Breaking the Spiral of Violence (Wink, ch 4)


In the first three 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.”
#2: …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).
#3: Jesus fought against the Domination System, rejected its methods, and proposed a radical new way.


13: And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14: having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15: He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (from Colossians 2)

Jesus died like everyone else who challenges the Powers, but in Jesus’s case, from the Powers’ perspective, something went awry. According to Paul, their execution of Jesus exposed them for what they are, and in so doing, gave Jesus the battle victory.

In chapter four, Wink notes that the violence of the Old Testament has long been a scandal to Christianity. He cites the statistic that violence is the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible, then goes on to argue that this river of blood is neither to be ignored nor embraced, but understood for its purpose: to expose violence as inadequate.

In particular, Wink hones in on what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism,” the idea that violence is perpetrated against a single victim in order to prevent a greater amount of evil from engulfing a society (cf John 11:50). The death of Jesus served to expose and completely revoke this concept.

Wink goes on to explain that the problem came when the early church didn’t quite get it. Before long, the concept that God demanded Jesus’s blood took precedence (as opposed to God triumphing over the Powers, who were the ones who had cried for blood). Jesus declared people as forgiven, so why did he need to die to forgive them? In fact, Jesus had declared the sacrificial system no longer necessary. Paul didn’t help clear things up. According to Wink, Paul was unable to make the distinction between Jesus being the end to sacrificing (correct) and Jesus being the final sacrifice to appease God (incorrect). And the church has suffered ever since.

“The God whom Jesus revealed as no longer vengeful, but unconditionally loving, who needed no satisfaction by blood – this God of mercy was changed by the church into a wrathful God whose demand for blood atonement leads to God’s requiring his own Son’s death on behalf of us all. The nonviolent God of Jesus becomes a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is most precious to him, but holds humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipates and requires. Against such an image of God the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion!” (Wink, pp 88-89)

Wink argues that the early Christus Victor theory of atonement proclaimed release for those held captive by the Domination System (through Jesus), but that the conversion of Constantine and the ascendancy of Christianity to a position of power led the Christus Victor theory to fall out of favor. Atonement became individualized, abandoning the idea that God had radical ramifications for society at large. So over time, Jesus became more divine and less political, Mass became a perpetual system of sacrifice instead of a celebration of the end of the need for appeasing God, and the scapegoat mechanism was reclaimed in the form of anti-Semitism.

Wink claims that Jesus broke the spiral of violence by exposing the scapegoat mechanism, and that this unique accomplishment of Jesus needs to be recovered in a world still clinging to that notion as the best defense against violence.

Finally, Wink concludes chapter four with a discussion of “dying to the powers.” In short, he argues that liberation from the Powers comes not by frontal attack, but from a willingness to die rather than submit to their control. The model from Jesus is the Cross. He states that we need to die to pride and greed, to racism and gender discrimination, and to homophobia and false patriotism. Breaking the spiral of violence requires the willingness “not” to respond to violence with violence, but with the willingness to respond with the “third way” offered by Jesus, which is the subject of chapter five.


13 Responses to “Breaking the Spiral of Violence (Wink, ch 4)”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    After reading my own review of chapter four, I should note that I understand Wink’s views to be quite radical (from where I sit). And, they don’t coalesce very well from my perspective either.

    So if you’re scratching your head a bit on either front, I’m with you. Might make for an interesting discussion however…

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I know it must seem like I’m downright trying to be difficult, but, to me, this section hangs together better than the previous ones.

    It’s completely anachronistic to say the point of the stories in the Hebrew Bible was to prove the futility of violence, but it works as a theological reading. At first blush, anyway.

    Aside from that glitch, I don’t see any conceptual problems with this part of his argument. In fact, it’s the first section that’s made me want to get the book and read his full argument.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Glad to hear you say that. I often think it might be “just me,” but turns out that’s not ALWAYS the case. My summary didn’t sound good to me, but I didn’t know how to improve it. Glad to know it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

    I’m really looking forward to sharing the “third way” thoughts from chapter 5, but I hate to skip anything.

  4. Mystique Free Says:

    I’m not sure if it’s just my literalist background or what, but I’m having a little trouble with the idea that thousands and thousands of people were killed just to prove the point that violence doesn’t work.

