Walter Wink and War and Peace

            In exploring the ethical dimensions of war and peace, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink offers an approach that provides a helpful “grammar” for understanding the complexity and opacity of human violence. As an alternative to the Ancient Worldview (in which all things in earth are mirrored in heaven), the Spiritualist Worldview (in which earth is a cosmic error), the Materialist Worldview (in which heaven does not exist), and the Theological Worldview (which compartmentalizes religion and science), Wink suggests an Integral Worldview, which he describes as pan-entheistic, where “everything is in God and God in everything.”[1] In this worldview, Wink sees an invisible dimension not apart from physical reality and human society but embedded within the material and social world. He calls this invisible reality the domain of the Powers, which Scripture describes using the imagery of angels and demons. Wink distances himself from evangelicals and charismatics who often see these forces as creatures flying around the world. For Wink, however, these “angels and demons” are the spirits or spiritualities of corporations (General Motors), organizations (Greenpeace), states (California), regimes, churches and even families. These Powers are good, but fallen and therefore, in need of redemption. Whenever these Powers seek their own will and advancement over and above the general welfare, they fall prey to their own demonic sway. These self-seeking Powers then culminate to create a Domination System that oppresses, marginalizes and scapegoats all those who might threaten their Power. The fuel that empowers this Domination System is the intoxicating Myth of Redemptive Violence, which upholds violence as the great panacea.

Wink locates the Christian answer to the Domination System and its Myth of Redemptive Violence in the teachings of Jesus and the non-violent Reign of God, which Jesus announced and embodied. Wink reads the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount as a call to creative non-violent resistance, where “turning the other cheek” and “going the second mile,” when seen in the historical context, become divine judo moves against the Domination System. [2]

Wink on War and Peace

            With this understanding, Walter Wink stands in opposition to all violence and therefore, all war. In Chapter 7 of The Powers That Be, he critiques the Just-War theory, poking holes in its logic so that the theory deflates, especially when we realize how many millions of innocent civilians are killed in war, regardless of any attempt to “give noncombatants immunity.” In fact, Wink sees Just-War theory as a Christian appropriation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. At the same time, Wink does not encourage pacifism if that means cowardice and docile submission to the Domination System. More than once, Wink affirms a quote from Gandhi, which many would be surprised to hear: “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I [Gandhi] would advise violence.”[3] Wink argues for a “Third Way” that stands in opposition to all violence with the same courage of a soldier at war, willing to sacrifice her or his life on the battlefield. In the same “line of duty” as the Reign of God and the Satyagraha (“the force of truth”), Wink’s “Third Way” taps into the divine power, which topples the Domination System and exposes the Myth of Redemptive Violence.[4]

Wink also offers profound psychological insight into the roots of human violence and war in describing the human tendency to project one’s own imperfections (and “shadows”) onto others, where they can be violently expunged. Wink invites us to see our enemy as a gift in whom we can begin to perceive and compassionately accept the parts of ourselves that we seek to reject and violently destroy. Although Jesus appears to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (which would encourage a perfectionist to destroy all imperfections within and without), Wink explains the meaning that is lost in translation, which Luke captures more accurately when he records Jesus saying, “Be merciful, just as your Divine Parent is merciful.”[5]

Critique of Wink

            Walter Wink also acknowledges the sociological sources of war and violence in his exploration of René Girard’s mimetic theory and scapegoat mechanism. According to Girard, violence emerges from mimetic rivalry (when two people or two groups of people desire something that cannot readily be shared); however, the violence can be placated if two parties agree on a common scapegoat upon whom they can heap all of their anger and vitriol. Girard sees this scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacred violence, which is practiced in the sacrificial rites of various civilizations, including the ancient Israelites. Girard also sees mimetic rivalry as the root of war and the scapegoat mechanism as the source of temporary peace (at the expense of the lives of innocent scapegoats). The New Testament, according to Girard, exposes and revokes the violent scapegoat mechanism by highlighting the victim of the mechanism as Jesus, who is divine. Jesus’ victimhood to the scapegoat mechanism reveals the truth that God is always on the side of the victim of the universal scapegoat mechanism, just as the Reign of God is always opposed to the Domination System. Wink affirms this reading of the Cross and rejects the theory (presented in the Epistle to the Hebrews) that Jesus “was sent by God to be the last scapegoat and to reconcile us, once and for all, to God.”[6] Wink also rejects Paul’s “notion that God caused Jesus to be a final ‘sacrifice of atonement by his blood.’”[7] The problem with Wink’s rejection of the sacrificial system ordered and ordained by God in the Torah is the potential danger of not only Christian supersessionism but the more far lethal poison of Christian anti-Semitism. Although Wink certainly condemns any form of oppression or marginalization, his portrayal of the Hebrew God as a bloodthirsty deity to be rejected by the more enlightened and loving Christians can very easily feed into noxious Christian understandings of Judaism, a faith tradition which still upholds the very Torah that orders blood sacrifice. With its long and horrifying history of violence against Jews, the Church needs to be extra careful when reading and interpreting the G-d portrayed in the Torah (and in the New Testament) so as not to make Jews appear to be bloodthirsty murderers of Christ, thus perpetuating latent anti-Semitic tendencies.

Finally, Wink explains that the spiritual renaissance of American culture will need to focus on “the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds.”[8] Although I agree in many ways with Wink, this understanding helps me see why he fails to mention the power of the resurrection (the word “resurrection” is not in the index), which is a reality deeply connected to “the Christ of the creeds.”  I find this particularly disappointing especially because I experience the resurrection as the ultimate sign of divine forgiveness and non-violent resistance to human war and violence. In the resurrection, Christ receives the violence of the world and the violence within my own heart. Christ then resists our violence by loving and forgiving us even in the process of crucifying him (Luke 23:34), not to condone the violence but to transform us. And even after killing him, Christ returns in the power of Satyagraha and the Reign of God to say, “Even though you killed me, I still forgive you and I still love you. Will you join me?”


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 20.

[2] “Divine judo move” is a term borrowed from Heim, S. Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 314.

[3] Wink, 118.

[4] “David Dellinger observes,” according to Wink, “that the theory and practice of active nonviolence are roughly at the stages of development that electricity was in the early days of Marconi and Edison.” Wink, 112.

[5] Wink, 167.

[6] Ibid, 87.

[7] Ibid, 88.

[8] Ibid, 161.

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