Friday, May 18, 2012

When Your Favorite Theologian Dies (and It's Not Donna Summer)

Yesterday afternoon, one of my coworkers told me that Donna Summer had died.   Then I checked my e-mail and saw that Walter Wink had died.  Actually, he died a week earlier, but deaths of theologians don't often make the national news. 

Who is Walter Wink, you ask?  He's one of my favorite theologians.  A great tribute to him is found here.

I first became interested in him because he takes the turn the other cheek passage and turns it into a text of resistance.  You might want to re-read that particular Gospel in Matthew 5:38-48.

Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

Wink is also important to me because he helps me square the idea of a God who is active in the world with the idea of free will.

Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).

I was a bit too young for the disco era, although that music is familiar to me.  I was not dancing into the wee, small hours of the morning.  Unlike some of my older gay male friends, I don't remember disco music as the backdrop to a social movement or a journey of self-discovery.  But I am always sad at the news of a death of a famous creative type.

However, it was the news of Wink's death that made me feel weepy at work.  He had ideas that took my breath away.  He wrote books that I underlined copiously.  He made me want to work for social justice, and he convinced me that social justice was possible.  He will be missed, but happily, he lived a long life, and left behind a body of work for us to continue to cherish.

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