Walter Wink: The Powers that Be

Extracts from Walter Wink:  The Powers That Be- Theology for a New Millenium.  The second of our debates on "Religion in the Modern World", July 20th, 2017



Walter Wink (born May 21, 1935) was a biblical scholar, theologian, and activist in the United States.  He spent much of his career teaching at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and was well known for his advocacy of and work related to nonviolent resistance. His book The Powers that Be is a summary of his three-volume seminal work on "The Powers": Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992).

He is perhaps best known for coining the phrase "the myth of redemptive violence"- his claim that this is the real “religion” of the USA, not Christianity.  He saw this expressed in many ways in American culture, from children’s comics and films to cowboy stories and US foreign policy- the belief that when “evil” has taken over a situation or a society, good people (or a hero-figure who represents them) must use overwhelming force to defeat and drive it out.    Walter Wink died on May 10, 2012.

Among other books which deal with similar ideas are:

“Those Rebellious Powers” by Albert H van den Heuvel, published by the Friendship Press, New York, USA, in 1965

“Christ and the Powers” by Hendrik Berkhof, originally published in Dutch as “Christus en de Machten” by G F Callenbach N.V. of Nijkerk, Netherlands and translated into English by John Howard Yoder, published by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, USA and Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in 1962 and 1977.


From the Introduction

All of us deal with the Powers That Be.  They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families.  But 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 relationships.  These Powers surround us on every side.  They are necessary.  They are useful.  We could do nothing without them.  Who wants to do without timely mail delivery or well-maintained roads?

But the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.  A corporation routinely dumps known carcinogens into a river that is the source of drinking water for towns downstream.  Another industry attempts to hook children into addiction to cigarettes despite evidence that a third of them will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses.  A dictator wages war against his own citizens in order to maintain his grasp on power.  A contractor pays off a building inspector so he can violate code and put up a shoddy and possibly unsafe structure.  A power plant exposes its employees to radioactive poisoning; the employee who attempts to document these safety infractions is forced off the road by another car and dies.  All her documents are missing.

Welcome to the world of the Powers.

But the Powers aren’t always that brutal.  Some people enjoy their jobs.  Some products are life-enhancing, even lifesaving.  The Powers don’t simply do evil.  They also do good.  Often they do both good and evil at the same time.  They form a complex web that we can neither ignore nor escape.

One legacy of the rampant individualism in our society is the tendency to react personally to the pain caused by institutions.  People blame themselves when they get downsized.  Or they blame the executive officers for their insensitivity.  But to a high degree, corporate decisions are dictated by larger economic forces-  invisible forces that determine the choices of those who set policy and fire workers.

So the Powers That Be are not merely the people in power or the institutions they staff.  Managers are, in fact, more or less interchangeable.  A great many of their decisions are made for them by the logic of the market, the pressures of competition, and/or the cost of workers.  Executives can be more humane.  But a company owner who decides to raise salaries and benefits will soon face challenges from competitors who pay less.  Greater forces are at work that shape the present and dictate the future.

Religious tradition has often treated the Powers as angelic or demonic beings fluttering about in the sky.  Behind the gross literalism of that way of thinking, however, is the clear perception that spiritual forces impinge on and determine our lives.  There is more to what goes on in the world than what newspapers or newscasters report.  Our ancestors were in touch with reality when they spoke about the Powers, and they might even know something our society ha[s] lost, spiritually blinded as it is by a materialism that believes only in what it can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch.

Unjust systems perpetuate themselves by means of institutionalised violence.  For example, racial segregation in the southeastern United States was supported by Jim Crow laws, state and local police, the court and penal systems, and extralegal acts of terrorism-  all sustained, passively or actively, by the vast majority of white citizens.  Blacks who “stepped out of line” were savagely exterminated.  Against such monolithic Powers it was and is tempting to use violence in response.  But we have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those whom they oppose.  How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil-  and becoming evil ourselves?


From Chapter One: Identifying the Powers

Understanding worldviews is a key to breaking free from the ways the Powers control people’s minds.  Yet there is remarkably little discussion of worldviews.  The Germans had the word Weltanschauung (“view of the world”), but that referred more to one’s personal philosophy of life.  A worldview, by contrast, dictates the way whole societies see the world.  As I am using the word, worldviews are not philosophies, theologies, or even myths or tales about the origin of things.  They are the bare-bones structures with which we think.  They are the foundation of the house of our minds on which we erect symbols, myths and systems of thought.  Through the lens of our worldview we make sense of our experience.  Worldviews determine what we are allowed to believe about the world.

