Recently Wipf & Stock Publishers reissued three books by the late Episcopalian lay theologian William Stringfellow: An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Conscience and Obedience, and Instead of Death. Bill Wylie-Kellermann reflects on the significance of these books for our day.
William Stringfellow was from da y one a contributing editor (and theological mentor) to Sojourners and its earlier incarnation, The Post-American. Hence, the publication of these volumes, the first in a reviving series of his remarkable corpus, should be most welcome to readers of this magazine. And they couldnt come at a more welcome moment. This, not only because their appearance roughly marks the 20th anniversary of Stringfellows death, March 2, 1985, but because their clear-eyed prescience will serve Christians and others in the current historical moment. These were important books when they were written and may actually prove even more so now. As Karl Barth, the great German theologian, once quipped to an audience regarding Stringfellow, "You should listen to this man!" It is not too late to heed him.
Of Stringfellows 16 books, these three, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Conscience and Obedience, and Instead of Death, comprise something of an ethics trilogy. Stringfellow himself regarded the first two in such a relationship (anticipating another unfinished at his death), and the latter serves well to suggest a sequence. In their previous form, these books were published within the four years from 1973 to 1977, a tumultuous period in U.S. politics that encompassed the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Nixon presidency under the weight of Watergate, the elaborate mythic ritualization of the Bicentennial celebration, and the emergence of what Stringfellow termed "technocratic totalitarianism."
Because his ethics are sacramental and incarnational, advocating discernment of the Word within the contestations of history, mentioning those events is not incidental. What remains so striking is that his uttered vision in that moment and from that vantage should peer so deeply and precisely into our own. These books fall open as to the present, unsealing the signs of our own times. Technocratic totalitarianism indeed.
Because Stringfellow urges a biblical ethic that is rooted in vocation - thus implicating our lives, our biographies, and our identities in the Word of God - it is apropos to mention his own involvements in this period. Stringfellow was then living with his partner, Anthony Towne, on Block Island off the Atlantic coast, where he kept something of a monastic regimen and was active in town politics. Having recently survived life-threatening illness, he remained a permanent, if vigorous, invalid - managing throughout to travel, speak, and write with great authority. He was certainly the subject of government surveillance in these years, having recently been indicted for "harboring a fugitive," namely his friend, the anti-war priest and poet Daniel Berrigan. In this same period, moreover, he himself had called for the impeachment of President Nixon, prior to Watergate and on the basis of war crimes. Meanwhile on the churchly front, he served as canonical counselor and defender of the first Episcopal women priests irregularly ordained.
Years prior Stringfellow had been an international leader in the postwar ecumenical student movement, and in that connection first heard tell of the "principalities and powers" in the sober witness of those emerging from the confessional resistance movements of Europe. That theological insight was verified by his own experience in New Yorks East Harlem ghetto where, after graduation from Harvard Law School in 1956, he took up residence to practice and improvise street law. His neighbors spoke openly of the police, the Mafia, the welfare bureaucracy, even the utility companies as though they represented the power of death, predatory creatures arrayed against the community. Stringfellow took the clue biblically. He ran with the book.
No theologian in the United States did more, though generally uncredited, to bring the biblical view of the "powers" back onto the map of hermeneutics and theological ethics. Each of these volumes, in different ways, reflects that effort. This includes naming the power of death as a living moral reality and recognizing it, in the era of the Fall, as the very power behind the powers.
Each book also variously bespeaks Stringfellows concern for the Constantinian captivity of the church - and with it, side by side, the moral justification of the nation as divinely sanctioned. He beheld the theological elaborations of "America" as a justified, elected, and righteous empire to be a form of blasphemy. Yet if anything, in our own moment, empire has been more openly embraced than ever as a divinely authorized vocation, a presumption of historical sovereignty, a Messianic mission in the world of both global terror and corporate globalization. If for none but that reason alone, these pages light up our own moral landscape.
