William Stringfellow

When is political power legitimate?

John Bale.jpg

John Bale, ‘Revelation Chapter 13’, 1545

‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?

These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.

Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.

At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.

And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:

Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …

If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.

– Mr Stringfellow

On the fallacy of ‘Christian marriage’


‘How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed/And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock’. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina, 15th century. Source

‘There really is no such thing as “Christian marriage” as the term is commonly used. “Christian marriage” is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. “Christian marriage” is a fiction. There is no more an institution of “Christian marriage” than there is a “Christian nation” or a “Christian lawyer” or a “Christian athlete.” Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world.

It is the same with marriage. Marriage is a fallen estate. That does not mean that it is not an honorable estate, but only that it is a relationship subject to death. It is a relationship established in and appropriate for the present age, but not known or, more precisely, radically transcended and transfigured in both the Creation and the Eschaton – in both the beginning and the end of human history.

As with any other reality of secular life, the Christian takes marriage seriously for what it is, but for no more or less than that. The Christian does not suffer illusions about marriage, but recognizes that marriage is a civil contract in which two parties promise to exchange certain services and responsibilities with respect to each other and to assume certain obligations for offspring of the marriage. At the same time, marriage is no merely private contract, for society at large has a particular interest in the honoring and enforcement of this contract. If the marriage contract is observed and performed with reasonable diligence, society, as well as the married couple and their children, benefits since an enduring marriage contributes to the economic, social, and psychological stability of the whole of society.

The fiction that there is some ideal of marriage for Christians which is better than or essentially different from an ordinary secular marriage is not only fostered by most Sunday School curriculum materials on the subject, but also by the practice of authorizing the clergy to act for the state in the execution of the marriage contract. Clergymen [sic] are licensed by the state to perform the functions of a civil magistrate, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state in this country. This both lends weight to the confusion about “Christian marriage,” and greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry. In the office and function of a civil magistrate, no clergyman really has the grounds to refuse to marry any two people who present themselves to him, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are temperamentally or otherwise ready to marry, as long as they meet the civil requirements for marriage; that is, are of a certain age, have had blood tests, meet any residence requirements, have a valid license, and pay the fee.

A more theologically responsible practice, I suggest, would be to divest the clergy of this civil office and require that all who will be married present themselves to the civil magistrate to be married. Then, if those who are so married are Christians, they will go to their congregation to offer, within the company of the Church, their marriage to be blessed, to seek the intercessions of the whole Church for the marriage, and to celebrate their marriage in the Church as a sacrament. A similar practice is followed in many parts of Europe and Latin America.

To restore such a practice would go a long way toward recovering the sacramental integrity of marriage between Christians. For to discard the fiction of “Christian marriage” and to understand that marriage is an ordinary, secular, and fallen estate in no way denigrates marriage for Christians. On the contrary, in marriage and all else the Christian is fully participant in secular life; but at the same time he [or she] is constantly engaged in offering his [or her] involvement in secular life for the glory of God. In such an offering, that which is ordinary is rendered extraordinary, that which is merely worldly is transfigured, that which is most common becomes the means of worship, and each act or event of everyday life becomes sacramental – a sign and celebration of God’s care for every act and event of everyday life in this world. Rather than demean or downgrade marriage, to restore such a practice would again give to the marriages of Christians the dignity of that which is secular made holy, of that which is a sign of death become a witness to redemption to all those, married or not, who are not Christian’.

– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 40–43.


Leunig on Cirque Canberra

Michael Leunig‘s latest three cartoons are a fitting commentary on Cirque* Canberra:



Travel Expenses

Plus, one from a few weeks earlier:


* There is, of course, another  and equally truthful  way of thinking about the image of the circus. I think, for example, of William Stringfellow‘s reflections on the circus as an event of the eschaton. Picking up the image in the wake of Ingmar Berman and Georges Rouault, Stringfellow propose that we recognise circuses as parables of the kingdom and, as such, as parodies of the world as it is. I suspect that Leunig would like that image too.

The scandal of Palm Sunday


‘Christ on the Ass’, c. 1480. Limewood and pine, painted and gilded. Southern Germany. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There’s a little study on ‘The Scandal of Palm Sunday’ (based on Hebrews 2.18) in William Stringfellow’s Free in Obedience where he argues that Palm Sunday is not a day of triumph but of dramatic temptation for Christ, and ‘profound frustration’ for the disciples. Moreover, it is for us moderns a ‘symbol of the terrific confusion which burdens the Church as to the meaning and manner of the Christian witness in society … If only Palm Sunday were the outcome of Christ’s ministry, Christians would be rid of the gospel and free from all that distinguishes them as Christians from the rest of the world’ (p. 34). If Christ’s ministry ended here among palm branches and civic celebration, we could be spared the embarrassment of Judas’ betrayal, the apathy and cowardice of the remaining eleven, the mystery of the Last Supper, Gethsemane’s sweat and agony, the accusations of the authorities, the ridicule of the crowd, the cross and the descent into hell, the embarrassment of the resurrection and the ‘awful gift of Pentecost’ (p. 35). ‘Palm Sunday’, Stringfellow insists, ‘is no day of triumph; for Christians it is a day of profound humiliation’ (p. 37).

Training for the Christian life

Whenever the body of Christ eats together in Eucharist on Sundays, it does so in the hope that it will have its eyes opened to and participate in what God is up to in the world, not only on Sundays but on Wednesdays too. The claim, made by Stanley Hauerwas and others, that living in a deeper awareness of the story of Jesus and of the Church does, in the freedom and grace of God, ‘do’ something is deserving of a hearing. While there is no magical change of status, and while these graces do not turn the gathered people of God into liturgical automatons nor automatically make them more ethically-consistent or mature, the Church’s gospel-shaped practices are, I suggest, the means by which the Head (i.e., Jesus) immerses his Body (i.e., the Church) in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. Specifically, they are means by which Christ trains us. This is true whether we are talking about something like the Church’s calendar, its fasting, or its weekly praying of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is particularly true when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Every time we come to the Table, which is where the entire Church’s story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries, and to expose what William Stringfellow calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’.

