Redeeming the Powers, One Grant at a Time

The late biblical scholar, theologian and peace activist Walter Wink, long-time Professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, is probably best known for his work retrieving New Testament language concerning "principalities and powers" and retooling it for contemporary socio-political critique and practical engagement. The concluding book of Wink's "Powers" trilogy, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), is a tour-de-force.

In the preface, Wink writes this about the project:

This volume was brought to completion during 1989-1990, when I was honored to be selected as a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Institute, nor has the Institute attempted in any way to censor anything in this book. It is important for an organization like USIP to be able to support, among other things, serious religious scholarship in a number of traditions that bears on peacemaking.

Embarrassed though I am to admit it, when I ran across this passage again recently, I didn't really know anything about USIP, so I checked out the Institute's website. The USIP, I learned, "is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress to increase the nation's capacity to manage international conflict without violence." It's mission: "To prevent, mitigate and resolve violent conflicts around the world by engaging directly in conflict zones and providing analysis, education and resources to those working for peace." The Institute was founded by a Congressional Act in 1984 with a mandate to "serve the American people and the federal government through the widest possible range of education and training, basic and applied research opportunities, and peace information services on the means to promote international peace and the resolution of conflicts among the nations and peoples of the world without recourse to violence." Though the act establishing the institute was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the impetus for the project began a decade earlier, during the Carter administration.

Wink was an untiring advocate for nonviolent resistance to what he called "Domination System," the interlocking network of corporations, institutions and ideologies responsible for the myriad oppressions afflicting human beings and the natural world. He argued that this nonviolent stance went "beyond" certain traditional understandings of Christian pacifism that urged true believers to disengage and isolate themselves from the fallen institutions in the civic realm. Nonviolent resistance, as Wink saw it, was fully active, engaged and militant in its confrontation with the fallen-yet-redeemable principalities and powers. "The church is called to nonviolence not in order to preserve its purity, but to express its fidelity," he writes (p. 217).

According to Wink, the church's vocation to nonviolent resistance goes back to the kerygmatic and apostolic roots of its existence. "The church has a vocation for nonviolence," he writes. "That vocation is grounded in the teaching of Jesus, the nature of God, the ethos of the kingdom, and the power of the resurrection" (p. 217). I don't have the space here to examine these claims, but they do give a sense of Wink's passionate commitment to peacemaking in his writing, teaching and activism.

In very prescient terms about Middle East conflict that are as relevant today as two decades ago, Wink offers this reflection on the first Persian Gulf war:

The astonishing success of the Allied forces in the Persian Gulf may have set back the use of international sanctions under U.N. supervision for years. Why use painstaking diplomacy and time-consuming sanctions when we can get quick results with another photogenic, prime-time war? (p. 216)

(I was a freshman in college in January 1991, when I stared in rapt amazement at the "surgical strikes" from Allied war planes bombing Baghdad. I was 19 back then, and the way some in the government and media were talking, I was pondering whether we might see a reinstitution of the draft.)

Burning oil fields in Kuwait, March 1991, by JO1 Gawlowicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

"We can easily kill oppressive rulers, but doing so makes us killers," he writes (ibid.) I wish someone had printed that statement in banner form and plastered it in the briefing rooms for the Pentagon and the West Wing of the White House for the edification of the subsequent Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

So there you have it. A biblical scholar and activist uses taxpayers' money, with the backing of Ronald Reagan and the Congress, to help articulate a constructive Christian theology of nonviolent resistance. Now that's what I call beating swords into plowshares. So much the pity that, having funded this valuable research, the powers that be don't seem to have paid much attention to it afterward.


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