The writers of the Bible had names that helped them identify the spiritual realities that they encountered.  They spoke of angels, demons, principalities and powers, Satan, gods, and the elements of the universe.  Materialism had no use for such things and so dismissed them.  [It] could hardly make room in the universe for God; these spiritual powers were an extravagance that worldview could scarcely afford.  The world had been swept clean of these “superstitions”, and people could sleep better at night knowing that they were safe from spirits.

Some first-century Jews and Christians perceived in the Roman Empire a demonic spirituality which they called Satan (the “Dragon” of Revelation 12).  But they encountered this spirit in the actual institutional forms of Roman life:  legions, governors, crucifixions, payment of tribute, Roman sacred emblems and standards, and so forth (the “beast” of Revelation 13).  In the ancient worldview, where earthly and heavenly reality were inextricably united, this view of the Powers worked effectively.  But for many modern Westerners it is impossible to maintain that worldview.

For the present, I have set aside the question of the actual status of these Powers, and instead have attempted to describe what it was that people in ancient times were experiencing when they spoke of “Satan”, “demons”, “powers”, “angels”, and the like.  Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the “corporate personality” or ethos of an institution or epoch, having no independent existence apart from their incarnation in a system?  That is for the reader to decide.

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.  The apostle Paul called this the gift of discerning spirits.  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.  But this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals.  A group is needed-  what the New Testament calls an ekklesia (assembly)-  one that exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation.  That was to be the task of the church, “so that through the church (ekklesia) the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [“principalities and powers”] in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:10).  And the church must perform this task despite its being as fallen and idolatrous as any other institution in society.

The biblical understanding is that no institution exists as an end in itself, but only to serve the common good.  The principalities and powers themselves are created in and through and for Christ, according to Colossians 1:16, which means that they exist only on behalf of the humanizing purposes of God revealed by Jesus.

Many business and corporation executives ignore God’s humanizing purposes, and speak rather of profit as the “bottom line”.  But this is a capitalist heresy.  According to the eighteenth century philosopher of capitalism Adam Smith, businesses exist to serve the general welfare.  Profit is the means, not the end.  It is the reward a business receives for serving the general welfare.  When a business fails to serve the general welfare, Smith insisted, it forfeits its right to exist.  It is part of the church’s task to remind corporations and businesses that profit is not the “bottom line”, that as creatures of God they have as their divine vocation the achievement of human well being (Ephesians 3:10).  They do not exist for themselves.

It is hard not to wonder if such massive institutions can really be transformed.  If evil is so profoundly systemic, what chance do we have of bringing them into line with God’s purposes for them?  The answer to that question hinges on how we conceive of institutional evil.  Are the Powers intrinsically evil?  Or are they scattered along the spectrum from good to evil?  The answer seems to be: none of the above.  Rather, they are at once good and evil, though to varying degrees, and they are capable of improvement.

Put in stark simplicity: The Powers are good.   The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.

This theological framework is of utmost importance for understanding the nature of the Powers.  They are good by virtue of their creation to serve the humanizing purposes of God.  They are fallen, without exception, because they put their own interests above the interests of the whole.  And they can be redeemed, because what fell in time can be redeemed in time.

And that means that every subsystem in the world is, in principle, redeemable.  Nothing is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God.  The Powers are not intrinsically evil; they are only fallen.  Fallen refers to the fact that our existence is not our essence:  we are, none of us, what we are meant to be.  We are alienated from God, each other, nature, and our own souls, and cannot find the way back by ourselves.  But the situation is not without hope, for what sinks can be made to rise again.

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 time 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 honouring their necessity.

Some institutions and ideologies such as Nazism or sexism can be transformed only by being abandoned or destroyed and replaced by forms of governance or gender relations that are more true to God’s intent.  But the necessary social function they have idolatrously perverted will still abide.  Germany still needed government; men and women still need ways to relate.  The task of redemption is not restricted to changing individuals, then, but also to changing their fallen institutions.

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 setting about liberating the Powers themselves from their bondage to idolatry.  The good news is nothing less than a cosmic salvation, a restitution of all things (Acts 3:21), when God will “gather up all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:10)


In Chapters 2 to 10 of “The Powers That Be” Wink develops this thinking in more detail, describing what he calls the “Domination System”, the origins of which he traces back to the ‘religion’ of Ancient Babylon.  Creation is there understood as an act of violence, in contrast to the account in Genesis.  From those beginnings, Wink argues, force and domination have become intrinsic to all human societies, and can never be overcome by violent means, but only through the non-violent resistance taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.


