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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 6 (March 1994)

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress paperbound, 1992. Pp. xvi + 424; no price available.

Walter Wink is noteworthy as a New Testament scholar who has sought to develop a hermeneutics combining theory and praxis. With this book he brings his trilogy on the Powers to a conclusion. It is divided into four parts: The Domination System, God's New Charter of Reality, Engaging the Powers Nonviolently, and the Powers and the Life of the Spirit. Like its predecessors, this volume will be of value both to the scholar and the biblically literate layperson who are looking for an approach that brings together constructive and practical theology.

This study will be of particular interest to COV&R members and friends because Wink here becomes engaged with Girard's mimetic theory for the first time in his published writings. He lauds Girard's thesis for his understanding of mimetic rivalry and conflict and the function of the scapegoat, but he is doubtful about some aspects of the theory: (1) myths as lies masking generative violence; (2) the scapegoat phenomenon as a dominant category; (3) the nonsacrificial death of Jesus according to the NT; (4) Christian triumphalism; (5) the confident claims about human origins for which there is so little evidence, particularly pertaining to human sacrifice.

I cannot discuss these criticisms in detail; they are all related to some extent to the point of view Wink sets out in Part 1 of the book, on the "domination system." One of his main sources is Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1987), and he draws also on other sources which, like hers, support the hypothesis of numerous Neolithic cultures that were matrilineal and not predicated upon domination systems. Eisler goes so far as to describe the Neolithic culture known from Catal Huyuk, as representing a "partnership model." Wink himself, however, poses the question as to whether a scapegoat mechanism may have produced the peace ascribed to this social order. So he perceives at least a little crack in the sort of research to which he appeals in order to criticize Girard.

I think the crack may be widened further. The Neolithic representation of the Goddess and the attendant bull are symbols of power and differentiation. This differentiation cannot be readily dismissed by Eisler's rather facile distinction between a "domination hierarchy" and an "actualization hierarchy" (the latter is based on a biological metaphor of progression from lower to higher functioning in an organism). It is questionable whether these Neolithic symbols bespeak a relatively "egalitarian" social and political order.

To bolster my criticism with a related case in point, I would mention certain Native American myths and rituals. Wink refers to a putative nonviolence in the ancient myths and cultures of Native Americans, such as the pueblos. He says, for example, that the Hopi emergence myth is nonviolent (p. 154). But in my reading of one of the sources he cites, Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), mimesis and violence riddle the first three worlds of the emergence myth (Waters, pp. 12-13, 15, 17-18). Interestingly, the deity Masaw, who is the first to meet the people in the Fourth World, was a kind of "restored" or "transformed" god. In the Third World he had lost his humility before the Creator, so he was relegated to taking charge of death and the underworld. But "Taiowa decided to give him another chance, as he had the people, and appointed him to guard and protect this Fourth World as its caretaker" (Waters, p. 21). This part of the myth may be pertinent to something I will mention shortly.

Besides the emergence myth, the Waters collection also includes myths of child sacrifice (pp. 55-56, 275-76; cf. 196-97), refers to a concern with witchcraft (246-47), and describes a ceremony still practiced when Waters wrote the book, the Niman Kachina (the return home of the kachinas). This ceremony concluded with the "sacrifice of the eagles." The clan leaders wrap blankets around the heads of the eagles and suffocate them "as gently as possible" (p. 208). The etiology given is that "it was this great proud bird who first welcomed mankind to this Fourth World and gave them feathers for pahos [prayer feathers or sticks]...." (p. 209). So what is the logic of this, that a people would sacrifice the first being to welcome humans into the "Fourth World" (=Hopi culture)? What is the relation of this eagle/victim to the deity Masaw, who is the caretaker of the Fourth World after having been restored from the realm of death in the Third World? These questions are suggestive and should at least stimulate further investigation of cultures which Western scholars may have many motives to label as "nonviolent." One motive for many appears to be the fantasy of a mythic "counter culture" which is both "other" than and better than our own. In any case, I consider Wink's work to be very admirable in some respects, but on the question of originary violence I think he is whistling in the dark.

James G. Williams