The Influence and Impact of Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers
Walter Wink was an American theologian, pastor, and activist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Ordained in the Methodist Church in 1961, he later became a Professor focussing on the New Testament and Biblical Interpretation. He taught at Union Theological Seminary and later Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. He died in 2012, leaving a profound legacy, most notably in a number of published books, leading workshops on nonviolence and contributing to the conversations surrounding sexuality and pacifism.
Wink was especially known for his work on power structures, culminating in a trilogy of works – 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. In these three books, Wink challenged the notion of conceptualising the Powers of the New Testament as an order of angelic and demonic beings in heaven or as simply institutions and systems. Rather he proposed that Paul’s framework of Powers as presented in Ephesians 6:12 was concerned with structural, social, political and state Powers. In Engaging the Powers, Wink writes:
In the biblical view they are both visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional. The Powers possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, portfolios, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, or corporate culture, or collective personality. The Powers are the simultaneity of an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality. The Powers, properly speaking, are not just the spirituality of institutions, but their outer manifestations as well…what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called “Principalities and Powers” was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such. Institutions have an actual spiritual ethos…
Engaging the Powers celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2022. This work explored the question “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?” One of the evils that Wink explores in depth is what he has called the myth of redemptive violence. Violence, he contends, is “the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.” It is so much a part of contemporary life that it does not appear mythic at all. Rather, it is understood as the nature of things, as inevitable, and it appears to work. Wink sees its history from the creation myths of the ancient world, the history of war around the world, through to its use in children’s cartoons.
Wink does not, however, see this as the last word. He actually posits that the Powers are good, but they are fallen and, as such, must be redeemed. To this end, Engaging the Powers explores a number of ways of Biblically and Christianly honouring, criticising, resisting and redeeming the Powers. This includes exploring how God’s domination-free reign works, non-violent engagement, pacifism, loving enemies, prayer and celebrating God’s ultimate victory.
The impact and influence of Wink’s works, and especially Engaging the Powers, where he is exploring the practical aspects of resisting and redeeming the Powers in the world, cannot be underestimated.
Scottish activist and Quaker, Alistair McIntosh, writes in Engaging Walter Wink’s Powers – An Activist’s Testimony that one of the most important things that transformed him from teenage agnostic activist was encountering Wink’s works while at a Quaker and Iona Community event at Peace House led by Helen Steven. Wink’s work, she believed, “was of profound importance to activism, and especially nonviolent activism, because it took the understanding of power into realms deeper than she had ever previously encountered in theological writing.” Wink also offered a practical formula for activist application:
1) Name the Powers. . . finding the courage to break silence and simply state the abuse of power.
2) Unmask the Powers . . . revealing the social, economic, psychological, and spiritual dynamics by which they oppress.
3) Engage the Powers—wrestling so as not to destroy them—not to take life—but rather, to call them back to their higher, God-given calling.
This model has continued to be taught by Wink and others since the 1980’s as a life-affirming and proactive way of resisting the Powers in the world. McIntosh uses Engaging the Powers as a text for Spiritual Activism classes at Strathclyde University in Scotland. He also gives a number of practical examples where he utilised the model for successful outcomes including land reforms in Scotland, resisting environmentally damaging mining in Papua New Guinea and Scotland, explaining non-violence to military officers and exposing the destructive nature of cigarette advertising.
Teacher and advocate Ken Butigan sees Wink’s greatest contribution to activism as his work on reinterpreting Biblical texts used for teaching submission and complicity. By investigating passages about turning the other cheek, giving up one’s cloak, and going the extra mile, Wink offered 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.
Academic Ted Grimsrud writes that Wink’s continuing legacy is in his articulation of the inner and outer aspects of institutions, belief systems and traditions. Only by understanding both the spiritual and visible aspects can there be transformation:
In Wink’s view, we need such an integrated, inner-outer awareness in order to understand the world we live in and act effectively as agents for healing and transformation. “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure,” as he puts it in Engaging the Powers. What’s more, in Wink’s understanding all systems of power have the potential to be just or unjust, violent or nonviolent.
Psychotherapist Dr John Campbell writes that Wink continues to have relevancy even years after his death. The reason for this is that his biblically based theology addresses the systemic disease in the United States. When so much of the population there are wanting a better political structure, environmental reforms, a fair health care system and many other reforms, the United States seems stuck. Campbell believes that Wink’s insights into how Power structures work, offers the only way of understanding and countering the resistance to positive change.
Wink is not without his detractors. David Smith critiques Wink’s “Integral Worldview” as having been “granted normative status and allowed to determine what may count as truth and reality” while the Ancient, Spiritualistic, Materialistic and Theological worldviews are dismissed as no longer being relevant. In her paper Engaging the Powers of Nonviolence: A Critique of Walter Wink’s “Third Way” ordained elder and PhD Candidate Julie Todd critiques Wink’s exegesis of Matthew 5:38-42 as being problematic. The passage is focused on a local audience and is not focused on nonviolence or non-resistance as an overarching theme. She also suggests that other perspectives on violence, oppression, and context are marginalised:
Wink sets his ethic in the framework of the myth of redemptive violence but fails to offer contextual analysis of the structural violence, power, and privilege under which any nonviolent ethic historically operates. This decontextualization leads to an inappropriate universalizing of Christian-biblical norms for nonviolent action.
Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers continues to be one of the most influential and widely read books on a Christian understanding of nonviolence and Powers. As such, it deserves close reading and thoughtful critique.
Dr Katherine Grocott