A new book on William Stringfellow: An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow

Today, from a land not too far away, landed upon my desk a signed copy of Anthony Dancer’s latest book, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow (Wipf & Stock, 2010), launched just a few weeks ago here in New Zealand. Readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem will know of my interest in William Stringfellow, whose work I am still drinking deeply from. Now we have Anthony’s volume (which began as a thesis in 1988 under the supervision of John Webster and Chris Rowland, and which includes a ‘Foreword’ by Rowan Williams) to look forward to as well. As a taster, here’s the ‘Introduction’:

William Stringfellow was the kind of oddity that doesn’t come along every day. He spoke truth to power, whether either party was fully ready for such a conversation, as so often they were not. His was a voice from the margins, honed on the street, eloquent and incisive. His was a very human, fragile, passionate life attempting to live in freedom and obedience to God, against the tyranny of empire. He spoke as much with his life as he did his writing. Although reprints of Stringfellow’s books in recent years provide easier access to much of his published writing, there remains no sustained treatment of and engagement with Stringfellow at a biographical level. There are many reasons for this, and although this is no biography it does contain within it a sustained engagement with his life. It is only by engaging his theology through biography that we can begin more fully and comprehensively to appreciate Stringfellow’s significance to us today, particularly as we seek to discern what it means to be human and faithful amidst our rapidly changing social context. Theology, as Stringfellow realized only too well, is a fundamentally practical, political, and missional discipline orientated around, and orientating, our life in the world.

The first chapter introduces Stringfellow and establishes the research methodology employed herein. The relationship of Stringfellow’s life and his theology is such that in seeking to understand the latter it is necessary to enquire into the former. This research therefore takes the form of biographical theology: a critical examination of Stringfellow’s lifework that explores the way in which his commitment to politics and faith informed his vocational (and therefore theological) formation and articulation to the point at which his moral theology becomes most fully immersed in the politics of the Bible. This commitment to politics and faith make personal and social context, private and political life, crucial to the formation of his life and theology, and therefore this book places Stringfellow’s lifework within his socio-political context.

Chapter 2 examines the socio-political context of the 1950s, in relation to which Stringfellow essentially sought to locate himself. These were crucial years for America, dominated by the themes of threat (Cold War and communism) and prosperity (economic growth); excess and fear amidst a culture of consumption provided the framework for cultural identity.

Chapter 3 goes on to examine Stringfellow’s engagement with both the law and the church during this period and pays particular attention to his decision for both faith and law: on both counts a conversion experience was to prove paradigmatic for his later work. This chapter also draws upon his experiences in the ecumenical movement, the law, and later in Harlem. The themes of reconciliation and authenticity emerge to the fore, and the politics of ecumenism—the political dimension of unity—has a high profile. Paying particular attention to examining the emergence of this politicization, it examines his time in Europe, before discussing his commitment to the Bible and the layperson. Attention is also given to his emerging understanding of the Christian life as worship, and the consequences this has for his understanding of the law and the church. Finally, it examines his lifework as he encounters the East Harlem Protestant Parish and poverty, and discovers the concrete reality of the power of death in the principalities and powers. The empirical imperative that dominates his lifework is here a desire for political and personal authenticity.

Following this, chapter 4 explores some of the salient features of the sociopolitical landscape of the 1960s. It shows how this period was one of hopeful democracy, in which movements of dissent and protest began to emerge; it was a time of radical protest and liberal government, and yet by the beginning of the 1970s the nation had become polarized. It explores how, whilst the “threat” of communism persisted, and in fact took very real and manifest form, liberal politics dominated government in the form of the Great Society, and politics and law were seen as morally determinate. Issues of rights came to the fore, mostly on the back of successful civil rights legislation, and left wing politics found a voice on the campuses of America’s colleges through the movement of the new left.

Next, attention is given to Stringfellow’s lifework during this period, in which he confronted what he saw as the state’s bullish attitude of invincibility, along with religion’s apostasy. The dominant theme of his public and private encounters throughout the 1960s and beyond was his commitment to articulating the relevance and importance of the politics of the Bible for living in freedom from the power of death. Emphasis is given to the way it was ultimately, however, less an act of criticism and more an act of restoring hope.

Therefore, chapter 5 explores how he called the church to account through his polemical writing, confronting religion in America, and identifying the complicity of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the maintenance of the state and their betrayal of the gospel. It also examines the hope which he extended by exploring what he believed the ministry and mission of the authentic church of Christ might look like: the centrality of the Bible, the restoration of the roles of priests and people, the seminary underground, and the character of the Christian life which this fosters.

Chapter 6 moves on to examine three radicalizing encounters that transformed his lifework: his meeting with Karl Barth (who advocated America should listen to this man), his rejection at an ecumenical conference on Religion and Race (at which he declared the answer to the racial crisis is baptism), and his meeting and falling in love with Anthony Towne (through which he discovered and experienced love and acceptance at a personal level). It discusses how these events radicalized his lifework in relation to biblical politics.

Following these discussions, chapter 7 examines their effects upon his lifework by examining his prophetic confrontation with Johnson’s Great Society. This represents not so much a radical departure as a radical reorientation in relation to the power of death. The Great Society was the political hallowed ground of the mid-1960s, and Stringfellow’s confrontation draws upon the resources of his lifework to date. Particular attention is given to his criticisms of race and poverty, given their prominence in his lifework. It goes on to show how, following these criticisms, Stringfellow once again offers hope, this time detailing what he terms the ethics of reconciliation—a demand not for novelty, but orthodoxy for life. It therefore looks at his incarnational christological ethic, which requires a revolution in the way in which America conceives of Jesus Christ: it is biblical politics—reconciliation of creation to God in Christ, fostering realism, inconsistency, radicalism, and intercession.