An Ethic For Christians is perhaps Stringfellows most significant book. It is certainly the fullest articulation of his theological take on the powers, detailing their estate as fallen creatures before the judgment of God and naming their contemporary strategies for dominating human life. Though some may find his style at first difficult, he actually writes with great care and precision, for the very reason that the powers strategies are so largely verbal and involve an assault on the capacities of language itself. The ethic of living humanly entails listening for the Word and speaking clearly amid this very "Babel." Situating Christians within a location of exile, this is necessarily an ethic of resistance - and this book, which once became literally a theological tract for a biblically literate movement of nonviolent resistance, may yet become so again. One does hope. It also commends a charismatic ethic, as it were. Stringfellow later wished hed expanded further the brief section on the political character of the charismatic gifts. For that reason those pages were the seed of his original intention toward the third volume of the "ethics trilogy."
Conscience and Obedience treats ethics and eschatology as a single matter. It does so by setting side by side two New Testament texts notably in tension: Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In the process the biblical sparks fly upward, illuminating the present moment. There is no New Testament passage more consistently abused than the 13th chapter of Romans. It is seized upon by ruling authorities near and far to claim divine sanction for their own regime. To do so they separate it from the nonviolent resistance invited and provoked in chapter 12. Paul, by treating the "powers that be" apart from his customary eschatological expectation that anticipates the dethroning, destruction, or devastation of all political authority in the reign of Christ, did indeed set down a passage which, read in isolation, is vulnerable to imperial hermeneutics.
By reading Romans 13 in the light of apocalypse, against the terrain walked by the raging Beast of Revelation 13, Stringfellow restores the eschatological alienation that marks Christian political ethics. This does not thereby resolve the tension, reducing ethics to some contrarian principle. The lordship of Christ, in which that dethroning is named, is not a divine title in Stringfellows reading, but a human one. It identifies the restoration of dominion over the powers in the new humanity.
In a moment when empire is so fully embraced and thought to be divinely sanctioned - and, not incidentally, in which a virtual publishing industry has sprung up in the business of twisting the apocalyptic parables into a series of novels serving the present regime - this book couldnt be more timely read. Add only the notice that its sober closing meditation, "A Homily on the Defeat of the Saints," is worth reading again and again.
Instead of Death was the only book of Stringfellows republished in his lifetime. Since, as in the present edition, it was expanded to include additional material, it is something of a remarkable hybrid, being written in two distinctive moments of his life and, in a certain sense, with two different audiences in mind. I read the original 1962 edition as an adolescent in the mid-60s, part of the audience for which the high school study pamphlet version was first intended. That material deals with issues such as loneliness, sexuality, identity, and work - all concerns of adolescents - but written without condescension, without masking the work of the powers hid therein, and without sacrificing the rigors of his radically paradoxical theological method. In consequence, that reading marked for me the first time that I "thought theologically." His treatment may be so straightforward, in part, because these were also issues of immediate concern in his own biography. In 1961, for example, he was in fact deeply lonely. So he knows the grace and freedom to which he testifies.
The expanded material includes a remarkable preface, an essay worth the price of the book, in which he reflects on the earlier edition from a standpoint 25 years subsequent. This calls up, among other things, thoughts on what it means to live biblically, on the idolatry of ethical consistency, and the false distinction between the personal and the political. It is here that he credits the East Harlem residents for putting him onto the principalities and so enabling him in the freedom of the resurrection to transcend prolonged and debilitating illness in his own life. The additional chapters move seamlessly from the original meditation on work to a critique of the commercial principalities in consumer culture, and finally into his most concise and devastating analysis of our totalitarian technocracy, regnant today. The resistance ethic commended is that implicit in the original title: an ethic of resurrection.
It is to be expected that some will find these volumes somber, dark, and theologically gloomy. So be it. Such times are our own. They remain, nevertheless, the most hopeful books I have ever read. They name the militant activity of the Word of God, present and efficacious, in the darkest of historical circumstance. Stringfellow had the gift to look the beast in the eye and, in faith, neither flinch nor fail. The realism of his gaze is inseparable from true Christian hope. So much else is denial, wishdream, and hope gone cheap. May the reappearance of these volumes summon us simultaneously to the truth of our times and the living of that hope.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, editor of A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), is a Sojourners contributing editor and director of graduate studies for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. The books referenced in this essay are available at www.wipfandstock.com.