The Common Good

The World - And Word - According To William Stringfellow

Date: November 12, 2013

In the early 1990s, while in graduate theology school, one of my professors invited us to write about a theologian we had never studied. I picked William Stringfellow, the legendary lay theologian, Episcopalian and social critic. He had been a friend of many of my friends and though I once had a chance to make a retreat with him, we never met. A few years after his death in 1985 at age 56, I began staying regularly in a cottage on his property on Block Island, R.I. That cottage became a second home.

So that semester, I read every published work by Stringfellow. "My concern is to understand America biblically," he wrote at the start of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. "The effort is to comprehend the nation, to grasp what is happening right now to the nation and to consider the destiny of the nation within the scope and style of the ethics of the ethical metaphors distinctive to the biblical witness in history. The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics, to understand America biblically -- not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly."

With those opening sentences, I was hooked. Stringfellow's been part of my regular spiritual diet ever since. He tried to keep the Word of God and apply the Word of God to our national and global predicament; that is, to Death and the powers and principalities.

This week, Orbis Books' Modern Spiritual Masters Series published their latest installment, William Stringfellow: Essential Writings (selected and edited by Bill Wylie-Kellermann). Instead of reading all his books like I did, this collection offers the best of Stringfellow's keen biblical insights on the nation-state, the powers and principalities, idols, the fall, blasphemy, and death. His writings still sound sharp, fresh, and original and are still helpful and needed.

"Death, with a capital D, is itself, for Stringfellow, a living moral reality," Wylie-Kellermann writes in his masterful introduction. "He draws intuitively on St. Paul, for whom death (along with law and sin) is in a matrix of enslaved existence. Stringfellow sees it as the power behind the powers. Death is a kind of synonym for the spirituality of idolatry, domination, and empire ... He regarded death as a moral power within the nation and thereby as its 'social purpose.' ... He named the nation-state as the 'pre-emeinent principality.' "

"Death reigns and we are freed from its bondage." That's Stringfellow's message.

Stringfellow unpacked the Bible for its political implications throughout his life. In 1962, for example, when Stringfellow was a young lawyer serving the needy in East Harlem, N.Y., he was invited to join a panel of theologians to respond to the great Swiss biblical theologian Karl Barth during his U.S. visit. Young Stringfellow's questions stood out. He asked Barth about the Confessing Church under Nazi Germany; Romans 13 and the question of being subject to the state; the quiescence of the churches; and the meaning of "the principalities and powers." Barth was impressed. Afterward, Barth pointed to Stringfellow and told the audience, "Listen to this man."

Over the years, Stringfellow wrote a series of original theology texts, such as My People Is the Enemy, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Dissenter in a Great Society, The Politics of Spirituality, Instead of Death and A Simplicity of Faith. (All his books are now available again from www.wipfandstock.com.)

Stringfellow had a powerful influence on Daniel Berrigan, Jim Wallis and Walter Wink, to name a few. In 1967, because of serious health issues, Stringfellow moved to Block Island. It was there in August 1970 that our friend Daniel Berrigan was arrested at Stringfellow's house while underground for refusing to turn himself in after sentencing for the Catonsville Nine action.