Finally, this book explores his own experience of life-threatening illness and personal confrontation of death. It discusses the way in which this was at once both a personal and public encounter, upon which he brought biblical politics to bear in resistance and advocacy. It then goes on to discuss the way in which this fostered a further and final point of radicalization in his lifework leading directly up to the production of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: the emergence of semiotic creativity, in which Babylon and Jerusalem confront one another.

The chapters of this book weave our way through a foundational part of his life and work. His lifework teaches us about hope. It is deeply political and intensely personal. It is vulnerable, human, inconsistent, and not without mistakes. It is woven together at the edges of society, pulling together the varied threads of experience and encounter. There is both a sweetness and a lament in the weaving that teach us something profound about being biblical people.

This book is dedicated to all who walk this path. Most especially, it is dedicated to Hera.

Finally, there is a saying in Maori: E kore te kumara e korero mo tona ake reka (The kumara never tells of its own sweetness). A traditional staple food for Maori, it is left for those who delight in the kumara and feed off it to speak on its behalf. So it is with Stringfellow. I am proud to have the responsibility to speak of such sweetness, and hope it may enrich lives.


Stringfellow on masturbation, sex and the search for self

‘[One] who persists into adulthood in the practice of masturbation is likely to be one who remains profoundly immature sexually, fearing actual sexual contact with a partner, becoming and being sexually retarded. The main danger and damage in masturbation is not in the conduct itself, but in the fantasy life that invariably accompanies the conduct. That life will hardly ever be a sexually fulfilling one, and indeed masturbation is probably most obviously another variety of sexual sublimation – one in which the sexual identity and capability of the person remains stalemated, indefinite, confused, and apparently self-contained. Masturbation is not antisocial per se, but the deep suppression of sexuality which it represents will frequently provoke some other superficially nonsexual, antisocial behavior. And even if the sublimation of masturbation is never relieved, either in sexual relationship with another human being or in some antisocial, apparently non-sexual behavior, the real tragedy – the destructive and dehumanizing fact about masturbation – is its obvious unfulfillment and crude futility among the varieties of sexual activity’ …

‘Such is the mystery of sex and love that what in sex may be dehumanizing, depraved, or merely habitual, may become human, sacramental, and sanctified. For sex to be so great an event as that, it is essential for one to know who he is as a person, to be secure in his own identity, and indeed, to love himself.

Too often sex does not have the dignity of a sacramental even because it is thought to be the means of the search for self rather than the expression and communication of one who has already found oneself and is free from resort to sex in the frantic pursuit of identity. It is wrong to assume that sex is in itself some way of establishing or proving one’s identity or any resolution of the search for selfhood. One who does not know oneself and seeks to find oneself in sexual experience with another will neither find self nor will he respect the person of a sexual partner. Often enough, the very futility of the search for identity in sex will increase the abuse of both one’s own self and one’s partner. The pursuit of identity in sex ends in destruction, in one form or another, for both the one who seeks oneself and the one who is used as the means of the search. No one may show another who he is or she is; no one may give another life; no one can save another.

How then shall one discover who one is as a human being if sex provides neither the means nor the answer? And how shall one be emancipated from the power of sin in sex and in other realms as well?

In Christ.

In Christ. That means in beholding Christ who is in his own person the true human, the person living in the state of reconciliation with God, with himself, with all men, with the whole creation.

In Christ. That means in discerning that God ends the search for self by himself coming in this world in search of men. For the person, [sic] who knows that he has been found by God no longer has to find self.

In Christ. That means in surrendering to the presence and power of death in all things including sex and , in that event, in the very midst of death, receiving a new life free from the claim of death.

In Christ. That means in accepting the fact of God’s immediate and concretely manifest love for human life, including one’s own little life. Finding, then, that one’s own life is encompassed in God’s love for the world.

In Christ. That means in knowing that in the new life which God gives to humans there is no more a separation between who a person is and what a person does. That which one does, in sex or anything else, is a sign of who one is. All that one does become sacraments of new life.

In Christ. That means in realizing radical fulfillment as a person in the life of God in this world; such radical fulfillment that abstinence in sex is a serious option for a Christian though it is never a moral necessity.

In Christ. That means in enjoying God’s love for all humanity and all things in each and every event or decision of one’s own life.

In Christ. That means in confessing that all life belongs to God, and but for him there is no life at all’.

– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 50–1, 54–5.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part IV

In Instead of Death, Stringfellow offers us a wonderful wee statement about conformity:

‘Who are you if you are just like everybody else? I will tell you plainly who you are – you are nobody! If you are a conformist just for the sake of being that, it is as if you did not exist in any significant, personal, or human way whatever. It is no real popularity that you gain if your own popularity is suffocated in the effort to conform. You cannot be popular, much less accepted and loved – which involves a different thing than simple popularity – if you are anonymous, and yet it is anonymity into which conformity invites you. If you are a conformist, if you look and act and talk like everybody else, you are nobody; and if you are nobody you might as well be dead, since you are already dead in principle’. (p. 47)

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.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part III

Chapter Three of Instead of Death is titled ‘Sex and the Search for Self’. Here, the issue is not pleasure or lust but concerns personal identity under the Word of God. Stringfellow’s thesis here is that ‘the search for self is the most characteristic aspect of sex’ (p. 37). And this too is the ‘very theme of the gospel’ (p. 38). Throughout this chapter, he makes the ‘radical’ assumption that people both inside and outside the church are doing it, and nearly doing it, and that sexuality is an element of every human transaction or communication, even when nothing happens to ‘dramatize the fact’. And so he laments the ‘conventional denunciations’ of sex heard so often in the church – of sex as sin and as some something ‘foul or dirty or animalistic’. ‘Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church’s care for the world. The fantasies, fears, and fairy tales associated with sex must be dispelled so that, within the Church, sex is admitted, discussed, and understood with intelligence, maturity, compassion, and, most of all, a reverence for the ministry of Christ in restoring human life to human beings’ (pp. 38–9). Stringfellow returns to play this melody later on, this time in regard to pornography and its associated secrecy:

