Review and Response to “The Powers that be” by Walter Wink

I had been looking forward to reading this book for some time now. I’ve read Wink’s essay on the Myth of Redemptive Violence and wanted to read more of his writings. This book did not disappoint.

“The Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and reslationships.” (pg. 1). And with that main summary, we were off.

Wink’s my argument is that the Powers that Be are spiritual “forces” that we encounter. Think of it as a type of spirit. In Wink’s explanation, he uses the Book of Revelation and talks about John’s introduction of the letter. It is written to seven congregations, but really it is written to the “congregation’s angel.” (Pg. 3). “The congregation was not addressed directly but through the angel. The angel seems to be the corporate personality of the church, its ethos or spirit or essence.” (Pg. 3).

I think this has relevance today still. There are many “spirits” at work in the world in this same sense.

Wink’s argument then conflicts with the popular notion that there is only the material world. For Wink, there is both a physical and spiritual aspect. How else can we describe the non-material aspects of organizations and systems?

This is the set up for the remainder of Wink’s book and leads us to the core – how do we deal with these powers? Wink argues for non-violence. This is not a passive subjugated stance. It is about being in opposition to domination through justice and peace.

Wink spends time identifying the powers and uses a variety of worldview to talk about how that happens. Worldviews are important because they either restrict or open us to seeing perspectives. For Wink, so much of this leads to whether we are willing to identify the Domination Systems that exist in the world.

“As the soul of systems, the Powers in their spiritual aspect are everywhere around us. Their presence is inescapable. The issue is not whether we ‘believe’ in them but whether we can learn to identify them in our actual everyday encounters…When a particular Power becomes idolatrous – that is, when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good – then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world.” (Pg. 29).

It found this perspective to be helpful in facing the powers that be around us. Wink’s argument is that the Powers are created, they are fallen, and they can be redeemed. That is hopeful.

“By acknowledging that the Powers are good, bad, and salvageable – all at once – we are freed from the temptation to demonize those who do evil. We can love our enemies or nation or church or school, not blindly, but critically, calling them back time and again to their own highest self-professed ideals and identities. We can challenge institutions to live up to the vocation that is theirs from the moment they were created. We can oppose their actions while honoring their necessity.” (Pg. 34).

From here Wink talks about the Domination system which is based on conquering, control, power, and violence. It is the essence of unjust. And it is the Domination System that we encounter the Myth of Redemptive Violence with is a belief that “violence ‘saves'” and that it is inevitable. (pg. 42). “In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo.” (Pg. 48).

Wink goes on to talk about how this shows up in modern states – through militarism. While the book was published in 1998, this idea still holds true today. The enemies might be different, but the means are the same.

Wink proceeds to then offer Jesus’ answer to Domination – equity and non-violence. In a word, the answer to domination is Shalom. Shalom is wholeness, completeness, and peace.

Wink continues by talking about how violence is broken. Wink looks to the cross for this. It is the irony of the crucifixion that defeats violence. Crucifixion was the ultimate form of violence and humiliation. “The Powers scourged [Jesus] with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy…They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended.” (Pg. 83)

He continues by talking about practical nonviolence. There are a series of principles that he goes on to talk about:

  1. The means must be consistent with the ends.
  2. Respect for the rule of law.

Both of these are vital for a couple of simple reasons – 1. it keeps focused on following Jesus and his way. And 2. it prevents us from becoming the very thing we are up against.

Towards the end of the book, Wink deals with the age old questions of “what if…?” These what if questions really come down to this – that “People trust violence. Violence ‘saves.'” (pg. 145). Or so we like to believe. It’s the idea that if all else fails, what do we turn to. More often than not, we will turn to violence and ignore the track record that violence has (that it rarely is reliable or produces good results that last).

Wink finishes up this book on the Powers with two important ideas. First, that our enemies are a gift. They allow us to see a broader truth, keep us humble, and force us to see beyond ourselves. That’s not to say that having enemies is easy – it isn’t. And second, prayer is essential in all of this. Pray is a way of moving forward. It is a way of participating in the unfolding of God’s reign. It is a way of dealing with the spiritual aspect of the Powers.

Overall, this is a great book for really thinking about the systems we face and how to approach them in a non-violent way – Jesus’ way.

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