Review: Walter Wink’s ‘The Powers that Be’

by Tim Broadbent July 26, 2016 A

In 2016 CONCRETE formed a Theology and Youth Ministry reading group. The aim of the group is to read something thought provoking every 6 weeks and meet to reflect on it in light of urban Youth Ministry. The group is made up of James Fawcett from CONCRETE, Naomi Luff from XLP and Tim Broadbent from St Mary, Islington. The first book we read was the ‘Powers That Be’ by the theologian Walter Wink. What follows is a brief summary of the book and highlights of a conversation about the text.

Have you ever met someone at church who has experienced something irritating, or slightly inconvenient and they tell you that it is the work of the Devil? They might say ‘the Devil’s up to his old tricks again’ after their train gets cancelled or something similar. At that point I struggle to know what to say because if I deny that it’s the Devil’s work I’m undermining their theology and I’m challenging one of the boldest verses in the new testament, Ephesians 6:12 – ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…’ But if I agree, well, I just don’t feel that cancelling the 1756 from Paddington is really on the Devils to do list for that day. If you have felt this way then this book is definitely worth reading.

The Powers that Be helped me understand that verse from Ephesians, and gave me richer understanding of the spiritual forces of evil. Wink sees that we exist in and are subject to the Powers. Wink writes

‘This book sees spirit–the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God – at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship.’ These institutions are created with the sole purpose of serving the general welfare of people, and ‘when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased. They become demonic.’

The task of the church is to identify these Powers, to discern whether they contribute to the common good and if not, redeem them and call them back to their original ‘divine vocation’. For Wink, the gospel is ‘not a message about the salvation of individuals from the world, but news about a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures’.

Wink sees that the world needs transformation from what he calls the Domination System, which is characterised by ‘unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchal  power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.’ Wink attacks the myth that you can bring peace through violence, and this disposition towards violence permeates our whole society, from the cartoons that our children watch through to the foreign policies of our governments.

Wink then outlines a non-violent atonement, whereby Christ is not subject to the wrath of God, but through the cross Christ enters into the horrific and unjust system of ritual sacrifice. Here Christ becomes the final sacrifice, thus exposing this system for what it is, defeating it and demonstrating to humanity a third way. To believe in the Powers results in the revelation that there is something of God in everyone,

‘faith in God means believing that anyone can be transformed.'

James Fawcett: When I was reading the book I was reminded of The first step in the 12 step recovery program is ‘admit that you are powerless…’ acknowledging there is a problem and subsequently that you need to do something about it is key to Wink’s argument. It’s interesting that a book on power first highlights our powerlessness. This is certainly a fresh way to look at youth ministry.

Tim Broadbent: Yes, I think that any youth worker must be aware of power they hold and what influences the young people they work with. I think it’s easy to look at young people and focus on the power they wield, and not the Powers that influence them. I remember working in Enfield years ago, I just started a job running a summer youth project. Most of the young people were great but two of them dominated the group, violent physical outbursts were frequent and threats a typical way of dealing with disagreements. When I arrived the youth workers were powerless. While it was important to create a safe atmosphere by tackling the violent behavior of the two young people concerned, I regret not even considering the Powers that made them act that way. I also think Wink unpacks something that young people are really interested it, the realm of the Demonic. Wink outlines what the Demonic is in light of social justice, rather than an unhelpful ‘devil on my shoulder’ image. In my experience young people care more about social justice than ever before.

Naomi Luff: For me Wink argues that as Christian youth workers the only option we have in the face of violence is to follow Jesus’ non-violent ‘third-way.’ Wink writes, “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough” and that “those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those they oppose”.  Wink is reflecting on a global scale but it made me think about the young people we work with at XLP for whom violence is an entirely normalised experience on their streets and on their screens. I think it takes a brave young person to take a ‘non-violent’ approach to a threatening situation. This is precisely Wink’s (not to mention Gandhi’s perspective) Non-violence is not the same as passivity and takes as much courage, if not more, than fighting back.

TB, I totally agree Naomi, brave is the right word. My personal challenge with my youth group is how do I create an atmosphere that encourages young people to be brave and make a counter-cultural decision to find a third way when faced with aggression.

JF: Yes, Wink’s suggestions for action based on the model we see in Jesus, neither fight nor flight, but seeking a third way were challenging for me. I think Jesus’ encouragement of the oppressed to engage, challenge and disrupt the oppressor or powerful, offer a model to which we can call the young people we work with.

NL I was reminded that peaceful protest as a way of combating violence is not a new idea, it’s been proven to be effective time and again. It is fear that keeps us perpetuating violence – the desire to self protect and survive. Those aren’t necessarily bad desires and they are just as true on an estate in inner London as they are in global conflicts. One question I had was how can we as youth workers speak into the sense of fear and revenge that many young people carry with them? I think that Wink is right when he says that revenge and violence fails to bring any kind of good resolution.

TB: In the text Wink mentions the power of family, and I think family (including parents/guardians) is one of the biggest Powers that young people are subject to. Wink shows that Jesus rarely spoke positively about the family and linked this to the patriarchal oppression that was prevalent at the time. In Waterloo I setup this large sports based project for NEET young people. There were lots of volunteers, multiple levels of support and I had put in hours of care for some tough young people. Then I’d meet the alcoholic, unemployed father of a young person I had known through the project, and I could only think that every time that young person went home all my efforts had been undone. I found hope when I considered the local church, I think it’s one of the few organisations that can implement a multi agency approach. Often a church is the best place to work with other local support agencies and possibly offer debt advice through Christians Against Poverty, host AA meetings, access to a food bank, it can be one Power that does offer any real hope.

JF: I think Wink confirmed and affirmed something I already thought. My practice with young people has been affected in a number of ways, in particular I’m considering how I ask young people to engage and the language I use with them, especially around sport. I have found this particularly when I am specifically targeting young males as a default I have used competitiveness and sport to drive engagement, I am rethinking this in light of Wink, realising that this can be aggressive and sometimes compound already violent behaviour

NL: The thing that has stuck with me is how Wink’s ideas could be used to reduce youth violence. Wink writes about the need to be prepared for the ‘what if’ situations and help ourselves be prepared if we encounter violent behaviour. We are far less likely to respond to a situation aggressively if we’ve thought it through calmly and theoretically beforehand. Rather than ignoring or shying away from issues like knife crime and postcode wars, we could help young people by confronting the worst case scenarios and asking them how they would want to respond and who they would want to be in those situation. In the context I work in, I believe that could make a tangible difference.

If you would like further details about the group please do contact us, links on the home page!