‘If sex in all of its meanings, practices, and rituals is not in the open – frankly recognized, intelligently considered, and compassionately dealt with – then what is to be expected except that sex will be the subject of gossip, rumor, escapism, fantasy, and the lure of that which is forbidden? Recourse to pornography among adolescents is, as far as I can discern, far less the consequence of racketeer activities or abnormal adolescent preoccupation with sex than of the fear of candor about sex among adults, including parents and pastors’. (p. 50)

Stringfellow rightly names the heresy called ‘Christian marriage’ as a ‘vain, romantic and unbiblical’ concept, as pure fiction, and as ridiculous as the notion of a ‘Christian nation’ or a ‘Christian lawyer’ or a ‘Christian athlete’, or, we might add, ‘Christian music’. What might a ‘Christian’ crotchet look and sound like?! These are, like marriage, realities of the fallen life of the world, inherently secular, and subject to the power of death. ‘They are’, Stringfellow writes, ‘aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world’ (p. 41). That clergy are licensed by the State to perform the functions of a civil magistrate only adds to the confusion about ‘Christian marriage’, and, Stringfellow claims, ‘greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry’ (p. 42).

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.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part II

In Chapter Two of Instead of Death, William Stringfellow turns to a reality that affects us all; namely, loneliness. ‘Loneliness’, he writes, ‘is as intimate and as common to humans as death. Loneliness does not respect persons, but inflicts all – men and women, those of status and the derelicts, the adolescents and the old people, the single and the married, the learned and the illiterate, and, one might add, the clergy and the laity’ (p. 23). Stringfellow proceeds to note that loneliness is neither a unique nor an isolated experience, but is rather the ‘ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost’ (p. 24). While neither denying nor negating the existence of lives other than the life of the lonely person, ‘loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness’ (pp. 24–5).

Stringfellow then names some of the fictions of loneliness: that it is unfilled time, that it can be satisfied in erotic infatuation, and that it can be answered in possession. Of the latter, he writes: ‘At worst the fiction that one’s identity is to be found in another is cannibalistic – a devouring of another; at best it is a possessive, if romantic, manipulation of one by another in the name of love’ (p. 28).

The reason that none of these attempts have the power to answer loneliness, Stringfellow insists, is because they fail to comprehend the severe nature of loneliness – namely, that it is a foretaste of death. Work, excessive drinking, sex, psychotherapy, marriage, positive thinking (otherwise known as self-hypnoses), suicide, self-pity and leisure are all capable of filling the time but not the void. And not even prayer provides any magic solution. Still, it is the last resort:

‘Prayer is nothing you do, prayer is something you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. To be that alone is incompatible with loneliness. In prayer you cannot be lonely. It is the last resort’. (p. 31)

In prayer we approach the lonely, unwelcome, misunderstood, despised, rejected, unloved and misloved, condemned, betrayed, deserted and helpless Christ. Only in the radically-lonely Christ who suffered loneliness without despair – and who descended into hell – is the assurance that no one is alone, and the reality and grace of God triumphant over the death that masquerades as loneliness and the loneliness that anticipates death.

‘In the event in which you are alone with your own death – when all others and all things are absent and gone – God’s initiative affirms your very creation and that you are given your life anew. In the moment and place where God is least expected – in the barrenness and emptiness of death – God is at hand. It is in that event that a person discovers it is death which is alone, not he’. (pp. 32–3)

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.

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.

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William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part IV

After chapters on money and status (pp. 31–6), race (pp. 39–43), and patriotism (pp. 47–52), Stringfellow, in Chapter Seven, turns to the idol named ‘Church’. He recalls that by the sheer gift of God, the Church lives in the midst of a history constituted by the Fall and in ‘juxtaposition to each and every institution and ideology in their fallenness’ for the critical purpose of ‘being a witness and example of the society of mankind and of all creatures liberated from the power of death’ (p. 55). In building his argument, Stringfellow considers the very constitution of the Church at Pentecost, where, he notes, arise two peculiar characteristics which distinguish the Church as free from the power of death. Both, he insists, pertain to the Church as renewed creation, that is, both inhere in the unity of the Church, bestowed in Pentecost by God for the sake and service of the world. He names these characteristics the ‘secular unity’ of the Church and the ‘churchly unity’ of the Church:

The secular unity of the church at Pentecost consists in the extraordinary transcendence, in that event in which the church is called into being, of all worldly distinctions familiar to men. Thus, according to the biblical testimony, on the day of Pentecost there are gathered in one place men of every tribe and tongue who are, in becoming the new society of the church, no longer divided and separated and unreconciled on account of their differences of race or language, ideology or class, nationality or age, sex or status, occupation or education, or, indeed, even place and time (Acts 2). Such distinctions, so esteemed in the world that they are representative of the idols men worship and vainly look to for justification, are surpassed in such a way in the establishment of the church in history that the church is characterized, biblically, as “a new creation,” “a holy nation,” “a priest among the nations,” “a foretaste of the Kingdom of God,” “a pilgrim people,” “a pioneer of salvation,” “a new race,” a community in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond or free, but in which all have become one in Christ.

Coincident with this worldly unity of the church at Pentecost is a churchly unity encompassing the manifold charismatic gifts bestowed upon the church and distributed and appointed among members of the church, such as prophetism, preaching, teaching, healing, administration, speaking in tongues, and so on. (See Ephesians 4:11–14, cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1–19.) These particular gifts of God to the church are missionary gifts – that is, they are entrusted to the church and authenticated in their exercise by members of the church as means of witness and service to the world. At the same time, according to the biblical precedent, the efficacy of a specific gift requires the presence and use of all the other various gifts so that they are all interrelated and interdependent, and so that each enhances the wholeness of the body of the church. The diversity of charismatic gifts is not occasion for division of the church into sects or parties or for status distinctions or exclusionary practices among members of the church. The gifts are contributions to a churchly unity which serves a broken, divided, fallen world as a forerunner of the reconciliation vouchsafed in Christ for the world.

