But What If…? (Chapter 8, The Powers That Be)


Chapter 8: “But What If…?”

Summarizing Walter Wink’s “The Powers That Be” so far:

* God wars against the unseen forces that govern the world (“principalities and powers”) both through the life of Jesus and the lives of the Spirit-filled followers that come behind.

* A close look at Jesus reveals that he rejected violence as his modus operandi and that his followers are compelled to do likewise. Jesus also rejects pacifism (i.e. meekly “taking it”). Instead, Jesus proposed war against the “powers that be” by a third way, what one might call, “creative nonviolence” – resistance without resorting to violence.

Wink’s chapter eight raises the ever-present question: But what if…? Creative resistance without resorting to violence may sound good, but what if your spouse is attacked? Or what if someone breaks into your house? Or what if… let’s see… you get reports that another nation is making weapons of mass destruction intended for people you pledged to protect?

All good questions. Wink claims they arise naturally from a LOT of world history’s worth of conditioning us to think in one of two ways: fight or flight. We’re not used to even thinking in the third way proposed by Jesus, but more thinking/discussion on the ideas may prove helpful.

For instance, nonviolence theorist, Angie O’Gorman, teaches that most assailants need the victim to act like a victim. In contrast, responding to an assailant in such a way to provoke a sense of wonder tends to diffuse hostility. She states that it is nearly impossible for both “wonder” and “cruelty” to be present in the human psyche simultaneously.

In The Universe Bends Toward Justice, she tells a personal story. She was sleeping in her upstairs bedroom one night (with the telephone downstairs) when she was suddenly awakened by a man kicking open her bedroom door. She described the situation this way:

“He was somewhat verbally abusive as he walked over to my bed. I could not find his eyes in the darkness but I could see the outline of his form. As I lay there, feeling a fear and vulnerability I had never before experienced, several thoughts ran through my head – all in a matter of seconds. The first was the uselessness of screaming. The second was the fallacy of thinking safety depends on having a gun hidden under your pillow. Somehow I could not imagine this man standing patiently while I reached under my pillow for my gun. The third thought, I believe, saved my life. I realized with a certain clarity that either he and I made it through this situation safely – together – or we would both be damaged. Our safety was connected. If he raped me, I would be hurt both physically and emotionally. If he raped me he would be hurt as well. If he went to prison, the damage would be greater. That thought disarmed ‘me’. It freed me from my own desire to lash out and at the same time from my own paralysis. It did not free me from feelings of fear but from fear’s control over my ability to respond. I found myself acting out of a concern for both our safety which caused me to react with a certain firmness but with surprisingly little hostility in my voice. I asked him what time it was. He answered. That was a good sign. I commented that his watch and the clock on my night table had different times. His said 2:30, mine said 2:45. I had just set mine. I hoped his watch wasn’t broken. When had he last set it? He answered. I answered. The time seemed endless. When the atmosphere began to calm a little I asked him how he had gotten into the house. He’d broken through the glass in the back door. I told him that presented me with a problem as I did not have the money to buy new glass. He talked about some financial difficulties of his own. We talked until we were no longer strangers and I felt it was safe to ask him to leave. He didn’t want to; said he had no place to go. Knowing I did not have the physical power to force him out I told him firmly but respectfully, as equal to equal, I would give him a clean set of sheets but he would have to make his own bed downstairs. He went downstairs and I sat up in bed, wide awake and shaking for the rest of the night. The next morning we ate breakfast together and he left.”

There is a fundamental answer to all the “what-if” questions, and that answer is DO SOMETHING! Wink points out that Jesus did not forbid self-defense or counsel nonresistance. It is the use of “violence” as a technique that he calls on the carpet.

It is worth noting that the use of violence is not so easy and effective in the “what-if” questions either. What if someone attacks my spouse and a gun is pointed at her head? (I’ll beat the %#$@ out of you sounds good in theory, but…) What if someone breaks into my house? (Shooting first & asking questions later makes for a good bumper sticker, but that plan doesn’t always progress smoothly…) What if a nation is reportedly making weapons of mass destruction intended for you? (Not everyone originally in favor of violence remains on that bandwagon after the fact…)

In short, the “what-if” questions are worth asking, but violence should have to answer, too.

One important point: Wink writes, “Are there situations where violence is, if not necessary, at least unavoidable? Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between force and violence. Force signifies a legitimate, socially authorized, and morally defensible use of restraint to prevent harm being done to innocent people. Violence would be a morally illegitimate or excessive use of force. A police officer that must arrest a killer may have to use force to restrain him. Such a use of force falls within the definition of his or her office as spelled out by society and Scripture (Rom. 13:4).”

Chapter 8 in a nutshell: First, there are no easy answers to the “what-if” questions, but we should recognize that there are more than two options (violence and nonresistance, both of which prove problematic in their solutions). Second, there is a difference between the use of violence and the use of legitimate force (e.g. police) to restrain violent people and prevent harm to innocents.

(Next: Chapter 9, “The Gift of the Enemy”)

3 Responses to “But What If…? (Chapter 8, The Powers That Be)”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Mikey…

    I don’t believe Wink (or Jesus) claims that creative nonviolence always works (in the short-term). Jesus got himself murdered, so one would claim that it didn’t work in his life at all.

    Couple of things:
    (1) In this chapter, Wink hopes to establish that the arguments of how “creative nonviolence” doesn’t work should be tempered by the track record of “redemptive violence,” too. I think he would claim that nonviolence IS more effective, but surely not always successful from our vantage point.

    (2) You ask what the recourse is when creative nonviolence doesn’t work, but I guess I need a specific example to know how to answer. Part of me wants to point out his answer about “force” vs. “violence” (as well as self-defense). The use of force AND self-defense AND creative nonviolence are all viable options – what is untenable is “violence.” So Wink would not go along with that option.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    And by “force,” I’m speaking of legitimate force (i.e. teachers in school, police officers, etc.).


    #1: Schoolyard bully beats up on you – defend yourself OR tell a teacher OR do something creative to make him/her stop. DON’T go all Columbine on us OR just take it and go home and cry every day.

    Your actions may have negative repercussions – don’t be surprised. But be willing to suffer for justice. Don’t resort to his/her tactics OR try to avoid the conflict.

    #2: Grown-up version of the school bully beating a defenseless person – stop him OR call 9-1-1 OR do something creative. DON’T shoot him in the head OR walk by on the other side.

    Same concept…

    Give me some of the specific situations you referred to – that ought to make for a better (and more productive) discussion.

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    I think you’ve already answered my question. I can’t think of an example when creative nonviolence didn’t work. As I really can’t think of examples when it was tried. I guess I still have the book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families on my mind. Where there really wasn’t much of a point in resisting being killed, as it was going to happen. And there was no one to “call” for help. So there was just an acceptance, a peace, if you will, about being brutally killed.

    Do I even need to add that I have no point?

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