Joe McKnight: Walter Wink was, among other things, an outspoken critic of the “biblically-based” homophobia that has long plagued Christianity. Through editing “Homosexuality and the Christian Faith,” and authoring numerous articles on the same matter, Wink showed that by approaching the subject, “from the point of view of love, rather than that of law, the issue is at once transformed.” He continued, “There is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.” (The italics are Wink’s.) Statements of this nature had no small part in making Wink unpopular in the 1980s and 1990s, during the rise of the Moral Majority.
The loss of Walter Wink on May 10th, 2012 was significant not only for the liberation theology to which his life was devoted, but for the declining number of clergy committed to the kind of activism not seen since the days of the Civil rights and anti-war movements five or six decades ago.
Despite having spent the latter half of life working in Manhattan, one could still hear a tinge of his native Texan accent in old age. Wink began his theological education at Southern Methodist University and later, earned his Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1963 (where I’m a student). His parish work in Houston, Texas in the 1960’s cultivated a pedagogical method accessible both to blue-collar laborers and trained theologians. It was likely his adherence to more “popular” prose that led to his tenure rejection from Union in the early 1970’s where he was a professor. However, this period at Union put him at the heart of the liberationist movement that informed the rest of his life’s work.
Wink’s rejection pointed to his foremost concern: writing and working on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. How could Wink’s message have any relevance if those for whom he worked, primarily the poor and outcast, could not understand his writings, workshops, or sermons?
In his seminal “power” trilogy, Engaging the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Naming the Powers Wink explored various domestic and international oppressive systems. The books were at least partially informed by his travels an as activist on behalf of oppressed peoples in Central America, Chile, East Germany and South Africa. Drawing on the non-violent tradition of Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, Wink organized workshops on socially engaged pacifism, believing it to be the primary means through which the poor could achieve liberation. Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” on the Sermon on the Mount, the text that inspired Tolstoy to write “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and cited by Gandhi as his principle introduction to non-violence, stood at the heart of Wink’s methodology.
Wink’s life, then, is a prescient example to anyone working to integrate activism with scholarship. By confronting the oppressive structures within his own tradition, Wink was able to generate creative and dynamic outlets for believing and living through the “love ethic” of his faith.