It is possible to speak of the marks of the church in other frames of reference which are both trustworthy and worthwhile, but it is never possible to omit these two marks of the church manifested in the constitution of the church at Pentecost. (pp. 56–7)

Stringfellow proceeds to note that ‘a distinctive mark of the biblical mind’ is the ability to ‘discern that human history is a drama of death and resurrection and not, as religionists of all sorts suppose, a simplistic conflict of evil vs. good in an abstract sense’ (p. 64). God has embodied the aspects of the essential conflict between life and death into his own drama of death and resurrection: ‘In the light of the Gospel, every life, every person, every event, is included in the context of death and resurrection – of death and the resurrection of life, of death and transcending the power of death. As death is not just something which each of us must eventually face, but a power at work here and now, so the power of the resurrection is neither something remote nor merely promissory. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means the available power of God confronting and transcending the power of death here and now in the daily realities of our lives’ (pp. 64–5).

It is to this truth that the Church is elected, called and empowered to bear witness. This election, calling and empowerment takes place in the event of Jesus’ resurrection. This event announces the end of the reign of death and inaugurates the new creation in which we need no longer fear the power of death, and so we need no longer serve any idols:

The resurrection constitutes freedom for men from all idolatries, whether of race or money or church or whatever. It constitutes freedom from death as a moral power in history, freedom to welcome and honor life as a gift, freedom to live by grace, unburdened by the anxiety for justification which enslaves men to idols.

In this freedom, we can begin to be faithful to our own humanity, and so faithful to God. We can go to work to give back to our various idols their true nature and purpose in relation to human beings and human living: to love our country and try to restore it to a sense of its true vocation in the family of nations; to use money as a medium facilitating equable exchange of goods and services; and try to get it so used in our society and in our world, and so on.

In this freedom, we no longer serve idols in our work or other experiences; we serve the living God. We work in the service of life, for ourselves and our fellow men. We work to re-establish human life in our relationships with ourselves and others and things in our society, anticipating in hope the final restoration when God will be “all in all.”

Thus work takes on the character of worship “in spirit and in truth,” and in our worship we celebrate the life and restoration we are working for. In such freedom, then, the present obvious dichotomy between what Christians do in the sanctuary and what they do in society can be done away with. What is affirmed and enacted in our corporate liturgical worship is what we affirm and work for in our daily lives. In both, we celebrate the gift of life as such by participation in God’s affirmation of life in the face of death. (pp. 65–6)

Imposters of God, which began its life as a study book for high school students, has been described as a work which ‘exposes the reality of idolatry at the heart of our common life in the world: work, status, money, race, the church, etc. But perhaps most importantly, it provides hope: a way of living in grace’ (Anthony Dancer). Yes it does. And Karl Barth was right about Stringfellow when he said, ‘You should listen to this man!’

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Stringfellow on patriotism and nationalism

A question arising from the previous post is whether Stringfellow makes any distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. I am yet to read all of Stringfellow’s writings, but my sense thus far is that any distinction made between the two typically is equally concerned to hold the two together. So he understands patriotism as one of the clearest expressions of the idolatry of nationhood. Patriotism, according to Stringfellow, is just one of the ‘legion’ of principalities, alongside which he names the Pentagon, the Ford Motor Company, Harvard University, the Diners Club, the Olympics, the Methodist Church (I’m yet to discover what he has against the Methodist Church), capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, and the family. (See An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78).

He also avers, in Imposters of God, that ‘… no nation enjoys exemption from idolatry; no subjects of any nation can escape the claims of idolatrous patriotism, whatever aesthetic or temperamental distinctions may lodge in this or that particular scene’ (pp. 100–1). And so, in another place, he cautions the ‘biblical person’ to always be ‘wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism’ (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 113)

Nationalism, therefore, is nothing short of blasphemous, making promises that only God can deliver on, and proclaiming a bastard Gospel which announces a pagan form of (political, economic and, in some cases religious) salvation. Nationalism is, to borrow from Luther, God’s ape (!), never having an original idea in its life but only setting itself in God’s place. Nationalism is simply idol worship sanctioned and demanded by the local god, the state claiming worship that belongs to Christ alone, and a level of commitment that belongs to the body of Christ alone. Rowan Williams’ essay, ‘Being a People: Reflections on the Concept of the “Laity”’ (Religion, State & Society 27/1, 1999), is very helpful here. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s statement that ‘the church is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations’, Williams writes:

‘In the face of the demonic presence in national social and political life of the trend towards idolatry, towards absolutising the local and tangible, and of the incapacity of worldly nations effectively to repent and be converted, the Church – a visible, institutional ground of identity, a historically tangible `people’ – represents the calling of all human beings to belong together in justice. In this sense, the Church is also, for Stringfellow, ‘the priest of nations’: while it is visibly a polity and structure among others, it has the task not only of showing to others what the true ground of human belonging is, but also of undertaking what he calls ‘advocacy’ on behalf of every victim in such a way that it becomes worship. This is a complex idea, expressed (as usual with Stringfellow) in painfully compressed form. What it seems to mean is this. The Church’s willingness to stand with the victims of the nations of this world arises out of its own experience of God’s victory over death, its own experience of the possibility of resisting the power of idolatry and so discovering what cannot be destroyed. So when it stands with the powerless and the victims, it does so in conscious and articulate gratitude for God’s ability to take us beyond death. Advocacy becomes praise; and praise itself, properly understood, is a political matter because it witnesses to a God who brings us where no power or principality of this earth can intimidate or confine us’. (p. 12)

William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part III

‘More than any of the other great and familiar principalities of this world – more than the university or the corporation or the profession, or even race – the nation is a symbol of salvation for men, an image of the Kingdom; it is a facsimile of that order, tranquility, dominion, and fulfillment of life in society which seems lost in the present era and yet after which men yearn persistently despite all disillusionments and defeats’ (p. 47). So begins Stringfellow’s assessment of the idol of patriotism. He proceeds to argue that the ‘sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so startling’ that our fascination with such idolatry can be ‘explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity’ (p. 48). Throughout the book, Stringfellow assesses that the idols are always in competition with each other, but this competition is nowhere more ferocious, he insists, than where the idols are nations: ‘The necessary corollary of the claim that a nation is God’s surrogate in the world is the invincibility inherent in the ultimacy of a nation’s cause, and this notion is sufficient to rationalize any aggression, subversion, or subjection between nations. This is what every war attests. Or, to put the same thing a bit differently, as with all idols, the actual moral power on which the nation as an idol relies and to which it appeals in its practical conduct is the power of death’ (pp. 48–9).

