Chapter Three: "The Powers That Be" (Walter Wink)


In the first two chapters of Walter Wink’s “The Powers That Be,” we’ve established:

(1) There are unseen forces that govern the world, forces the Bible refers to as “principalities and powers.” The Bible claims that Jesus fought against these powers, and that his followers will continue the fight, but religionists today differ as to the forces themselves and the nature of the fight.

(2) Wink claims that these unseen forces are good, bad, and salvageable, all at once, and have morphed together over time into a complex system of domination held together by the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This, Wink claims, is the dominant religion of our world (where people turn for salvation). This myth/religion is perpetuated by our popular culture from childhood to adult (e.g. Popeye, Jaws, John Wayne, James Bond, Star Wars, etc.).

I’m now going to skip over the last couple of sections in chapter 2 and try my hand at chapter 3, “Jesus’ Answer to Domination.”


In chapter 3, Wink claims that almost every sentence Jesus uttered indicted the Domination System or disclosed an alternative way. He divides the chapter into eight categories Jesus addresses before offering his conclusion. I will discuss six:

#1: DOMINATION: Jesus proclaims the greatest are those who serve. Jesus instructed followers to reject titles and seats of honor as well as the power that comes with wealth. Jesus is the one who washes his follower’s feet (an act too degrading for Jewish slaves), while instructing his followers to do the same for one another. In short, Jesus rejects using power to dominate.

#2: EQUITY: Jesus and his followers lived from a common purse. The rich were not given special status in Jesus’ company. Instead, the poor were elevated to equal status, with the same privilege of table fellowship. In short, Jesus offers everyone an equal spot at the table.

#3: NONVIOLENCE: Jesus rebukes James/John’s request to call down fire. Jesus stops Peter’s attack of Malchus with the accompanying proclamation, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus taught his followers to bless those who curse them, to pray for those who abuse them, and to do good to those who mistreat them. The lone instance proponents of redemptive violence turn to in the cleansing of the temple in fact shows no example of harm to a human being; instead, the very driving of the animals from the marketplace saved their lives. In short, Jesus never advocates the use of violence as a path to redemption.

#4: WOMEN: Wink points out that every single encounter Jesus had with women broke the rules of his time. Jesus spoke with women in public, was touched by women (by a prostitute no less) and touched them (e.g. a woman with a spinal disease). In the last example, Jesus refers to her as a “daughter of Abraham,” an unparalleled expression that gave her status as an equal with men before God. Although we tend to point out today that Jesus’ twelve apostles were men, we neglect to notice the unprecedented fact that women traveled with Jesus as full-fledged disciples. Also, women were not considered trustworthy witnesses, but it was women to whom the witness of the Resurrection was entrusted. In short, Jesus rejected the idea of women as “less-than-equals.”

#5: PURITY & HOLINESS: “Holiness” literally meant “separateness,” and for those who broke the purity codes, their position in society was clearly delineated from the rest. Jesus broke all these rules as well by sharing the table with those considered impure. In short, Jesus rejected the very idea of lower status for the “impure.”

#6: FAMILY: Jesus never really says anything good about the “family” (much to the embarrassment of those who champion “family values” today). Jesus instructed followers to “hate” their families. Jesus taught that he came to divide families. Jesus even went so far as to renounce genetic family structure and redefine the concept entirely. Wink writes, “Why is he so extreme? Even allowing for the Semitic fondness for graphic overstatement does not account for Jesus’ persistent critique. I believe Jesus was so consistently disparaging because the family in dominator societies is so deeply embedded in patriarchy, and serves as the citadel of male supremacy, the chief inculcator of gender roles, and a major inhibitor of change. It is in families where most women and children are battered and abused, and where the majority of women are murdered. In a great many cultures, men are endowed with the inalienable right to beat, rape, and verbally abuse their wives. The patriarchal family is thus the foundation on which the larger units of patriarchal dominance are based.” Read closely Mark 3:35, Mark 10:29-30, and Matthew 23:9, and you will discover that Jesus continually dethrones the power of the patriarch. In short, Jesus rejects the patriarchal system.


Wink’s conclusion to chapter three contains probably his most famous line, “If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.”

In context, this quote refers to his claim that Jesus was not a reformer OR a revolutionary (who conquers one dominating oppressive power with another), but instead one who envisioned a transformation of the world where both the “powers that be” and all humanity are committed to the general welfare of all. He goes on to claim that the world (and the church) “had no categories for such fundamental change…” and so the church soon watered down the message (continuing today), but that the truth has proven inextinguishable.

So in closing, my reading of chapter three establishes the idea that Jesus rejected the system of domination that runs the world and proposed a radical new way. Wink discusses that new way in chapter five. Before getting there, however, he discusses “Breaking the Spiral of Violence” in chapter four, which will be the subject of my next post.


18 Responses to “Chapter Three: "The Powers That Be" (Walter Wink)”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Lots of very substantive, provocative ideas in chp. 3. I’ll be interested to see where the discussion heads.

    A quick question on this: “Also, women were not considered trustworthy witnesses, but it was women to whom the witness of the Resurrection was entrusted.” Could you unpack the first part of that a bit? I take it it had something to do with Jewish courts, etc.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Here’s all he wrote: “Women in that world had little veracity as witnesses. How odd of God, then, to choose women as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 28:9-10; John 20:1-18)!”

    Not much for me to unpack.

    I take it as you take it.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Hm. Anybody know specifically what Wink might be refering to? Duane, you still lurking around?

