Charles's Reviews > The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium

The Powers That Be by Walter Wink
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May 04, 10

Recommended for: Christians who support war
Read in May, 2010

Among other things, this book is a fascinating refutation of the myth of redemptive violence. Sure any decent person will tell you that might doesn't make right, but what about the Nazis?

The tragedy is that even though nonviolence did work when used agains the Nazis, it was used too seldom. The Jews themselves did not use it, but continued to rely in the main on the passive nonresistance that had carried them through so many pogroms in the past. And the churches as a whole were too docile or anti-Semititc, and too ignorant of the nonviolent message of the gospel, to act effectively against the Nazis. Because the churches had failed to train members in the nonviolent resistance, no alternative to violence was available.


Turns out nonviolence did work whenever it was tried against the Nazis. This book references Orthodox Bishop Kiril of Bulgaria, and similar resistance in Finland, Denmark and Norway as being particularly effective. And what is the Christian message of nonviolence? Turning the other cheek will only get you crucified. But what does turning the other cheek actually entail? It turns out there is an alternative to fight or flight and that alternative is nonviolent resistance.

Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms.... "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matt. 5: 39). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus' day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other's right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade.

Notice Jesus' audience: "If anyone strikes you." These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, "Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhanded you, turn the other cheek." By turning the other cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way.... The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is establish this underling's equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship.


It's all about that rich. I especially appreciated his take down of just war theory, an idea that has dominated Christianity since the time of St. Augustine that came about after Christianity gained its privileged status in the Roman Empire. Prior to his time, Christians did not fight in wars. Augustine argued that no Christian should resort to violence to defend themselves but they had a loving obligation to use violence if necessary to defend the innocent against evil. Just war theory developed out of this, and so as to prevent its misapplication and restrict the possibility of a "just" war only adding to the evil of this world, strict criteria were established. Mink shows that just on the basis of the requirement of protecting noncombatants from direct attack, the idea of a just war is practically absurd.

...The idea was that no civilians were to be killed. But if we include in civilian casualties those deaths made inevitable by war's disruption of farming, sanitation, and food distribution, we find that civilian deaths average 50 percent of all deaths for all wars since 1700.... This means that anyone planning war can be fairly certain that civilian casualties will be at least 50 percent, and today, given modern firepower, much higher.... If the criterion of civilian immunity means that the killing of civilians is prohibited, by what distorted logic is one able to justify casualties of such magnitude?


From the most extreme examples, both on a national level all the way down to the individual mugger on the street level, Wink shows that nonviolence is at least as effective as violence, and certainly the more ethical, more Christian choice. It's a convincing argument.
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