Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Remembering Walter Wink (1935-2012)


The gospel is not a message of personal salvation from the world, but a message of a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures. Redemption means actually being liberated from the oppression of the Powers, being forgiven for one’s own sin and for complicity with the Powers, and being engaged in liberating the Powers themselves from their bondage to idolatry.
Walter Wink, Engaging The Powers (1992)

...for God's sake, let's be done with the hypocrisy of claiming "I am a biblical literalist" when everyone is a selective literalist, especially those who swear by the antihomosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus and then feast on barbecued ribs and delight in Monday-night football, for it is toevali, an abomination, not only to eat pork but merely to touch the skin of a dead pig.
Walter Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches (1999)

I just found out yesterday that biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink died last month. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2006 which is ironic since so many "mainstream" and "orthodox" Christian leaders had been accusing him of theological dementia for decades.

I discovered Wink while I was in Nancey Murphy's class at Fuller Seminary. She praised Wink's work on the "principalities and powers" ("For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."--Eph 6:12) language in the letters of Paul which have been perceived as angels and demons since Medieval times. Paul, according to Wink and other theologians like Murphy's late husband James McClendon, was actually referring to the structures and systems that form the foundation of our culture: the family, the government, the economy, the military, religious institutions, corporate America, etc. God created these to organize our world (without them there would be chaos), but they (like each person) have fallen and are in need of redemption.

Wink's trilogy on the powers--Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992)--expose the "myth of redemptive violence" that has saturated our society. The powers con us all into thinking that only violent solutions will solve our problems. But the gospel compels us that the world needs reconciliation, not revenge. The Christian, like Jesus of Nazareth, is called to name, unmask and engage the powers nonviolently in order to redeem them. Our discipleship, then, is not about becoming a passive doormat, but must be shaped by a "militant nonviolence" that confronts unjust power structures, calling them to their God-ordained function.

Wink fused his liberal Methodist upbringing with the passionate Pentecostalism that he embraced in his early adult life. He brought politics and prayer together in a hopeful and biblically compelling fashion:

…history belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is as true of communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians. The future belongs to whoever can envision in the manifold of its potentials a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.

Wink's other great contribution to my own spiritual journey is in the arena of sexual convictions. Wink had a piece published in the Christian Century in 1979 that second-guessed the traditional understanding of what a Christian stance on homosexuality might be. Wink, like any faithful and honest theologian, weaved together logic, science & experience with his biblical scholarship. Wink largely exposes the fallacy of biblical literalism--no one actually follows the entire Bible to the letter. Even the most devout and "biblical" Christian completely renders null and void clear commands on nudity (Lev 18:6-19), the menstral cycle (Lev 15:18-24) and polygamy (Mt 22:23-33).

On this vital issue, Wink was way ahead of his time. After all, he was advocating for gays and lesbians in a society that was about to overwhelmingly vote Ronald Reagan into office. But then again, God's prophets have always been perceived as a demented lot. I thank God for the gift of Walter Wink. May we take seriously the powers that consistently move beyond their God-given destiny to enslave us instead of serve us. May we embrace the militant nonviolence of Jesus and echo daily the words of Walter Wink:

God, help me to refuse ever to accept evil; by your Spirit empower me to work for change precisely where and how you call me; and free me from thinking I have to do everything.

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