And as with the other idols that Stringfellow names throughout this book, his concern here is a positive one, positive, that is, as defined by the interruption to the demonic rule of the principalities that takes place in the resurrection of Jesus, an event which reconstitutes and inaugurates humanity into life and freedom amidst the death and bondage regimes of the principalities and their idols. His concern throughout is to assist us to ‘identify our own idols as a first step towards freeing ourselves from enslavement to them’ (p. 51)

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William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part II

Work, what Stringfellow describes as ‘a worship of death disguised as an ethic of justification for men’ (p. 26), is the subject of Chapter Three, which is a reflection on Galatians 6:7–8. Of work he writes:

No form of idolatry is more cynically practiced or more empirically corrupted, though perhaps none is so clothed in romantic shibboleth. None is more alien to biblical insight either. In such societies, no favorite idol is more blatantly a symbol of death than the ethic of work, and no popular idolatry is more poignantly a worship of death than the activity called work. The myth on which the worship of work is based is that in the occupation of work itself – in the mere doing of it – as well as in the products of work or in the rewards of work, a man’s existence is morally vindicated. Work is the way, it is supposed, that a man proves his virtue. Work is beheld as intrinsically worthwhile, and most especially so if it enhances a person’s wealth, influence, or reputation. Immortality is even attributed to some men because their work has been remembered after they have died (usually because the dead have left a large estate or endowment or some similar monument), and the patent incredibility of such assertions is seldom recognized and never ridiculed. (pp. 23–4)

Only in Christ and in the justification that takes place in Christ’s person, is work ‘redeemed from idolatry’ as the workers come to realise the freedom from the power of death given by the affirmation of life as a gift. Then alone might work become ‘a celebration and use of that freedom’ (p. 28).

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William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part I

Developed as the 1968 Mendenhall Lectures at DePaul University, William Stringfellow’s Imposters of God begins with this insight:

Nothing seems more bewildering to a person outside the Church about those inside the Church than the contrast between how Christians behave in society and what Christians do in the sanctuary.

This contrast is not, I suspect, just taken for granted by outsiders as evidence of the hypocrisy of professed Christians. It is not simply that Christians do not practice what is preached and neglect to authenticate worship by witness. The non-churchmen is, I suggest, much more bewildered by the difficulty of discerning either connection or consistency between social action and liturgical event. The two apparently represent not only distinguishable but altogether separate realms: the former deals with ethics, the latter with aesthetics; the first is empirical, the second theatrical; the one is mundane, the other quaint. For the stranger to the Church, to whom the churchman appears to act in the marketplace much the same as everybody else, the straightforward and cogent explanation is that these peculiar sanctuary activities are sentimentally significant—as habit, tradition or superstition—but otherwise irrelevant, superfluous and ineffectual.

More or less secretly, or at least quietly, legions of church people suffer this same sort of bewilderment. If these people sense any relationship between practical life and sacramental experience, it is tenuous, illusive and visceral: a felt connection, a matter not readily elucidated, a spooky thing. On occasion, when a priest or preacher goes forth from the sanctuary to affirm in the world what is celebrated at the altar, he is usually ridiculed for meddling in affairs outside his vocation. Or when, in the midst of worship, a pastor ventures to be articulate about the relationship between ethics and sacraments, his effort is apt to be regarded as an intrusion defiling the congregation’s ears. (pp. xxi–xxii)

The book, which is essentially a series of studies on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, proceeds to name and speak to a number of our culture’s idols (namely religion, work, money, status, race, patriotism, the Church, and education, which ‘clearly has many ideological components, including the worship of middle-class values good and bad, and of an egalitarian type of democracy’ (p. 17) – all of which compete ‘for the very lives of men’ (p. 18) – convinced as Stringfellow is that ‘a significant clue toward understanding what society and sanctuary have to do with one another can be found in examining the common idolatries of men and also that peculiar freedom in Christ from all idolatries, the freedom in which human beings are no longer slaves, but become sons and heirs of God’ (p. xxiii).

Throughout Imposters of God, Stringfellow is concerned to demote what he calls ‘the prevalence and present practice of idolatry among us’ (p. 5), convinced, as he is, that our contemporaries in the West are as enslaved as ever, and perhaps more than ever, to the idols that we suppose our ‘less civilized counterpart[s]’ were. Whether those idols be our children, or the ‘present idolatrous fascination with science’ (which is not significantly ‘distinguishable from the adoration of fire and thunder’), or with the ferocious homage exacted by state leaders, or by the State itself, which is no less idolatrous than the allegiance commanded by Caesar Augustus. Whatever the form taken, ‘all idols are imposters of God’ (p. 6). Indeed:

Idolatry is the worship of what man has turned into such an imposter. In other words, idolatry means honoring the idol as that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile. The idolater believes that his virtue or worthiness depends upon the consistency, zeal, and appropriateness of the devotion, service, and elevation he accords to the idol. Thus Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship. (p. 6)

While constituted by the Fall which ‘begets the human quest for meaning in existence’, and after which human persons searching for their lost identity seek ‘somehow to bridge the brokenness of their relationships within themselves and with others and with the principalities and powers’ (p. 15), and to grope for justification, humanity is then – by the event of euchatastrophic love, that is, in the ‘embodiment of God’s action in the midst of the Fall’ (p. 16) – reconstituted, justified. Stringfellow bears witness to this new decisiveness, this new location of human personhood, when he recalls the Christian claim of justification in Christ as ‘the event in which God gives and establishes the moral significance of human life in this world’ (p. 6). It is the event of truth, and of truth-making. Conversely, idolatry, or what I call the praxis of death, both defies God and dehumanises human persons. ‘Every idol is an acolyte of death’ (p. 63), writes Stringfellow. It represents the attempt to return to the time of death, and a refusal to live in the new time, the time of eternal life. And Stringfellow maps the consequences of such a decision: ‘Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed. When money becomes an idol, the true utility of money is lost. When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved. Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation’ (p. 9).

