The Common Good
July-August 1999

A Time to Weep

by Walter Wink, Fletcher Farrar | July-August 1999

Repentance is lacking on all sides.

Walter Wink is professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and a leading advocate of nonviolence. He is the author of a seminal trilogy on engaging principalities and powers; his most recent book is The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Doubleday, 1998). He was interviewed in early April by Fletcher Farrar, editor of Messenger, the Church of the Brethren magazine, where (in the May issue) more of this interview appears.

Q. What scriptures come to mind [in regard to the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia]?

Walter Wink: Jesus weeping over Jerusalem: "If you had only recognized the things that make for peace." Kosovo and Serbia certainly haven’t been able to live peacefully with their own people. That’s the tragedy behind everything else that has happened. We have tried to come in there and impose peace by force. The moment we do that, the more these groups become ethnically identified and the more impossible it is to envision any kind of future in which they could live together peacefully with other ethnic groups.

Jesus’ statements about loving the enemy are the ultimate challenge to that whole region. Until that happens, there is no future for the former Yugoslavia. Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek would certainly be appropriate. But the moment for those who had that kind of response seems to have passed.

Q. I am surprised to hear you say that there is a time when all hope is lost for nonviolence. What do we do now?

Wink: I think we have to be aware that the belief that there always has to be something we can do is not so much a biblical attitude as an American attitude. The Bible is in many ways a tragic book as well as being a book full of hope. When the prophets preached doom on Israel there was sometimes a clause that said if you will repent and do right God will restore you. But in other cases it was, "This is it, folks." And that’s the kind of apocalyptic scenario I see unfolding in Kosovo. It is in Mark 13 and the Book of Revelation. If you want some scriptures, those are the ones that are unfolding. But they’re not prescriptive. They don’t say get out and do something. This is a situation where the prophets stand with their hands empty and offer nothing...except the recognition that God is still the lord of history. What that will mean for the actual refugee family in tent number 1,260 is not clear.

[Americans] don’t want people to be in tents. We want them to be happy and in their homes. Surely if we just bomb them a little bit, that will make the government repent. But when that doesn’t happen we say, "Well, we’ll bomb them a little harder. Then they’ll repent. And we’ll bring in Apache helicopters, then they’ll repent. Next we’ll bring in ground troops, then they’ll repent." There is this ominous series of refrains in the Book of Revelation where all these plagues are visited on the earth. After each one it says, "But they would not repent." I think we are seeing that in the response of Milosevic. He is not going to repent.

Q. I wonder if we in America need to repent as well.

Wink: I think we do need to repent for our dependence on force and power. I think it is well meaning, which makes it even more difficult to deal with. We really would like to help. We are horrified by what we see the Serbian government doing. But we haven’t learned yet how to prepare ourselves in a national sense for nonviolent responses. Even if they wouldn’t solve the problem, they certainly wouldn’t escalate the violent response that seems to be the typical scenario.

Even though I have sounded negative and unhopeful, on the whole nonviolence has been extraordinarily successful in the last two decades. Our failure to be able to apply nonviolent direct action to the situation in Yugoslavia should not blind us to [that]. David Dellinger remarked once that we’re in the situation with nonviolence that Edison and Marconi were with electricity. They knew they had a tremendous power in their hands but they didn’t know exactly how to use it. That’s where we are with nonviolence.

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