Walter Wink: 1935-2012

May 10, 2013Matt Dowling

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For those who appreciate unique and prophetic voices within the Christian Tradition (many of which appear in the pages of Jesus Radicals), we are compelled in the month of May to pause and mark the first anniversary of the death of a significant voice within the world of biblical studies and New Testament interpretation: Walter Wink.

Wink, who died on May 10, 2012 and was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, and an important and highly creative New Testament interpreter. His work on the biblical ‘principalities and powers,’ progressive interpretations of the bible and homosexuality, Jungian analysis and biblical study, and advocacy for ‘militant nonviolence,’ means his death leaves a marked gap in socially progressive Christianity and interpretation of the bible.

Wink is perhaps best known for his ‘Powers’ trilogy: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Together, these book’s influence continues to be felt not only in theological circles, but also in the world of peace activists whose work confronts “the myth of redemptive violence”—a term he coined to describe the widely held belief that violence can “save.”

Wink’s writings helped reveal how widely persistent this mythology truly is, exposing its pervasiveness in the narratives of literature, contemporary film, and even children’s cartoons. For example, think of the eternal conflict between Popeye and Bluto, whose narrative resolution involves the anabolic properties of spinach and pummeling of the antagonist Bluto by Popeye in each and every episode. Wink contends we are all trained to think of this solely violent archetype for conflict resolution. ‘Resolution’ in the myth is synonymous with violence. And our imaginations are captured so completely by it that we rarely conceive of a conflict scenario that does not include responsive violence at the top of the list. If you doubt Wink’s “myth,” consider recent political dialogue on the attacks in Benghazi, or escalating tensions in Iran, or any other potentially foe-laden narrative that problematizes our world, and then listen to ‘proffered ‘solutions’ to these problems. Wink called it the “real myth” of the modern world, suggesting that culture is moved more by the myth of redemptive violence than any of the other dominant religious beliefs in America today: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

His analysis of the “Powers”—the psycho-socio-political structures that seem to govern history—was an important exposé on the ways in which the world systematizes violence and oppression. Nothing escaped Wink’s power analysis—even the church was indicted by it for its perpetuation of patriarchy and violence against women. His experience of the Powers was more than mere academic armchair quarterbacking too. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, serving on the steering committee for the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam from 1967 to 1976. In 1982, Wink and his wife moved to Chile in order to experience the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  It was during this time that Wink became convinced that nonviolence, what later became known as his “third way,” was the only way to overcome the domination systems of the ‘Powers.’ His ongoing work on the Powers took him to places like South Africa, Northern Ireland, Palestine, and East and West Germany, among others. He often taught churches inventive ways to nonviolently deal with the principalities and powers in their own contexts.

Wink was a powerful proponent for Jesus’ third way of dealing with the enemy—neither fight nor flight—but rather active nonviolent resistance. He elevated ‘nonviolence’ beyond its under-appreciated status as passivity or non-resistance. For Wink, nonviolence was active and even more labor-intensive than inflicting violence. In an obituary in Sojourners, one of his former students recalled Wink as an “engaged scholar, connecting the academy with the risk of the streets.” This is perhaps indicative of what will be Wink’s most lasting influence: the utility of his theology for missional praxis and social justice where it matters most—in the world.

In his most powerful moments, Wink conceived of ‘injustice’ as monumental systems that could be resisted. Above all else, he illuminated the power of nonviolent resistance and offered imaginative portraits of its ability to transform not only the disciple, but also the systems in which they exist and labor for change. Perhaps in an anthropological parallel to his work on Jesus, the “Son of Man”—which Wink contended pictured Jesus as an archetype for “true humanity”—Wink became an archetype for scholarly engagement with justice and compassion issues in the world. In this way, he provides a way forward as the truest of Jesus radicals—one who goes to the root of the matter and allows Jesus’ transformative embodiment its most precise ethical voice and practice.


Wink’s voice will be sorely missed.

  • mountainguy

    Thanks for this post, Matt. I had heard about Wink (I’ve been attending mennonite churches for about 3 years, mostly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but also in Colombia), and your article makes it easier to know more about him and his work. Greetings

    Ps: Are you still working in evolutionary biology? Just out of curiosity, because I don’t find many biologists in christian circles, not even in the most progressive ones (I am a biologist, but more specialized in ecology).

  • maxpercy

    Memory eternal!

  • irreverance

    The man’s writings have had a huge influence on me, for which I am thankful. Good article.

  • Bill

    Thanks for this. I was thrilled to actually see him the year before he died. How awesome it would have been to study under him.

  • Gavin

    Thank you for the memorial. Wink’s The Powers that Be put to words an interpretation that I believed but rarely saw written down. We would all be wise to consider and heed the life conclusions he came to.

    • paul munn

      Except, I think, the big conclusion about “redeeming” the Powers. That part seemed like a tragic capitulation to me, undercutting most of his earlier valid critiques. Believing the Powers can be redeemed ultimately keeps us enslaved to them, working for them and continuing to prop them up, believing that an idol can be turned and used for good.

      Jesus simply denounced and rejected the Powers, in word and action, didn’t he?

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