And again: ‘Thus idolatry means more than that men are religious. It means that they are religious in a peculiar way: they are pantheists. The contemporary, Western, urban man is in truth as much a pantheist as any Greek or any Inca. Discussions about “secularism” – whether for it or against it – would be more realistic if they took this fact into account’. (p. 19)

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On William Stringfellow’s homosexuality

Since I started posting on William Stringfellow, I’ve received a significant number of emails asking if I might comment on Stringfellow’s homosexuality, and how, if anything, such might undermine or affirm his authority to speak to the Church on other issues. My initial reaction to these requests was largely one of dismissal, partly because I do not think that the blogosphere is the best place to have this discussion, and partly because this question should not dominate any of our thinking about what Stringfellow (or anyone else for that matter) has to offer us. I still believe both of these factors are true. That said, I have decided that some things can be said, and even that some things may be of help for our thinking about, and reading of, Stringfellow’s work.

There are a minimal number of references in Stringfellow’s own work to the question of homosexuality. That Stringfellow says abundantly more about Jesus Christ than he does about himself is, I think, significant in itself. One place where Stringfellow does speak to the question of homosexuality is in his essay ‘Loneliness, Dread and Holiness’, published in The Christian Century on 10 October 1962. Significantly, the essay is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 12:8–9a, ‘Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”‘.

In that essay, Stringfellow begins by recalling the loneliness which is ‘as intimate and as common to men as death’, and ‘the void [which] may be mere boredom’, and then proceeds to note all the places that exploit and profit from that transient loneliness and boredom ‘promising that time will be consumed for those who pay the price’ – whether it be a dance studio, a club, a bar, with ‘prostitutes or homosexuals or whatever one wants’  – even if it means relieving the loneliness in lust. ‘These are’, he writes,

‘establishments often populated by those who realize that loneliness is more than the burden of time and who are beguiled by another fiction: that loneliness can be conquered by erotic infatuation. Here are folk, whether men or women, whether looking for the same or the other sex, for whom seduction becomes a way of life, who insist on the importance of what meets the eye – physique, clothes, the appearance of youth. Here are the lonely whose search for a partner is so dangerous, so stimulating and so exhausting that the search itself provides an apparent escape from loneliness. But when a partner is found for an hour or a night or a transient affair, the search immediately resumes, becomes compulsive. And while erotic companionship seems more appealing – and more human – than resignation to boredom, while touching another may be more intimate and more honest than watching another, no one may really find his own identity in another, least of all in the body of another. Perhaps this is the most absurd fiction of them all: the notion that is present, primitively, in erotic partnerships but also very often in other relationships – between parents and children, in friendship, in marriage – that one’s own identity must be sought and can be found in another person’.

Later in the essay, Stringfellow exposes his own cards: namely, that the issue is not primarily about sexuality but is about our hope in Christ who alone fills the vacuum of the human heart. There is no attempt here to justify, nor to call that which many name evil good. There is only one man’s witness to him who in subjecting to death takes the dread out of loneliness and who calls us to love, to abandon our idols and to worship God above all else, and to enjoy God’s love not just for ourselves but for all, ‘including those who do not yet enjoy God’s love for themselves or for anyone or anything else’. This posture of enjoyment of God is, Stringfellow insists, ‘the estate of holiness’. ‘Holiness’, he writes, ‘does not mean that you are any better than anyone else. Holiness is not about goodness; holiness is not common pietism. Holiness is not about pleasing God, even less about appeasing God. Holiness is about enjoying God. Holiness is the integrity of greeting, confessing, honoring and trusting God’s presence in all events and in any event, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where’.

The question of Stringfellow’s sexuality has been taken up by Marshall Ron Johnston in his fascinating PhD thesis entitled ‘Bombast, Blasphemy, and the Bastard Gospel: William Stringfellow and American Exceptionalism’ (Baylor University, 2007). In his thesis, Johnston notes that ‘while it is true that fundamentalists and many evangelicals would have rejected Stringfellow’s thought outright in light of his homosexuality, he seemed to have managed to keep that fact of his life private, identifying himself in many forums as “celibate by vocation”’.

Johnston recalls Stringfellow’s thorough engagement in his two passions – religion and politics. He writes that Stringfellow’s interest in issues of faith were transformed from one of intellectual absorption to one of existential centrality, and that Stringfellow credited this transformation to the awareness that while religion must be intellectually respectable, it ‘must also provide the core and motivation of one’s whole life’. While Stringfellow does refer to an ‘unusually close relationship with another fellow’ (i.e. Anthony Towne, whom he would later refer to as ‘my sweet companion for seventeen years’. A Simplicity of Faith, 115. This was, in Anthony Dancer’s words, the ‘closest Stringfellow ever came to becoming uncloseted’), he also confesses their decision that their friendship would not endure if it were self-centered, but only if it were God-centered.

Johnston contends that Stringfellow never openly declared his homosexuality, and recounts Andrew McThenia’s observation that ‘the taking up of joint residency with Anthony Towne was Stringfellow’s “first and only ‘public’ acknowledgement” of his sexual orientation’. Of course, those who have read Stringfellow’s Instead of Death will recall his description of himself as vocationally committed to celibacy (p. 10). As for Stringfellow’s relationship with Towne, in a memorial address entitled ‘The Felicity of Anthony Towne’, Stringfellow stated that Towne’s ‘vocation – as that may be distinguished from his occupation – was, in principle, monastic, as is my own’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52). Parenthetically, he added, ‘That is the explanation of our relationship’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52).

