William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part I

In 1962, Stringfellow was approached by the Christian Education Department of the Executive Council to pen a book for adolescents that would be included in its high school curriculum. Instead of Death, a book with ‘an astonishing career’ (p. 3), represents Stringfellow’s generous response to that request, a book concerned not with death as such but rather upon the historic transcendence of death, i.e. with resurrection from death. Concerning this book, Stringfellow writes:

Instead of Death seeks to cope pastorally with a few issues which confront young people, as well as other persons, in self-conscious individual circumstances. But the theological connection of any of these matters to the ubiquity of the power of death and the redemptive vitality of the word of God in this world applies equally to political affairs and social crises and, moreover, does so in a  way which renders apparently private concerns political’ (p. 4).

Throughout the book, Stringfellow recalls his own journeys alongside death – his own unremitting pain and sickness, the deathly institutions, authorities, agencies and bureaucracies with which he engaged as a Harlem lawyer, and the way in which the community of East Harlem helped him to identity the relentless and ruthless structures, procedures and regimes which dehumanise us, and which are as militant and as morally real as that death which visits us in our illness and personal challenge to life. Stringfellow charges that the Church has all-too-often preached an innocuous image of Jesus, a Jesus who demonstrates no real authority over death’s power, and has supposed a distinction between the personal and the public (or political) which undermines the eventfulness and accessibility of the resurrection for every human being in every situation in which death is pervasive, whether that be in realms political, economical, cultural, psychological or personal. To announce the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is to announce the liberation of all of human life from ‘the meaning and purpose of death in loneliness, in sexuality, and in daily work’ (p. 9), three of the six themes that are then taken up throughout the book.

While sin, evil and death are related, Stringfellow warns that we should not confuse with them each other:

‘Death is not the consequence of either evil or sin, nor is death some punishment for evil or sin. Nor is there any such thing as objective evil; that is, some knowledge or idea or principle of evil which people can learn or discover or discern and then, by their own will, do evil or good. If humans knew or could know what is good and what is evil in that sense, then they would be like God himself … What one person or nation considers to be good or evil can never be claimed by that person or nation to be the equivalent or even the approximation of God’s judgment, although persons and nations constantly make just that pretense. They do it as a way of mocking God, as a way of pretending that they can second guess how God will judge their decisions or actions, as a way of asserting that they already know how God will judge themselves and others. That is perilous because only a person who does not believe in God would so seriously usurp and absurdly challenge the freedom of God in judging all persons and all things in the world … Sin is not essentially the mistaken, inadvertent, or deliberate choice of evil by human beings, but the pride into which they fall in associating their own self-interests with the will of God. Sin is the denunciation of the freedom of God to judge humans as it please him to judge them. Sin is the displacement of God’s will with one’s own will. Sin is the radical confusion as to whether God or the human being is morally sovereign in history. And those persons who suppose that they are sovereign exist in acute estrangement in this history, separated from life itself and from the giver of life, from God’. (pp. 18, 19–20)

And from this decision for or against God, for or against life, none are exempt, not even the youngest of persons:

‘Death does not wait for full maturity and adulthood, for infirmity or age, for sickness o weakness to assail human life. The work of death begins at the very moment of birth: death claims every person on the first consciousness of existence. Death does not respect or wait upon the foolish amenities which cause people to hide from their offspring the truth that, for all the ingenuity and capability of human beings, death is present, powerful, and active in every moment, in every event and transaction of human experience. No one is given birth who does not imminently confront the claim of death over his life’. (pp. 20–1)

But neither death nor life-after-death is the last word – that word Stringfellow insists, is Jesus Christ.

Wipf & Stock have offered readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.


  1. What a lot of malarky. It amounts to words about nothing. The wages of sin is death, whether we believe it or not. Only faith in Jesus severs the connection and turns death into to a transition from this world to paradise. The rearks by Stringfellow remind me of so much of my seminary education, degrading drag through the morasses o so-called higher criticism wich was as nothing compared to the greater skepticism of my atheistic days. The miseries and agonies of poverty and deprivation due to a broken home, the tough life of field hand on a sharecropper’s cotton farm in Arkansas, and sun up to sun set labors as a child, the threats of murdering one another by the adults in charge, and seeing the transformation of the Gospel remain meaningless to that unbelieving child until the same message came to and for him in his last year in high school raised serious questions about the so-called objectivity of the Enlightenment approach imported wholesale into biblical studies across two-centuries and sold as the latest and best in critical thinking(?). Phoney Baloney!


  2. Jason, is it correct that the discount only applies to US purchasers? Last time I checked, there didn’t appear to be a means of having books sent outside of the US…



  3. Thanks for blogging through this one, Jason. I just finished it again last week and was struck with–once again–how timely Stringfellow is.


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