Part 14 in a Series on JustFaith:
Jesus & Non-Violence

By Stephanie Block

The JustFaith program changes some of the texts on its reading list each year, partly to take advantage of new books written on “the issues surrounding poverty and compassion change”[i] and partly in response to suggestions and criticisms. The 2008-2009 bibliography, for example, includes Collun’s Rising to Common Ground, Nouwen (and other’s) Compassion, Simon’s How Much Is Enough – three books that are also on the 2011-2012 reading list. Everything else is different.

One author who appears on both lists with different titles is Walter Wink, a United Methodist minister who holds the position of Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the Presbyterian USA’s Auburn Theological Seminary. Given his background, one doesn’t expect Wink to understand moral principles or scripture from the perspective of Catholic teaching – although there are Methodists and Presbyterians who have retained traditional moral understanding – as, indeed, he doesn’t when it comes to homosexuality [ii]

There are apparently other weaknesses in Wink’s writing. One JustFaith participant felt that Wink’s book, The Powers That Be: A Theology for a New Millennium,[iii] which was part of the 2008-2009 JustFaith program, “intimated at the Church ‘making’ Jesus divine in opposition to His actual Divinity. Wink never says that Jesus isn't Divine but one can well deduce his meaning. Gnostic texts are used in place of the Gospel of John due to the spiritual nature of the official Gospel. The historical Jesus is emphasized and sin is de-emphasized.”[iv]

(Walter Wink)

These blind spots make Wink a curious choice as part of a formation program in Catholic social teaching. Nevertheless, his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way is read during the 2011-2012 JustFaith program.[v]

This little book –more of an essay in several parts, actually – explores Jesus’ words to his disciples about how one contends with seriously unjust people or governments. The exhortation to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, or to give up one’s coat in addition to the theft of one’s cloak are the ground on which Wink lays down his thesis and is correct that these passages have sometimes been misused to demand an unnatural docility from people.

However, Wink reads these scripture passages through the hermeneutics of Christianized Alinskyian thought. “Perhaps it would help to juxtapose Jesus’ teachings with Saul Alinsky’s principles for nonviolent community action,”[vi] Wink writes and spends all of chapter three developing this thesis and in the previous chapter, develops what he terms Jesus’ Third Way, “by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored.”

This “third way” includes finding “a creative alternative to violence,” meeting “force with ridicule or humor,” breaking the cycle of “humiliation,” refusing to submit to or accept the inferior position,” exposing “the injustice of the system,” shaming “the oppressor into repentance,” recognizing “your own power,” forcing “the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared,” etc.[vii] Now, while one can read these interpretations into some of Jesus’ actions, it involves a selective reading of scripture to conclude that Jesus was proposing these actions as the model for how a Christian is to lead his life and it certainly isn’t how the Church of the past 2000 years has understood Jesus’ thought.

However, the parallel between Wink’s “Third Way” (one really can’t call it Jesus’) and Alinsky’s principles of community action is striking, although Wink does go to some effort to Christianize Alinsky’s thought. For one thing, Wink appreciates that Jesus demands more of his followers than mere justice. “Jesus was not content to merely empower the powerless, however, and here is teachings fundamentally transcend Alinsky’s….Jesus did not advocate nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in such a way as to hold open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just as well.”[viii]

Elsewhere Wink adds: “It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions.”[ix] And Wink also understands that the Alinskyian tactic of demonizing the enemy is wrong – a temptation to bask in self-righteousness.[x]

One of the book’s real merits is that it avoids the errors of radical pacifism, drawing short of equating non-violence as the absolute Christian response. To put this in the context of Catholic social teaching, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is clear that while the “danger that recourse to violence entails makes it preferable in any case that passive resistance [to injustice] be practiced….,” armed resistance is legitimate under certain conditions, which it enumerates.[xi]

Wink reflects this in the closing remarks of his book, writing “Many people have not aspired to Jesus’ Third Way [the term Wink uses for nonviolence, as practiced by a Christian] because it has been presented to them as absolute pacifism, a life-commitment to nonviolence in principle, with no exceptions….Perhaps a more traditional Christian approach would make more sense.”[xii]

The book has two weaknesses. The first is perhaps explained as a matter of focus, which is so fixed on explaining the concept of non-violent resistance that it fails to make any distinction between appropriate and inappropriate uses of it. Feeling “victimized” or “oppressed” doesn’t automatically make it so and some historical struggles can’t be reduced to good guys and bad guys.

