allison summarizes that Jesus “envisaged, as did many in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.” The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, 95.

Jesus did not teach Nonviolent Resistance in the Sermon on the Mount

Walter Wink’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount is the kind of exegesis that would get failed in a historical-critical Bible class. It has succeeded because it is good ethics so no one wants to point out too loudly that it’s bad exegesis.

On Teaching Walter Wink in an Introduction to Christian Ethics Course

I ask whether they think Wink’s exegesis is correct. Many have been completely convinced; they think that Wink has provided very compelling evidence… But now that my students are certain that Wink has hit it out of the park, I can add another layer of complexity and uncertainty by sharing that I have doubts.

Walter Wink, the Powers, and the Sermon on the Mount

Wink’s approach throughout the Powers trilogy is fundamentally a reappropriation of the Biblical texts in light of contemporary concerns. Far from being a “really bad” reading of scripture, it is an excellent example of constructive Biblical theology… The answer he proposes is a wholesale reevaluation of both the Biblical conception of the Powers and Principalities, as well as their relevance to the modern world.

Walter Wink’s Blind Spot: Passivity as Resistance

I am sympathetic to what I perceive as Wink’s larger goal in this interpretation. He wants to remove the option of reading Jesus’s words as endorsing toleration of abuse. He is rightly aware of and duly burdened by too many examples in the history of Christendom in which the powerful have used a command like “do not resist evildoers” as a rationale for submission to injustice.

What Wink Got Right: The Church’s Practical Embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount

Wink presents the original contextual meaning of Jesus as also a timeless meaning. He tries to draw from the bible a clear and simple message—one that contains everything necessary for contemporary Christians to take a stand for nonviolence.

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