Sunday, April 2, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part I

Somewhere in the middle of my tenure as the Protestant Campus Minister at Central Connecticut State University (1989-1993) we received a bequest, which the Board voted to use for a lecture series to honor the donor. The first year of the series we brought another former campus minister, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. to campus. The next year we had Walter Wink come; he worked with his wife, June Keener Wink to put on a day-long workshop I'll never forget. Both Bill and Walter are now among the saints triumphant; both were extraordinary witnesses to the Christian faith.

I'm re-reading Walter's trilogy on The Powers and am feeling a bit of nostalgia as I have fondly remembered his visit to New Britain and the way he engaged with our students, two in particular who are now both United Church of Christ pastors. And he very kindly signed volume three of the series for me, shown to the left, which had just been published.

Volume I came out in 1984. It's the most challenging to read technically: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Volume II, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence was published in 1986 and then finally (and I think most importantly) Volume III, published in 1992, and entitled Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. 

Volume I, as the name suggests, is focused on the New Testament documents and the language of power used there. "The language of power pervades the New Testament," Wink writes. In Greek the two main words are archai kai exousiai, the "principalities and powers." The word dynamis also gets used lots to refer to military or political power - the same root for our word "dynamite."

Here is a quote that caught my attention:
The true dimensions of evil, according the writer, are known only through revelation, however bad life may have seemed before. Conversely, it is not to rescue the believer from a world of evil but to open their eyes and bring them to "light" (Ephesians 5:4) and thereby to enlist them in the struggle for liberation. Just as peasants liberated from the control of a military dictatorship are not freed from conflict but freed for conflict, the Christian is recruited into the ranks of God in the graceful struggle to bring the world to the truth (1:13) that the crucified and risen Christ is its principle of harmony and power. (1:20-23) (Naming the Powers, page 92)
Wink is writing in this section on the Letter to the Ephesians but I'm also interested in its implications as a lens for reading John's Revelation as a document that encouraged first century believers in the midst of Roman imperial power to "open their eyes and bring them to the struggle for liberation." In fact, just nine pages later when he turns his attention to Revelation and notes the various Greek words for power that John uses - a "veritable thesaurus of power terms" as he calls it - he notes that "no book in the whole Bible is so thoroughly preoccupied with evil powers and their defeat" as is the Book of Revelation.

One other major point Wink makes in Volume I that I think might be a conversation starter for evangelicals and progressives in the Church is his insistence that the challenges we face in engaging the powers is not "social struggle versus inner change, but their orchestration together so that both occur simultaneously," and then this: "...the transformation of society and persons can begin at either end."

It seems to me this is one way to think about the Church's work and the shared vocation of Christians who come to this work from opposite sides: evangelism and social justice work are not, in this understanding, polar opposites but more like two sides of the same coin.

How might the Book of Revelation open the eyes of Christians and bring them to light, enlisting us all in the struggle for liberation?

More to come...

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