But that’s a minor criticism to the books liberationism. Jesus’ salvific action of freely dying on the cross is more than either “identification with the victims of oppression” (which Wink rejects) or an earthly “way of dealing with these evils” by way of modeling right action (preferring to suffer injustice rather than cause it) to his followers – which Wink suggests.[xiii] That’s the limitation of the liberationist lens that colors Wink’s book, as much as he has tried to progress it.

Discussing Jesus and Nonviolence in the JustFaith Program

Jesus and Nonviolence is discussed during weeks 23 and 24 of the JustFaith program.

As an aside, there are two rather disturbing – from a Catholic perspective – occurrences in the prayer portions of these sessions. During the JustFaith program, the program leader has been performing a “rite of blessing.” The leader “marks” each participant’s forehead, saying “Holy Spirit, inspire our thoughts;” “touches” each participant’s lips, saying, “May we speak your truth;” and then “crosses” each participant’s heart, saying “May our hearts be opened.”

On week 23, the leader adds an additional ritual, walking “around the circle [of participants], dipping a thumb or forefinger into the oil [which has been introduced as a symbol of, among other things, healing and blessing, and], marks each participant on the forehead with the sign of the cross.” These rituals appear to ape priestly blessings and are highly questionable at a Catholic gathering.

During the week 23 prayer, the leader asks questions about which participants, presumably, will reflect. “Do we have the humility to acknowledge our complicity with the powers and structures of oppression? Can we transform our lives and therefore the world?” These are leading questions, that guide participants to more fully “buy into” the JustFaith formation, including the secular solutions it suggests, very explicitly by the program’s end, as the means to accomplish that “transformation” of the world.

The week 24 prayer session includes a meditation on “strength.” It is presented as a parable, in which several animals demonstrate their unique physical gifts, each being an example of “strength.” Then the Human comes, with his gun, and trumps the strength of them all by demonstrating how easily he can kill one of them. “But when the echo of Human’s [triumphant] shouts subsided, Human was alone. All the animals had fled. From that day on, the animals agreed, they would never walk or speak with Human again. For Human is the only creature in the forest who does not know the difference between strength and death.”[xiv]

Whatever the function of this odd little story in helping JustFaith participants reflect about non-violence, its moral that Human is a more terrifying animal to Bambi than, say, Grey Wolf or Mountain Lion – whose strengths are also at Death’s disposal – requires an awful large dose of sentimentality.

The discussions in these sessions hammer Wink’s Alinskyian interpretation of non-violence (as a theory of conflict response). Week 23 emphasizes Wink’s “Third Way” and encourages participants to consider creative non-violent approaches to lampooning “systems of oppression” in order to “unmask their cruelty.” Week 24, accepting the fundamental premises of Wink’s thesis, dovetails it with a section in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (# 495) exhorting believers to value peace and work for a culture of peace…through the “Third Way” lens.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.

[i] JustFaith Bibliography 2008-2009, prefacing remarks.
[ii] See for example: Walter Wink, “Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality,” Christian Century, 11-7-79, p. 1082.
[iii] Galilee Doubleday, 1998.
[iv] Earnest Bunbury, Re: Just Faith Program (discussion thread on Catholic Answers), October 29, 2008.
[v] Fortress Press, 2003.
[vi] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Fortress Press: 2003, p. 39.
[vii] Jesus and Nonviolence…pp 27-28.
[viii] Jesus and Nonviolence…pp 45-46.
[ix] Jesus and Nonviolence…pp 58-59.
[x] Jesus and Nonviolence…p 78.
[xi] Compendium # 401.
[xii] Jesus and Nonviolence…pp 102-103.
[xiii] Jesus and Nonviolence…p 87.
[xiv] Week 24 JustFaith Catholic Version 2-11-2012, Co-facilitator materials, pp 3-4: excerpt from Prayer without Borders, Catholic Relief Services, 2004, pp 72-73.

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