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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Sacred Texts

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.

Did Jesus teach nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount? Kevin Carnahan argues that he did not, in opposition to the argument famously put forward by Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers. He goes further in stating that Wink’s analysis is “the kind of thing that would get failed in a historical-critical Bible class.” It’s good ethics he states, but bad exegesis.

These are strong words, and Carnahan offers a very persuasive case that, on historical-critical grounds, Wink’s argument is untenable. However, I think the key mistake in his argument is in reading Wink as primarily attempting to do an historical-critical analysis. On the contrary, 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 – drawing from the Bible that which is essential to responding as Christians to the call of the current moment, listening, in James Gustafson’s parlance, to what God is enabling and requiring us to be and do in the present circumstances.

Wink is not coy about this. He begins the first volume of the Powers trilogy with an account of his experiences of traveling in Central America, of observing the poverty of the people there, and the violence inflicted upon them. He describes returning to the United States in despair, and turning to research on the Biblical theme of power as a form of therapeutic, to help him move past the despondency he experienced. “How could the writers of the New Testament insist that Christ is somehow, even in the midst of evil, sovereign over the Powers? I wrestled with this assertion with all my might. Gradually an answer began to shape itself” (x). 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.

Wink’s analysis of the Powers and Principalities in the first two volumes – Naming the Powers and Unmasking the Powers is essential for understanding why he makes the moves he does in Engaging the Powers. In Naming, Wink offers an intensive linguistic analysis of the Biblical powers, arguing that only by understanding them in their mythological context can we see how they are used in the New Testament setting, and thus what their significance is for the life of the Christian community today. The Powers, for Wink, have both a spiritual and a material dimension, and thus questions of power are never merely political, but always grounded in some form of spirituality. He goes into greater depth on this point in Unmasking, where he argues at length that the Powers and Principalities are the spiritual aspects of earthly institutions, and that the Powers, like creation itself, are created good by God, are fallen, as all of creation is fallen, and are redeemed in and through Jesus Christ. All of this is crucial backdrop to the direct moral argument that he makes in Engaging, where he is seeking to ask, in light of all of this, what it means for Christian action in the world. Thus, his reading of the Sermon on the Mount is entirely dependent on the textual analysis he offers in the first two volumes. However, it’s important to note that he is depending first and foremost on a linguistic analysis more than an historical-critical one.

In saying this, I am not implying that Wink ignores the historical-critical dimensions of the argument. On the contrary, as Carnahan notes, he investigates deeply (sometimes very deep indeed) to find historical backing to his argument. However, on my reading, Wink’s primary concern is what the text is saying in the present context, not with fidelity its historical setting. Thus to the extent that he fails the historical-critical test, that is only because it was not a test he was attempting to pass. In this respect, I agree with Carnahan when he notes that “there are contexts in which Wink’s imaginative reading of the sermon can be useful,” but I disagree with him that this was the kind of reading that Wink claimed to be doing. His use of historical-critical methodology is in the service of his constructive approach to Biblical theology, rather than the reverse.

All of this having been said, there is no doubt that Carnahan is correct in finding the stretch between the passages themselves and Wink’s interpretation to be “implausibly long.” This is truer in some instances than in others. Wink’s argument for turning the cheek is stronger than his argument for giving the cloak, which is in turn stronger than his argument for going the extra mile, both on historical and on textual grounds. Yet, the cumulative force of his case is precisely what makes it, in Carnahan’s words “good ethics.” In reimagining the significance of the text in the contemporary context, he provides a basis for reaffirming the Christian obligation to respond to the calling of God in the present moment through an active nonviolent engagement in the name of justice for the poor and the oppressed. For Wink, this is the only viable moral alternative between the unacceptable choices of passive acceptance of one’s one oppression and violent retaliation which only serves to reinforce the spiral of violence.

OK then. So why isn’t this just baldfaced eisegesis? Because Wink is seeking to understand it in light of the mythological and linguistic dimensions of the text itself. He’s not spinning an account of Jesus’ teaching out of whole cloth but engaging in a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount, taking it seriously as a moral resource for the Christian community considering the linguistic argument of the first two volumes. This is clear in his reading of antistaenai. While Carnahan dismisses Wink’s interpretation as circular reasoning, I would argue that he is attempting to understand the text in light of the totality of the New Testament teaching on violence. Antistēnai as a term only exists in the context of violent resistance. As Wink notes “Jesus’ answer is set against the backdrop of the burning question of forcible resistance to Rome. In that context, ‘resistance’ could only have one meaning: lethal violence” (185). 

Thus the question is that when Jesus instructs the disciples not to resist the evil-doer, is he advocating passivity? This, for Wink, is the fundamental moral question. If antistēnai can refer only to violent resistance, then the Christian response to evil can only be capitulation on the one hand, or simply ignoring Jesus’ moral injunction on the other. The great irony of Christian moral thought in this area is that historically, we’ve simply found ignoring Jesus to be a more morally compelling than obeying him. If the only way to resist evil is with violence, then by golly, we’re going for the violence! Wink takes the words of Jesus seriously enough to want to obey them. However, he draws the same conclusion that most Christians have for most of the past 2000 years: That passively capitulating to evil is unacceptable.

Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, argued that the moral teaching of Jesus was an “impossible ideal,” which Christians were unable to attain (101). Thus it stood in judgement against us at the same time it compelled us to moral action. For Niebuhr, that ultimately meant that violence was an acceptable option for Christians. For Wink, Jesus was not offering an “impossible ideal” but a practical way for those pushed to the margins by the abusive corruption of the Powers and Principalities to creatively respond to and resist (antistēnai) their oppression, but to do so without violence.

In the end, I don’t think that Carnahan and I disagree on much. He concludes his essay by stating that “I have more sympathy for Wink’s MUST if it is read as emerging from moral concern.” But this is exactly how I think it needs to be read. It’s clear from Wink’s own account of how he came to his interpretation of the text that it was a moral concern that motivated it. How can Christians respond to the evil of repressive regimes? Is Jesus calling his followers to creatively engage in the moral struggles of the world, or to stand apart? With notable exceptions, Wink stands with the vast majority of theologians who have believed that the Christian call is precisely to exercise moral responsibility in the world. For Wink, though, the question is how it might be possible to do so while taking seriously the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

However, Carnahan and I disagree with respect to the exegetical question. Wink’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount emerges from his prior exegesis on the subject of the Powers and Principalities. Only through an understanding of the way in which the fallen spiritual dimension of the Powers impinges on our earthly conception of power can we develop resources consistent with Christian moral imperatives to resist the malignant effects of their corruption. If the alternative to such a reimagining of the tradition around this teaching is either passive acceptance of evil or violent resistance to it, then a moral reappraisal of the dominant interpretation is not only warranted, but essential for the creation of a Christian social ethic that is relevant and responsive to the moral problems of the contemporary world.

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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