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Nonviolent resistance during the "No NATO" protests, Chicago, May 20, 2012 (photo by Bartosz Brzezinski)
Sacred Texts

Resisting the Powers: Walter Wink’s Legacy Reexamined

Walter Wink was a controversial figure when he was alive, so it is not surprising his critique of the powers and principalities continues to draw criticism while inspiring new generations of Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance against structural injustice.

For a certain generation of seminarians, Walter Wink—a Biblical scholar, theologian, and activist who taught at Union Theological Seminary and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York—embodied the best of progressive Protestantism. Best known for his acclaimed trilogy on “the principalities and powers” [Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence (1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992)], Wink was an outspoken critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam and was awarded a Peace Fellowship from the U.S. Institute of Peace to complete the final volume of the trilogy.

In the third and final volume, Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink relates the New Testament concept of “principalities and powers” to the concrete reality of evil in the world today, examining the question, “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?” (1). In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul compares the powers of this world—princes and governments—to cosmic forces bent not only on earthly domination but spiritual desolation: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12-13, NRSV). Such powers seem unstoppable but as Christians, so Wink argues, we are called to resist them. The question at stake is how ought we resist them?

Twice in Engaging the Powers Wink cites Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the harshest yet most insightful critics of Christianity, who cautioned, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” (209), and “And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you” (415). Wink employs Nietzsche as a warning to Christians that while there is no question we are called to resist the forces of evil in the world, how we go about doing this determines whether or not we ourselves contribute to the world’s evil. Ultimately, Wink is committed to nonviolent resistance, and even his strongest supporters admit that in the end his hermeneutical gymnastics in the service of this ethical commitment don’t always stay true to the text, even as they remain faithful to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

As a divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the early 1990s I had the benefit of knowing and working with Walter Wink, though I never had the chance to study with him. As one of two student coordinators for the Union soup kitchen, housed in the basement of Broadway Presbyterian Church (my home church), I got to know him over a three-year period during which he would faithfully bring volunteers from his church once a month. Over the routine tasks of chopping vegetables, setting tables, and washing dishes we had some interesting and sometimes deep conversations that I wish I could recall with greater detail. Nevertheless, a conviction I carry with me to this day in both my preaching and my academic work, is to interpret the whole of the Christian tradition through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Which is why I have never been too bothered by some of the textual liberties Wink takes in the Powers Trilogy; which is also why I am merely introducing this symposium and not contributing one of the main articles…maybe I am too personally invested in Wink’s project and lack the adequate critical distance.

Not so our first contributor, Kevin Carnahan, who does not mince words nor sugarcoat opinions as he challenges Walter Wink’s central thesis by arguing that Jesus does not teach nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount. As an ethicist, Carnahan is sympathetic to Wink’s project, but is suspicious of the textual leaps needed to get there. Another ethicist, Sandra Sullivan-Dunbar, has been engaging Walter Wink’s text, “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’s Third Way” in her Introduction to Christian Ethics course for over ten years and shares some of Carnahan’s exegetical concerns, even while valuing Winks works as exceptionally valuable for pedagogical purposes. 

By contrast, Scott Paeth is not troubled by the exegetical weaknesses supporting Wink’s central argument, arguing that rather than offering a historical-critical analysis, Wink’s Powers Trilogy exemplifies a theological interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and far from being an example of bad exegesis ought to be read and valued as “an excellent example of constructive Biblical theology.” Like Paeth, biblical scholar and theologian Joseph Scrivner applauds Walter Wink’s “Third Way” as an attractive and successful call for Christian engagement in social action “despite his very questionable interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount,” as an antidote to those forms of Christian passivism that take Jesus’s injunctions to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40) and love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) as rationale for Christian inaction. 

Finally, ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill directs her analysis to the inherent contradictions in the Gospel of Matthew (where the Sermon on the Mount is located) wherein Jesus counsels nonviolence, seems to condemn any form of resistance, yet employs extremely violent imagery in his parables. By focusing on those aspects of Jesus’s character and history that are most consistent throughout the New Testament, Cahill argues that Wink is on very firm exegetical ground when he advocates Jesus teaching forgiveness and love of enemies. From there, it is not that big a leap to the Jesus who advocates militant nonviolence in the Powers Trilogy, suggesting (in an argument similar to that articulated by Paeth) that in the end Wink is engaged in a theological hermeneutics rather than a historical-critical hermeneutics.

Walter Wink was a controversial figure when he was alive, so it is not surprising his critique of the powers and principalities continues to draw criticism while inspiring new generations of Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance against structural injustice. We hope that as you read these five essays you not only rediscover the contemporary relevance of Wink’s analysis and constructive proposal, you rediscover the urgency to resist Christian inaction that drove Wink to explore these themes in the first place.

Symposium Essays

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.