How Walter Wink confronted violence

Walter Wink, via Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago I attended a talk by Walter Wink. Like a growing number of people who knew his work on nonviolence I was a fan, and told him so. He demurred, saying he was just a writer. “It’s the activists who are doing all the real work,” he said.

It was my turn to demure.

Walter Wink died this week. The world has lost a gifted diagnostician of the dilemmas and potential of the human condition. Though the terrain he mined for decades was Christian theology, his work offered insights potentially applicable to all of us. Why? Because his research and imagination relentlessly bore down on the mechanics of systemic violence and nonviolent transformation. While this was assiduously framed in a Christian key, his work offers clues broadly pertinent to understanding the cloying functionality of domination — and the ways we can resist it.

Wink’s universal insights, though, emerged out of his patient exhumation of the often suppressed nonviolence of Jesus. By training he was a scripture scholar whose work was to unpack and referee the conflicting meanings of ancient texts, but by inclination he was committed to discovering and teasing out a new big picture, especially an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of violence. For decades, he managed to put his considerable interpretive skills at the service of this alternative vision.

In his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Wink offers a series of incisive propositions. One, drawing from his studies as a theologian, is his judgment that violence is not episodic or capricious but the result of a violent belief system. Just as religious traditions are rooted in a set of beliefs, the phenomenon of violence flows from a belief in its power to save us. Wink said that the greatest religion on the planet is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism but the pervasive faith in violence.

The contemporary epidemic of violence stems from our acknowledged or unacknowledged belief that violence ultimately is just and necessary. Wink named this “the myth of redemptive violence.” This myth — in the sense of the foundational story by which we live — permeates our consciousness and our culture. Hence our age’s greatest temptation: to cling to a belief in the effectiveness and preeminence of violence, the conviction that it is “the bottom line,” that violence is the final answer.

For Wink, nonviolent resistance is a critically important process for challenging violence, but, even more deeply, it is an embodied practice that can help to free us from our faith in violence forged in the furnaces of fear, hate, greed, ambition, resignation and capitulation. Creating nonviolent alternatives is a spiritual practice and a way of being at the service of the transformation of our selves, our communities and our world.

For Wink, this vision did not come from abstract speculation. Instead, it flowed from his wrestling with the Christian Gospels. For two thousand years, these accounts of the life and work of Jesus have nourished the convictions of a handful of peace churches like the Bretheren, the Anabaptists and the Quakers, but the vast majority of the Christian tradition have, willfully or not, watered down or stifled the message of radical nonviolence. Like a series of 20th-century scholars — including Andre Trocme, John Howard Yoder, Howard Thurman, Roland Bainton, Ched Myers, and John Dominic Crossan — Wink was unsatisfied with the centuries-old take that had muffled the nonviolent Jesus and that had left much of Christianity colluding with systems of violence, including theological justifications of war. So he turned his exegetical skill on the Gospels to see what they would reveal.

He did this in many ways, but one of the most memorable — and likely far-reaching — was his interpretation of Jesus’ saying to “turn the other cheek” and other sayings in the Gospel of Matthew:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38-41, Revised Standard Version)

These exhortations has been used for 2,000 years to breed submission and complicity, especially since they were linked in the same passage to the admonition: “Do not resist an evildoer.” Wink began his research by wondering about this phrase. When he went back to the Greek text, he found that the original meaning was quite different. While the verb antistenai has been almost universally translated as “resist,” it is in fact a military term that means “resist violently or lethally.” Rather than encouraging passivity, Jesus was saying, “Don’t be a doormat. Resist violence, but not with retaliatory violence.”

Wink’s work on “turn the other cheek” helped sharpen his point. Jesus’ audience would likely have had firsthand experience with being degraded and treated as an inferior, including being cuffed with the backhand by a social superior, including the Roman soldiers occupying first century Palestine. The typical options in the face of this violence were cowering submission or violent retaliation, which likely would have been suicidal. To maintain one’s position and offer one’s left cheek creates in the cultural and political context of the time a dilemma for the oppressor. As Wink writes in The Powers That Be:

By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand: his nose is in the way… The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship … By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”

Wink makes a similar point about other sayings in this passage (giving up one’s cloak and going the extra mile): an active, courageous, and creative third way exists between passivity on the one hand and counter-violence on the other.

This alternative seizes the moral initiative, explores a creative alternative to violence, asserts the dignity and humanity of all parties, seeks to break the cycle of dehumanization and faces the consequences of one’s action.

Building on these are numerous other rigorous re-readings of the Gospels. Wink offered a revealing illumination of the origins of Christianity rooted in a vision of inclusion, even as this vision has been systematically distorted and devastated by the tradition over these two millennia. Nonviolent resistance, as the examples cited above stress, is key to actualizing vision.

Wink wrote from his theological perspective and has influenced many of us working for justice and peace from that stance. But there is much in his work that illuminates the dynamics of violence and nonviolent change far beyond his particular tradition. As we engage with monumental systems of injustice, Walter Wink’s work can offer us frames that can be adapted to many contexts and settings as we struggle on for the well-being of all.

Thank you, Walter, for illuminating the power of nonviolent change for us in these times of peril and opportunity.

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