The Common Good

Walter Wink: Remembrance and Reflection

Walter Wink preaching, from the Fellowship of Reconciliation archives.
Walter Wink preaching, from the Fellowship of Reconciliation archives.

Walter Wink, 76, a world-class biblical scholar and non-violent practitioner, crossed over to God on May 10 at his home in Western Massachusetts. Following a slow decline, he had been in hospice for several weeks in the company of his beloved June and their family. (See "Confronting the Powers," Sojourners December 2010)

As a first year seminarian in New York City, more than 35  years ago, I was fortunate to have Walter as my New Testament instructor. In a seminar session on the "pearl of great price" in Matthew, I have a vivid memory of him breaking the discussion so we could go round the circle and each reply to the question: "For what would you be willing to die?" I don't so much recall my own halting answer, as the depth of the question he understood was put to us by the text. It's since become my conviction that no one should escape seminary (or baptismal preparation for that matter) without facing with that query.

Which is to say he was himself an engaged scholar, connecting the academy with the risk of the streets. While filling his first teaching post at Union Seminary in New York he was simultaneously serving on the national steering committee of Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War in Vietnam (1967-76).

He was notorious for foundation-shaking works. When I met him, Walter was a rising star in the biblical guild, on the fast track at Union. Then he published a little polemical book called The Bible in Human Transformation (1973) which made bold to declare, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt." It assailed the myth of scientific objectivity, the disembodied approach which kept the text at arms length and pre-empted commitment. In many respects it anticipated the contextualizing hermeneutics of feminist and liberation readings, but it didn't win him friends in the academic guild.

It was what might be called a "bad career move." Tenure was not forthcoming. Circumstances marked him for scholarly unemployment. As often in such cases, this proved ironically providential. He was driven onto the road and into more direct contact with church folk. He became a mendicant scholar of biblical practice.

In that connection, another more popularly written book, Transforming Bible Study (1980), became his programmatic method commending an engaged form of communal scripture study -- not forsaking the tools of historical criticism, but drawing on depth psychology, social analysis, and an interrogatory style which ultimately permits the text to interpret and question us.

Through this same period he became himself engaged in a major biblical study project. Seeded by the work of William Stringfellow, Walter began a 30-year journey of exegetical and theological exploration, the outcome of which has been the recovery of "principalities and powers" as a biblical lens for Christian social ethics. In that effort he produced some seven books on the topic. The core of these was a trilogy: Naming the Powers (1984) -- the exegetical survey, Unmasking the Powers (1986) -- a set of thematic theological essays, and Engaging the Powers (1992) -- what amounts to a new or renewed practical theology of gospel non-violence, virtually an ethic for the transformation of the world system in which we live.

Moreover, Walter's books, as well as their method, actually “engaged the powers.” For example, a portion of volume III, which included a provocative and uppity re-reading of the Sermon on the Mount (already now classic), was published in advance under the title of Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way (1987). More to the point, it was printed with a plain brown cover and distributed free by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to pastors all over South Africa where it had been banned during the anti-apartheid church struggle. When Walter himself attempted to follow for workshops on biblical non-violence he was denied a visa. I am still flattered and bemused to report that he asked if I would go in his stead. And edified too: he understood that this was not about himself. The FOR, however, persevered with him and he slipped in illegally through the back door of Lesotho and opened the book to many from all over the country.

My own formative exposure to his theology of the powers came in the context of resistance to nuclear weapons. I first read Naming and Engaging in jail, the latter during a two-month stint in consequence of liturgical trespass at a SAC base in northern Michigan. These books resonated with the urgency of comprehending the demonic inherent in nuclearism. They pointed toward the blasphemous claims of sovereignty in history, framed as first strike (today we say pre-emptive) nuclear “doctrine.” Walter’s work helped explain and nourish the clearest public opposition that took form as liturgical direct action – praying in forbidden places or ritually unmaking weapons as an act of right worship.

And from these volumes basic terminology, like “the Domination System, “ and “the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” have become common parlance in faith-grounded political circles. Bible study is being done as a movement practice. And discernment has been named a political charism. If the Powers have a spiritual dimension, if they rule by the atmospheric power of the air, if history turns on intercession, then discerning the spirits becomes a crucial political task. Wink showed the way.

As I write, Walter’s and my common denomination, United Methodist, has recently and again succumbed to the demon of homophobia, drawing lines, demeaning people, refusing and suppressing gifts of ministry. I think of his potent, and widely read, little book, The Bible and Homosexuality. Its fruit already is, and is yet to be.

Walter was fully partnered in life with June Keener Wink, a potter and dancer. To workshops and bible study, she brought earth and movement, grounding and embodying texts, enacting them at depth.

In his waning years, beginning with a dream and a phone call, Walter began to write a memoir. He called it Autobiography of an Exegete. After he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, he continued to fill in the gaps as a loving editor took up the final tasks. But get this: Bible study is autobiographical. The scholar is engaged. The Word is to be lived, to be found in our lives, to be made flesh.

When my own beloved partner, Jeanie Wylie, was struck down in 1998 with a most aggressive brain tumor, Walter and June sent a note within days asking how to pray for us. He wrote, “As I meditated on that task a kind of mantra rose up in me that I will use if it’s OK with you: We claim victory over the power of Death whether in this life or the life to come. Death will have no dominion.”

That is how I’ve prayed for him and June in recent weeks.That is intercession. That is confession of faith. That is chant. Even that is epitaph. Amen and Alleluia.

A Memorial Service for Walter Wink will be held June 16 in James Chapel of Union Seminary NYC. In lieu of flowers the family requests gifts to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Read more of Walter Wink's writings -- in the pages of Sojourners and elswhere -- by clicking HERE.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a writer and community activist, is pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.

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