Blessed Are the Peacemakers

The Good Bishop

Blessed are the peacemakers, and today I want to celebrate two such persons in particular.

I could have called this blog post “A Tale of Two Walters,” for both of these men share that same slightly nerdy first name. Both are the subjects of recently published books: a biography of one; a memoir by the other. Each of these men died in 2012, and both were not only renowned, but controversial, for their commitment to social justice and progressive theology. Finally, both embodied a deep and abiding faith in Christ even as they challenged “the principalities and powers” — i.e., the forces of violence and injustice that all too often hold sway in our world.

So who are these guys? The theologian Walter Wink, and the former Catholic Bishop of Richmond (Virginia), Walter F. Sullivan. The books that celebrate their lives are The Good Bishop: The Life of Walter F. Sullivan by Phyllis Theroux, and Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human by Walter Wink with Steven Berry. Both books are accessible, quick reads, and important for keeping alive the memory of two truly inspirational men of faith.

Just Jesus

Wink’s book contains his own autobiographical reminiscences, made poignant by the fact that, as he wrote this book, he was already struggling with the dementia that would ultimately claim his life. In her foreword, his widow June Keener Wink describes how on good days he would make writing a priority; even so, nearly all of the entries in this collection are short, succinct, and expressed in a very simple and unadorned style. Racing against time, Wink could not afford to offer anything more than the barest essentials of his story.

He guides the readers across his life journey, from childhood to young adult faith formation to forging the heart of his theology during the 1960s, following by a distinguished career unpacking the social justice message of the Bible. The title of the book (Just Jesus) is a delightful pun, pointing not only to Wink’s recognition of how Jesus stood for justice, but also how “just Jesus” formed the heart of his own spirituality, which he describes as “my struggle to become human.” In his own words an “autobiography of my interest in Jesus,” the book combines autobiographical musings with Wink’s reflections on the humanity of Christ, the true meaning of the epithet “Son of Man” (perhaps better translated as “the Human One”), and a wonderful essay on “Ezekiel’s Vision,” actually reprinted from Wink’s earlier book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.

Wink’s writing is charming and accessible; the book reads quickly and is fairly mild even in its depiction of his more controversial political action. Once or twice I bristled at what he had to say, mainly when he pushes back against using language of divinity in relation to Christ, preferring instead to celebrate Christ’s humanity. Call me a traditionalist, but I think all four words of “fully human, fully divine” are necessary. Then there is his uncharacteristically hostile language in regard to the eastern concept of deification (p. 106):

Divinization is too dangerous for most of us in the West, and besides, I have no idea what it means. When people say Jesus is divine, or son of God, or God, I have nothing in my experience that can help me comprehend what is meant.

He does acknowledge the place for this theological concept at least within the Orthodox tradition.

Somehow the Eastern churches have succeeded in hedging divination about with a received wisdom that prevents inflation on the part of the mystical adept. But those of us who have been raised in the Western church traditions are fairly defenseless in the face of such grand aspirations, and our egos all too quickly identify with the deep Self at our core—the image of God—and go launching out into the stratosphere of delusional self-worsip and narcissism.

I see where Wink is coming from; and perhaps his words are cautionary reminders why anyone who is serious about the contemplative life needs to be grounded in a sympathetic faith community (such as a centering prayer circle or monastic oblate group) and/or needs competent spiritual direction. I just think his words would have been much more useful had they been more nuanced in this way.

By contrast to the autobiographical content of Just JesusThe Good Bishop is a biography rather than a memoir; but like Wink’s text, the style is straightforward, simple, and accessible. This is not a scholarly biography but a warm-hearted tale of a much-loved pastor. The author (essayist Phyllis Theroux) tries to remain invisible, allowing the remarkable story of this unlikely progressive hero to be told on its own terms. It begins with an unusual Catholic childhood (for his generation, at least), in that his parents divorced in 1932, when Sullivan was only four years old. Perhaps the challenge of his mother being a single parent during the great depression began Sullivan’s lifelong commitment to caring for the outsider and those who are in need. Eventually going to seminary and getting ordained in the 1950s, Sullivan was still young when the Vatican II Council took place, and soon moved up the ranks of the church hierarchy in Virginia, becoming the diocesan bishop when only 46 years old — a position he would hold for almost three decades. Like other Bishops appointed during the pontificate of Paul VI, Sullivan had a strong pastoral character and understood his role as a shepherd more than a watchdog. Soon he was endearing himself to progressives (and alarming conservatives) with his affirmation of the ministry of women, acceptance of gays and lesbians, commitment to caring for the poor, and — perhaps most controversial of all in heavily militarized Virginia — an outspoken criticism of nuclear weapons and America’s weapons build-up in the 1980s. When I was an undergraduate, I heard Bishop Sullivan speak on the morality of nuclear weapons (an event mentioned in this book, on pages 146-147). As a young man troubled by the implications of nuclear weapons, I found his message to be clear and sane — but I remember how hostile the audience was, unwilling to consider that nuclear weapons are not only wrong, but even sinful.

Pope John Paul II’s election in 1978 marked the beginning of Catholicism’s rapid reassertion of pre-Vatican II conservatism, which led, unsurprisingly, to Sullivan’s ministry becoming the target of Vatican investigation. This book details Sullivan’s compliance (but also his personal frustration) at a probe which seemed to occur for no other reason than to intimidate him. The investigation never led to any charges or discipline, and Sullivan continued to champion the causes he held dear, until his resignation was promptly accepted by the Vatican when he turned 75. Sadly, he lived long enough to see his much-more-conservative successor roll back some of his own initiatives; when he died, despite his long history as a champion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, the succeeding Bishop of Richmond refused to let non-Catholics speak at his funeral.

Were these men contemplatives? Despite his allergy to theosis, Wink clearly was — he speaks about meditation, even participating in a Zen retreat, and eventually he became connected to the Society of Friends (the Quakers), a church known not only for its commitment to peace but also its devotion to silence. On page 128 Wink offers a wonderful definition of mysticism: as a spirituality intended not for escapism, but to “jettison the mind” of greed, selfishness and violence (putting him squarely in the tradition of contemplatives like Evagrius and Cassian). By contrast, The Good Bishop unfortunately is silent on the topic of contemplation, so that particular question for now must remain unanswered. Theroux focusses almost entirely on Sullivan’s profile as a progressive activist, criticizing him for being too naive on the issue of clergy sex abuse of minors, and noting his opposition to abortion — but basically praising him for his stance on all other issues, from the death penalty to supporting controversial (read: liberal) priests, to his long association with the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi. As much as I enjoyed this survey of Sullivan-the-activist, it saddens me that the inner life of the man is not explored. Whether his personal spirituality was garden variety rosaries-and-novenas piety or something more deeply interior, it would have been nice to have given a sense of it.

The last forty years — basically, ever since Roe vs. Wade — the Christian right has so dominated the way Christianity’s politics and social identity is understood in America, that when the new generation of “the Christian left” — folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claiborne — came along in the last fifteen to twenty years, it felt like they were truly pioneers. But Walter Wink and Walter Sullivan are, like other “old timers” like Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis, wonderful reminders that progressive Christianity, while always somewhat marginal in America, is hardly an invention of the internet age. On the contrary, Christianity’s quest for peace and justice has deep roots indeed, and both of these men are exemplars worth remembering.


Disclosure: Complimentary copies of the books reviewed in this post were supplied to me by the publishers, for the purpose of reviewing it. If you follow the link of a title mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receives a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — your support keeps this blog going.


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