    It does work for me as a logical lesson to draw from the OT, though.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Me too, Mystique. But best I can tell from Wink, I “think” he is suggesting that the Hebrew Bible projected a lot of that violence on God unearned.

    Let me just type what Wink wrote for all to see (and maybe help me understand):

    “…Violence, Schwager concludes, is easily the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible.

    “This violence is in part the residue of false ideas about God carried over from the general human past. It is also, however, the beginning of a process of raising the scapegoating mechanism to consciousness, so that these projections on God can be withdrawn. In Israel, for the first time in human history, God begins to be seen as identified with the ‘victims’ of violence (the Exodus tradition, the prophets). Other myths, Girard says, have been written from the point of view of the victimizers, the people at the top. But the prophetic critiques of domination in the Hebrew Bible continue to alternate with texts that call on Israel to exterminate its enemies now or in the last days (Mic. 4:13; Joel 3:1-21).

    “In the Hebrew Bible, God’s alleged punishments are usually carried out by human beings attacking each other. This indicates, says Schwager, that the actual initiative for killing does not originate with God, but is projected onto God by those who desire revenge. Yahweh’s followers projected their own jealousy on God and made God as jealous as they. But something new emerges nonetheless: Yahweh openly insists on this jealousy, which begins to reveal Yahweh’s unique relationship to Israel as one of love.

    “The violence of the Bible is the necessary precondition for the gradual perception of the meaning of violence. It should come as no surprise that it was in a violent society that the real nature of violence was revealed. The problem of violence emerged at the very heart of violence, in the most war-ravaged corridor on the globe, among a repeatedly subjugated people unable to seize and wield power for any length of time. The violence of Scripture, so embarrassing for us today, became the means by which sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetrated against victims in the name of God. God was working through violence to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.

    “It is in the New Testament that the scapegoat mechanism is fully exposed and revoked…”

    (Juvenal, care to explain and/or summarize this for me?)

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I don’t think I’ll presume to take that on, Al, not having read the book or being familiar with Wink’s approach in general.

    All I can say is how I understand it, which may or may not be what Wink intended. YMMV.

    As I read his argument, I think you’re right, mystique, that your literalist upbringing is fighting you a bit here. Wink is taking a more critical, demythologizing approach. IOW, his argument is not that we should take the authors of the HB at their word (the literalist approach), accept that the genocidal violence Israel engaged in was at the behest of Yahweh, and just try to put a positive spin on it, post facto, by saying its point was to teach us the futility of violence.

    What Wink is arguing (as I understand him) is that the authors of the HB, like the authors of many ancient near eastern religious texts, sought to interpret their group’s march toward nationhood in divine terms, as the inexorable will of their national deity. Reading their own history that way, the genocidal violence they engaged in gets redeemed by being Yahweh’s will — part of their national covenant with him.

    So, on Wink’s reading (as I understand it), all those thousands of people didn’t die so God could demonstrate the futility of violence. All those thousands of people died because the Israelites missed God’s point and engaged in the same system of domination as everyone else. Looking back at their history now, through the lens of Jesus, Wink says we can learn the lesson they missed.

    Again, that’s just my take. And I’m not even entirely happy with it. Having disassembled his argument and put it back together that way, I find there are a few little springs and screws left over.

  7. Mystique Free Says:

    all those thousands of people didn’t die so God could demonstrate the futility of violence. All those thousands of people died because the Israelites missed God’s point and engaged in the same system of domination as everyone else.

    I think that makes more sense than what I was thinking earlier. I tend to assume that writers are taking a literalist approach unless they explicitly state otherwise 🙂

    I may have to read this myself….

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I tend to assume that writers are taking a literalist approach unless they explicitly state otherwise

    I feel your pain. 🙂

  9. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I keep hoping others will chime in with thoughts, positive or negative, on this post.

    Anyone? No one? Someone?

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I guess it wasn’t a very interesting article. I mean, all he’s saying is (a) the OT isn’t “God-breathed” and (b) that Paul misunderstood theology and (c) that Jesus didn’t really have to die to save us from our sins.


  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Did you say something?

  12. Coolhand Says:

    hey, al. just took a gander at the old blog. i’m proud to see that you all are still going strong. if i ever get some free time and/or inspiration, i might make a guest appearance one of these days :).

    your old pal,


  13. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Sounds great, Coolhand! I miss having you around here – I hope you get some free time / inspiration soon!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: