"Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."(Mt. 5:19) That's what Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount, right after the beatitudes and just before the six antitheses, which instruct us to resist evil nonviolently and to love our enemies. In light of that verse, Walter Wink must be considered one of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I can think of no higher praise.
Walter died peacefully May 10 in his home in Sandisfield, Mass., at age 76, with his beloved wife, June, by his side. I first met Walter 20 years ago, but I'd been studying his books for years before that. He helped me at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and in recent years, we had lunch together each year in Santa Fe with our friends Sheila and Dennis Linn when they attended the annual conference of scientists and philosophers.
Walter Wink, to my mind, was one of the greatest teachers of the Sermon on the Mount and Gospel nonviolence in Christian history. Raised in Dallas, Walter received his master's degree and doctorate in theology from New York's Union Theological Seminary, where he later taught. From 1967 to 1976, he served on the national steering committee of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Later, he taught at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Over the years, he and June gave countless workshops on Jesus and nonviolence around the country and the world.
He's best known for his ground-breaking books on scripture, peace and nonviolence. His series on "the principalities and powers"-- Naming the Powers: the Language of Power in the New Testament; Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence; and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination -- has influenced thousands of scholars and activists. He also wrote Jesus' Third Way: Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa; The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man; When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation and the Healing of Nations; The Powers That Be; Transforming Bible Study; and Homosexuality and the Bible.
In 1998, Richard Deats and I asked him to edit a selection of the best writings of Fellowship magazine, which since 1915 featured essays by Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and others. The book, Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which Walter edited, captures a century of wisdom on nonviolence and is still available from Orbis Books.
After his first visit to South Africa in the early 1980s, according to Richard, Walter wrote a stunning little book about how Christians can use nonviolent resistance to confront and defeat apartheid. The Fellowship of Reconciliation published it as Jesus' Third Way, and with the help of several New England churches, hand-addressed and mailed the book to more than 2,800 English-speaking clergy and church workers in South Africa. This book and Walter's secret follow-up visit to South Africa had a profound impact on the South African churches and their nonviolent resistance to apartheid.
Much of his groundbreaking work on Jesus and nonviolence sprang from that South African book. In 2003, Fortress Press published a succinct version of his insights in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. But his definitive, seminal work, in my opinion, is his 1992 classic, Engaging the Powers. I urge everyone to read it. It remains for me one of the key handbooks on Christian nonviolence. There, he writes about violence, nonviolence, the God of nonviolence and Jesus' nonviolence with stunning clarity and insight:
The God whom Jesus reveals refrains from all forms of reprisal and demands no victims. God does not endorse holy wars or just wars or religions of violence. Only by being driven out by violence could God signal to humanity that the divine is nonviolent and is antithetical to the Kingdom of Violence. The reign of God means the complete and definitive elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations. [p. 149]
In recent decades, there have been many outstanding books about creative nonviolence and resistance to evil, but no one has ever explained the Sermon on the Mount the way Walter Wink did. It's as if the church misunderstood Jesus for 2,000 years until Walter Wink came along and examined it word for word. His scholarly analysis, based in his own experience of nonviolent resistance and peace movement work, is a revelation. He demonstrates how Jesus teaches Galilean peasants a way to nonviolently resist the Roman Empire through aggressive, active nonviolence. "Jesus' teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence," Walter Wink writes. He continues:
Walter's exegesis of Matthew 5:39 shocks everyone when they first hear it. Here's an excerpt:
As he explains the militant nonviolence of Jesus, Walter also describes how nonviolent movements for social change are transforming the world. His analysis of the breadth of those movements is equally astonishing, first of all, because we rarely hear about them in the mainstream media. "In just the last few years, nonviolence has emerged in a way that no one ever dreamed it could emerge in the world," Walter writes.
Walter Wink gave us a theological foundation for our work for peace, justice and nonviolence. I hope and pray his works will continue to be read and studied and that more Christians will come to understand the nonviolence of Jesus -- the church's "vocation of nonviolence," as he put it -- and the power we have in grassroots movements of nonviolent resistance.
Thank you, Walter Wink, for your brilliant scholarship and steadfast teaching of Gospel nonviolence. Your work will bear good fruit and help more and more of us to obey and teach the Sermon on the Mount as you did. What a great gift.
John Dear will speak June 22 and 23 at the Wildgoose Festival in North Carolina. His new book, Lazarus, Come Forth!, explores Jesus as the God of life calling humanity (in the symbol of the dead Lazarus) out of the tombs of the culture of war and death. To see John's 2012 speaking schedule, go to John Dear's website. John's talk at last year's Sabeel conference in Bethlehem is featured in the new book Challenging Empire. John is profiled with Dan Berrigan and Roy Bourgeois in a new book, Divine Rebels by Deena Guzder (Lawrence Hill Books). This book and other recent books, including Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings; Put Down Your Sword and A Persistent Peace, are available from Amazon.com.
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