Saturday, July 12, 2014

Walter Wink: A Life of Personal Inventory & Prophetic Imagination

...it is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.
Walter Wink, Just Jesus: My Struggle To Become Human (2014)

This summer has produced a couple of controversial Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church & state from 6 Catholics & 3 Jews. Of course, most folks don't believe that faith (or ethnicity or gender or life experience) has anything to do with the way justices rule on cases, especially when they rule in ways that are congruent with our own convictions. But, indeed, the unique nature of who they are affects the way they comprehend and rule on the cases that come before them, as Fordham University law professor Thane Rosenbaum adamantly proclaims:
Try as they might to claim judicial independence, justices are still the products of where they came from and who they were before going onto the bench. Why do you want robed robots? Why aren’t we more honest that you are where you come from? The robe doesn’t shield you from that consolidated history.
Indeed, convenient pleas of objectivity consistently cloak decisions of our highest court, but perhaps even more dubiously, it provides cover for the interpretation of our sacred texts, by pastors, theologians and biblical scholars alike. No matter how loud someone screams, "It's just what the Bible says!", how we live inevitably colors how we see the text. Powerful vested interests, deep fears, deep unresolved hurts, family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology all participate in the interpretive process. What we've lived through paints what becomes the Word of God, no matter how scientific or spiritual we claim our readings are.

The late Walter Wink, perhaps earlier and more humbly than any Christian leader in North America, addressed this sensitive & mostly overlooked state of affairs and this theme is the heartbeat of his final work, persevering to complete it in the final years of his struggle with dementia. The posthumously published Jesus Jesus: My Struggle To Become Human (2014) provides a rare, raw look into the psyche and struggles of this bible scholar and activist and the outcomes & implications of the interpretations that were harvested from his authentically human terrain.

Wink's Texas upbringing cultivated an obsession with perfection, straining to garner the approval of his father, who once sentenced him to a night in an outdoor "brig" when he was only nine-years-old. Eventually, life leads Wink to come to grips with his own repressed feelings (for eight years, he commits to carrying around a "feelings journal" to identify and document the pain welling up in inside him) and foibles, finding a God in Scripture, modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus, who yearns for all of us to become more HUMAN:
The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not--divine--but to become what we truly are--human. We are not required to become divine: flawless, perfect, without blemish. We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from sin and compulsive behavior, becoming ourselves, scars and all. Is it not the case that the deepest reaches of our humanity are born of our wounds, even through our sins?
A vital biblical image, for Wink, is the phrase "the Son of Man," found almost exclusively in Ezekiel and in the synoptic Gospels. This, and not "Son of God," was Jesus' self-proclaimed title, shimmering the prophet Ezekiel who was also commanded to eradicate the theological lies and illusions, about both God & humanity, that caused Israel to steer off course. Winks uncovers an empowered humanity in the paralytic healing of Mark 2:
God transcendent is God immanent in the human being. Jesus does not contemplate a God outside the universe intervening to heal the paralytic, but as a power which can be evoked in the sick person himself: 'your faith has made you whole.' If through Jesus they had been put in touch with the human being within them, no wonder they had such collective self-confidence and indomitable courage. These lowly disciples of Jesus are authorized with a power that equals or exceeds that of the priesthood.
For Wink, the notion of God, and everything else there is, is actuated within an integral worldview. God is not solely contained in sacred books or buildings or the biographies of religious experts, but is everywhere and within everything. Everything interpenetrates everything else, as the early 20th century naturalist John Muir posited, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." Prayer, therefore, is not calling upon God on a throne, high in the heavens, but both visualization & invitation of how we might respond to the access of the Transcendent in and all around us:
Because we are already related, and we are one body in God, God's healing power is already there and here. Our prayer is simply a matter of opening the situation to God.
The decades that Wink poured into interpreting "the principalities and powers" of the New Testament focused on both the outer, physical manifestation and the inner spirituality of the institutions that order our world: from families to corporations to governments to faith communities. People often talk about a "darkness" they can tangibly feel when they experience a corporate culture or family ethos.

Some of Wink's most vibrant, and most popular, exegetical work stems from and fortifies his cred as a card-carrying "practitioner of active nonviolence." His early participation in the civil rights movement, traveling with other Union Theological Seminary students to visit the imprisoned Martin Luther King in Alabama in the 50s and returning for the dynamic & dangerous Selma march in '65, and his later work to abdicate apartheid in South Africa in the 80s, were informed by & influenced his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Wink was compelled that these teachings of Jesus were strategies for oppressed people to seize the moral initiative in the socio-political struggles of every era. He used historical research to buttress his prophetic imagination. On Jesus' controversial & most-often-misunderstood command to "turn the other cheek":
...what we are dealing with here is unmistakenly an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her 'place'...A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves, husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews...fighting back and retaliating would be suicide...The only normal response would be cowering in submission.
Wink worked all this out in biblical workshops and role-playing. Turning the cheek would give the oppressor two choices: (1) a close-fisted punch with the right hand (only equals exchanged blows) and (2) standing awkwardly with a thumb up their ass. This is nonviolence as a the ultimate weapon in the fight for justice. But for Wink, it was not necessarily about effective strategies for winning the fight. There was something deeper, more personal happening:
Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it.
In the decades to come, Wink will be given more credit for his exhaustive work on the nature of interpreting Scripture in order to be audaciously performed in both personal & public settings. His trenchant critique of "biblical objectivity" (in 1973) led to the denial of tenure at Union Seminary and his exegetical work on homosexuality (in 1979) was, no doubt, the source of wide-eyed disapproval from the status quo. But Wink pressed on, never one to let public opinion to put a damper on a day filled with scholarship and activism.

More than anything, in Just Jesus, Wink is a model for (mostly white) males (like me) in leadership who have been seductively been taught by a patriarchal culture to hide feelings, weaknesses and fears behind their achievements and credentials. Wink's unique authenticity takes steps towards what bell hooks pinpoints as a key aspect of the vocation of manhood in America: "to regain the space of openheartedness and emotional expressiveness" that the Powers (the church, the military, the marketplace, the entertainment media) have all but erased in men. Indeed, this book is a space for this kind of healing.

Just Jesus is an easy-to-read (most "chapters" are between 1-3 pages) primer on significant seasons of Wink's life, his controversial convictions and interpretations, his struggle with dementia and fear of dying, and most importantly, a biographical expose on just how much vulnerability has been vacant from the realm of expertise. Wink's greatest gift was (and is) his bold proclamation that the depth of his life affected the quality and outcome of his scholarship. When it comes to texts (whether newspaper articles or novels, travel logs or theological treatises), knowing the life of the interpreter makes a world of sense of the interpretations themselves. Like everything else, they don't just fall from heaven.
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A prayer of Walter Wink's from his trilogy on the The Powers--Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992)--exposing the "myth of redemptive violence" that has saturated our society:
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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