From Chapter 10:  Prayer and the Powers

Every dynamic new force for change is undergirded by rigorous disciplines.  Those who are the bearers of tomorrow’s transformation undergo what others might call disciplines, but not to punish themselves or to ingratiate themselves to God.  They simply do what is necessary to stay spiritually alive, just as they eat food and drink water to stay physically alive.  One of these disciplines, perhaps the most important discipline of all, is prayer.

Those who pray do not do so merely because they believe certain intellectual propositions about prayer’s value, but because the struggle to be human in the face of suprahuman Powers requires it.  The act of praying is itself one of the indispensible means by which we engage the Powers.  It is, in fact, that engagement at its most fundamental level, where their secret spell over us is broken, and we are re-established in a bit more of the freedom that is our birthright and potential.

Prayer may or may not involve regular regimens, may or may not be sacramental, may or may not be contemplative, may or may not take traditional religious forms.  It is in any case not a religious practice externally imposed but an existential struggle against the “impossible”, against an antihuman collective atmosphere, against images of worth and value that stunt and wither full human life.  Prayer is the field hospital in which the spiritual diseases that we have contracted from the Powers can be diagnosed and treated.

Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is in the name of what God has promised.  Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces.  Prayer infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present.  The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes on as inevitable.  This is the politics of hope.  Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs.  The future is not closed.

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.  If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action.  By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.  Prayer is not just a two-way transaction.  It also involves the great socio-spiritual forces that preside over much of reality.  I mean the massive institutions, social structures, and systems that dominate our world today, and the spirituality at their centre.

What does this say, then, about the omnipotence of God?  About God’s ability to redeem?  God’s sovereignty over history?  The principalities and powers are able to assert their will against the will of God, and for a time prevail.  We have long accepted that God is limited by our freedom.  The new insight is that God is limited by the freedom of institutions and systems as well.

In short, prayer involves not just God and people, but God and people and Powers.  What God is able to do in this world is hindered to a considerable extent by the rebelliousness, resistance, and self-interest of the Powers exercising their freedom under God.  When people not only submit to evil but actively affirm it, malignant powers are unleashed.  The ‘angel’ of Germany was being worshipped as an idol and acclaimed the supreme being.  God, elbowed out of heaven, was out prowling every street in all hours, and could find few to help.  In such a time, God may appear to be impotent.

Recognition of the role of the powers in blocking prayer can revolutionize the way we pray.  We will be more energized and aggressive.  We will honour God by venting the full range of our feelings, from frustration to outrage to joy and everything in between.  We will recognize that God, too, is hemmed in by forces that cannot simply be overruled.  We will know that God will prevail, but not necessarily in a way that is comprehensible except through the cross.

Prayer in the face of the Powers is a spiritual war of attrition.  When we fail to pray, God’s hands are effectively tied.  That underlines the urgency of our paying.  Prayer that ignores the Powers ends by blaming God for evils committed by the Powers.  But prayer that acknowledges the Powers becomes an indispensible aspect of social action.  We must discern not only the outer, political manifestations of the Powers, but also their inner spirituality, and lift the Powers, inner and outer, to God for transformation.  Otherwise we change the shell and leave the spirit intact.

From chapter 11: Epilogue

This is the goal:  not only to become free from the Powers, but to free the Powers.  Jesus came not just to reconcile people to God despite the Powers, but to reconcile the Powers themselves to God (Colossians 1:20).  We seek to break not only the idolatrous spells cast over people by the Powers, but to break the ability of the Powers to cast idolatrous spells.  “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).  We need to escape idolatry, not this planet.  We do not seek to rid ourselves of subsystems and structures in order to secure an individualistic paradise on earth or an afterlife in heaven.  We seek, rather, to relate these systems to the One in and through and for whom they exist, and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:16 and 17).

The passion that drove the early Christians to evangelistic zeal was not fuelled just by the desire to increase church membership or to usher people safely into a compensatory heaven after death.  Their passion was fired above all by relief at being liberated from the delusions being spun over them by the Powers.  Being thus freed determined them to set others free.  In the final analysis, the gospel is not a message of escape to another world, but of rescue from the enticements of “this world”, and its ultimate transformation.  Eternal life is not something reserved for the future in another reality, but begins now, the moment we become alive to God and God’s revealer (John 17:3).

Walter Wink's "The Powers that Be" was published by Doubleday, New York, in 1998


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