More on the Powers That Be


First of all, a few loose ends from chapter 1 (Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be) to tie up under the heading, “Transforming the Powers” in the form of excerpts.

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 [note from Al citing Wink: God did not create capitalism or socialism per se, but the human need for an economic system]. They are all 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… Temporally: the Powers were created, they are fallen, and they shall be redeemed… Conservatives stress the first, revolutionaries the second, reformers the third. The Christian is expected to hold together all three…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.

[Now, on to chapter 2]


In the last sentence of chapter 1, Wink claims that any idea of redeeming the Powers must include a discussion of what he calls the “Domination System.” He describes it as the “…overarching network of Powers…characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”

For the Captain’s benefit, Wink begins with a bit of history, claiming that the Domination System has been around “…for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.E.” With the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel, conquest became a lucrative business. This also led to the system of patriarchy (i.e. killing males led to a numerical excess of females and depreciated their perceived value) and to taxation (to maintain an army). As warfare proliferated, social systems became more “hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal.”


So what holds the Domination System together? Wink points to what he calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence,” the myth that “…enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.” He goes on to claim that this myth, “…and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.” He makes this claim because Redemptive Violence is what we turn to when all else fails.

He learned this watching cartoons. He cites several, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Fantastic Four, the Superman family, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and Tom and Jerry, but he highlights Popeye and Bluto in particular. Bluto hauls off poor Olive Oyl in every episode (against her will). When Popeye comes to the rescue, he gets the snot beat out of him. Then, he somehow gets to his can of spinach, which transforms him into a man of power, and he beats the snot out of Bluto and rescues his damsel in distress. This is the plot of every single show.

And pretty much the plot of the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish), too, where the creation of the world is an act of violence. This Babylonian myth’s basic structure spread to many societies, with the basic story line being that a male war god fights a female divine being and wins. With this in mind, humanity’s origin is violence. As a result, it is hardwired into sociology that order must continually be imposed (through power) from on high. Examples, given by Wink, include: “men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people.”

(Note: he points out that the Genesis story of creation, probably written in Babylon while in captivity, is a direct rebuttal of the Babylonian story of creation by violence.)

Wink writes, “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. The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor a perfectible world; it is a theater of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.”

(I’m about half-way through relating the ideas of chapter 2. Next post will cover “The Myth of Redemptive Violence Today” and “Redemptive Violence and the National-Security State.”)


6 Responses to “More on the Powers That Be”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:


    Continuing in my role as devil’s advocate, I’ll argue that Wink’s view of human history is not a necessary one. Violence need not have arisen from the desire for external conquest. It might as easily arise (or have arisen) from the desire for, as he hints in that last paragraph, internal order. The classic statement of this view is, of course, Hobbes’ Leviathan: hierarchy and organized violence exist because the alternative is not peace and equality, but unending disorganized violence, making life “nasty, brutish, and short.” Wink, living comfortably in wealthy, peaceful, superpower America, says this is a myth. Hobbes, living in the time of the Spanish Armada and the English Civil War, says it’s reality.

    In more contemporary terms, Wink is like western Europe, in neocon Robert Kagan’s recent book. Europe, he argues, has lived comfortably for 50 yrs. under the protection of American arms, and as a result has developed an unrealistically rosy view of the world; hence, they sit back and carp at us over the “war on terrorism.”

    I think I see where Wink would go in responding to that, with his emphasis on good/fallen/redeemable, but you’ve read the book. What do you think?

    Speaking for myself (as opposed to playing devil’s advocate), I’d quibble with one of his earlier statements: They are all fallen, without exception, because they put their own interests above the interests of the whole. I’d say they’re fallen in that they put the interests of some above the interests of others.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    BTW, I definitely think he’s onto something in going after the notion of redemptive violence.

  3. Sandi Says:

    This description sounds very much like Lakoff’s concept of Strict Father morality. The world is a place full of conflict, those who prosper are those who are worthy, very much a might makes right view.

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Your quibble makes sense.

    As to your question of what I think, I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re asking. Are you asking how Wink would respond to criticism that his opposition to violence comes easy when he doesn’t have to face it?

    If so, I think he’d point to those who did face it with nonviolence and succeeded: Gandhi and MLK and the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the splintering of the USSR and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Are you asking how Wink would respond to criticism that his opposition to violence comes easy when he doesn’t have to face it?

    Not quite. I’m asking how he would respond to someone who disputes his view of human history.

    If I’m reading you correctly, he argues that hierarchy and violence arose from the desire for conquest. The necessary inference (CEI!) of that is that before societies started seeking to conquer each other, hierarchy and violence did not exist, or existed only at some extremely minimal level. That’s a highly disputable view.

    How does/would he respond to a more Hobbesian argument that violence and hierarchy are inherent in human nature, and there are, therefore, good reasons — reasons internal to a society, that have nothing to do with conquest but with internal order — to organize the violence and hierarchy inherent in any human society?

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:


    As to his view of history, I believe he would argue that the “conquest state” gave rise more to the complex Domination System than to violence itself. I believe he’d agree that violence is inherent to the fallen nature of all mankind – but the conquest state made it a complex monster.

    And I know there is a section later on (my mind is not so good) that talks about organizing violence for the common good. If I recall correctly, Wink agrees that there are “good” reasons to do so, but that in the end he has to reject them as a Christian because they are still based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. I do remember him citing Gandhi in this regard (how Gandhi began with this viewpoint before selling out completely to nonviolence).

    I’m not completely finished with the book (I’m 3/4 of the way through), but as I work back through it, maybe I won’t massacre the pieces of his argument too much.

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