  4. Duane McCrory Says:


    I haven’t read Wink, but I have been following Al’s postings. What I would think he means is that in a patriarchal society women really don’t have a say in much of anything. That’s why widows with no male children had such a problem getting by (see the book of Ruth as an example). There were not allowed to possess any property of their own and so would have to find a relative to take care of them. I would think what he says is related to that concept of the patriarchal society. I don’t know anything specific about the requirements for witnesses off the top of my head, but I could look it up later, maybe.

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Yeah, I’m aware of the status of women in that culture, generally. Wink seems to be making a specific point about how they were viewed as witnesses, though, which is a new one on me.

  6. Mystique Free Says:

    I did some searching around and came up with a reference to a Muslim tradition that “if two Muslim male witnesses are not available then one Muslim male and two Muslim females should be invited to witness.” (link to really irritating article backing up the practice –

    According to this wikipedia article ( women could not serve as witnesses in rabinnical court. Maybe that’s what he’s talking about.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    women could not serve as witnesses in rabinnical court. Maybe that’s what he’s talking about.

    Aha. Certainly a likely candidate. Thanks, mystique.

  8. Mystique Free Says:

    “Jesus was not a reformer OR a revolutionary (who conquers one dominating oppressive power with another), but instead one who envisioned a transformation of the world where both the “powers that be” and all humanity are committed to the general welfare of all.”

    I think I would disagree with this. I started to write more about why but I might ought to do some research and make sure I can back up my opinion before I spout off.

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Spout anytime! (Research not required…)

  10. Mystique Free Says:

    I typed in the wrong url – but look!

    I’m thinking about some of the parables, where Jesus seems to accept that government is usually/often corrupt and unjust. The parable of the talents, where the lord is unjust and harsh and the servant does only the bare minimum – he does not steal the talent, nor does he increase his master’s power by investing the amount, can be interpreted as a guide for how to live ethically within an oppressive regieme. I need to go back and re-read the gospels to be sure .. but I think that Wink is attributing to Jesus his own ideals/world view. But … I just did, too 🙂

  11. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’m thinking of Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Talents – it is the middle of three consecutive parables. The first is the Parable of the Virgins with the message to be prepared for God’s return. Then the Talents story seems to add to the mix that being prepared involves using what the Master gave you properly. Then the 3rd parable (Sheep and Goats) completes the set by teaching what that involves, which is caring for the “least of these” (i.e. the oppressed).

    That, to me, fits well with the statement that Jesus hoped to transform people/institutions into people/institutions that were committed to the general welfare of all.

    I’m being lazy, however, and not looking at my Bible here (to back up my claim of “no research required!”). In other contexts, this story might not work that same way.

    (And as to “desperate houseflies,” we didn’t come up with the name first, but we did think of it w/o knowing about the other guys!)

  12. Mystique Free Says:

    Well, I’m using John Dominic Crossan’s interpretation of the parable of the talents, which is a bit radical and before I read that I had only heard the “use what god gave you as much as you can.”

    Is God really the harsh, cruel lord in that parable? Or is role representative of “the powers that be”?

    It’s an interesting question….

  13. Mystique Free Says:

    You know, for an English major I make some really embarrassing errors in my posts.

    Tsk, tsk. I expect to have my diploma revoked any minute now…

  14. Al Sturgeon Says:

    From the way I read the context, I see the one-talent dude as the harsh and cruel one. In light of the sheep/goats parable that follows, I see him as the one entrusted with goods that could bring about justice but hoards instead of shares.

    As to what it says of God, I do see God as the master in the story, but the metaphoric connections in the parables are funny. God is also the lady that lost a coin (does God misplace things?). God is the shepherd that leaves 99 sheep in the country and goes searching for the 1 (does God leave the faithful unattended?).

    Those are just a couple of examples to say that I think there are major points behind many of the parables w/o intending that every aspect of the story be a perfect match.

    To contrast, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (better said, the Waiting Father), there is a HUGE emphasis on the Father (God). But in the Talents parable, I don’t think the point is so much the Master (as in the preceding parable, I don’t see the major point being the Bridegroom).

    I see the message as being fairly clear: you’ve been entrusted with stuff, and you are to make good use of what you have been given. “To whom much is given, much is to be expected.” And if that is correct, it stands as a stinging critique on the “have’s” of that society that did nothing of the oppression/injustice while celebrating the folks who used what little they had on behalf of the cause of justice.

    Just my thoughts early on a Sunday morning, however…

  15. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The parable also teaches that in using what one has been given, one must take risks. This is directly at variance with the usual attitude of the faithful w/r/t gifts from God — i.e., that they must be jealously preserved just as they are, not put at risk.

    In that light, this parable is a stinging critique not just of the Haves, who don’t use their treasures to help others, but of the Church, which is too afraid of corrupting the gospel to actually use it to do some good. It prefers to preserve its treasure by burying it. That way (it thinks) it can present it back to God someday, just as he gave it to them. No bigger. Not having been used. Pristine.

    “God, we knew you to be a jealous God, able to produce fruit from nothing, and to gather harvests from seemingly barren ground. We didn’t have much faith in your ability to do that with your gospel, though, so we sealed it up in a nice airtight jar and buried here inside the church. And voila!, here it is, perfectly preserved, exactly as you gave it to us. Museum-quality gospel! Not a mark on it!”

    He’s going to be so excited.

  16. Mystique Free Says:

    LOl @ juvenal. At some point I’d like to hear more about what you mean … .

    I would have to do a lot more reading and research to be able to argue my point adequately, so Al wins this round 🙂

  17. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You are way too nice, Mystique! I like you.

    (And of course Juvenal is way too funny, and I have to admit that I like him, too!)

  18. juvenal_urbino Says:

    It seems that comment may have been a bit funnier than I intended it to be.

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