Johnston (on pp. 57ff.) later recalls that while Stringfellow was never public about his own homosexuality, he was not reticent about identifying with those devoted to homosexual advocacy. Stringfellow served for several years as the general counsel for the George W. Henry Foundation, an organisation established to help homosexuals and others who were, in the words of the time, ‘by reason of their sexual deviation … in trouble with themselves, the law, or society’. This association apparently afforded Stringfellow opportunities to speak about homosexual advocacy to various groups. For example, in 1965 he delivered an address at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, entitled ‘The Humanity of Sex’. In that address, Stringfellow offered a brief comment on the theology and ethics of homosexuality before turning most of his attention to various legal issues surrounding the gay lifestyle. He framed his address in the context of a Christian’s identification with the marginalised in American society. In his introductory remarks Stringfellow noted that ‘according to the ethics of American society’, homosexuals ‘are not respectable’. Identifying himself as ‘a Christian, not a moralist’, Stringfellow referred to Christ’s care for the outcasts as one reason for interest in their legal situation. He stated, ‘If homosexuals in this society are orphans or prisoners, for a Christian that is itself enough reason to be concerned with them’. Beyond his interest as a Christian, Stringfellow was also concerned with the legal situation of the homosexual from the constitutional perspective of equal treatment. He noted that he was ‘bred in’ a legal tradition ‘which believes that if anyone is not represented or cannot secure representation before the law, whatever his cause and whatever the popularity or social approval of his cause, the whole society is imperiled’. Later, in the same address, Stringfellow suggested an association between legal cases involving homosexuals and civil rights cases associated with the ‘present racial crisis’. So, Johnston continues, for Stringfellow the justification for an interest in the issue of homosexuality and the advocacy for homosexuals was based upon a sense of Christian responsibility to identify with the outcast and upon a sense of legal responsibility to provide equal treatment under the United States Constitution.

Johnston proceeds to suggest that Stringfellow’s ethic of homosexuality is best understood in light of his overall theological framework. Certainly, Stringfellow assumed a certain ‘givenness’ to homosexuality that was associated with his overall view of the diversity of sexuality, complaining in a 1979 address to the national convention of the group Integrity, Gay Episcopalians and their Friends, that ‘[the] matter of sexual proclivity and the prominence of the sexual identity of a person, are both highly overrated’. Consequently, he continued, ‘the issue is not homosexuality but sexuality in any and all of its species [because] there are as many varieties of sexuality as there be (sic) human beings’.

Here’s Johnston:

In light of that understanding of sexuality, Stringfellow explained that at Christian conversion ‘all that a particular person is, sexuality along with all else, suffers the death in Christ which inaugurates the new (or renewed) life in Christ’. This new life does not mean the sublimation of sexuality in any of its forms. Instead, according to Stringfellow, conversion means that Christians ‘have exceptional freedom to be who [they] are, and, thus, to welcome and affirm [their] sexuality as a gift, absolved from guilt or embarrassment or shame’. Stringfellow’s understanding of Christian conversion is important here, because it was essentially anthropocentric. In the address at Christ Church in Hartford in 1965, he had explained it: ‘To become and to be Christian is to become utterly vulnerable to God’s own affirmation of one’s existence . . . and, as it were, to participate in God’s affirmation of one’s self and of all things’. Based upon such a perspective of homosexuality and Christianity, Stringfellow asked rhetorically, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian?’ He answered with further questions: ‘Can a rich man be a Christian? Can an infant be a Christian? Or one who is sick, or insane, or indolent, or one possessed of power or status or respectability? Can anybody be a Christian?’ He considered such questions ‘theologically absurd’, since ‘[nothing] . . . familiar to the human experience, including all the varieties of sexuality deprives any man of God’s love’. Consequently, Stringfellow answered, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian? Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol’.

In light of the anthropocentric description of conversion, Stringfellow’s view of idolatry logically follows. An idol is something that hinders a person ‘from accepting himself in a way which means loving the whole world just as it is and thereby following Christ’. Thus, in Stringfellow’s view homosexuality, which is inherently morally neutral, is paradoxically acceptable for a Christian as long as the homosexual accepts him or herself in Christ, acknowledging and receiving God’s love …

Anthony Dancer, in his dissertation on Stringfellow, devotes a section to the nexus of the latter’s homosexuality, his work, and his thought. Dancer notes that as a homosexual Stringfellow certainly had a personal point of identification with the marginalized, which ‘put him in touch with reading the gospel from “below”’. I would agree with Dancer’s assessment and add further clarifying comments … Stringfellow, as a gay man, remained for his lifetime outside of the traditional family structures that have in many cases characterized the so-called ‘American dream’. Arguably, as an outsider he was more capable of observing the various hypocrisies of ‘family values’ as they have been promoted by various conservative groups. By the same token, however, his critique of the notion of American exceptionalism, a concept which depends in part on the centrality of family values, could likely be dismissed as the rantings of an angry man, excluded from much of the promise of American society. Perhaps, paradoxically, both are the case. Ultimately, his exclusion from the essentials of the American dream helped fuel his critique, substantively and motivationally, of America’s claims to moral superiority.

One of the emails that I received recently came from someone who is ‘working in a very conservative theological context’, but is also ‘very happy to learn from Stringfellow’. This person suggested that ‘there is something about Stringfellow’s insights as a lay theologian of the highest order (along with Ellul) that … transcends the “suitability for teaching office” question – although’, he adds, ‘I do take those concerns seriously’. He continues: ‘From my last decade or so working and living in community – as an Anglican non-layperson – in the inner-city Sydney areas of Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Glebe, I’ve found that Stringfellow is more than qualified to speak into such contexts. More so than many others who might “tick all the right boxes”. Not that I mean to glorify brokenness or make it “the” qualification that trumps all others … But Stringfellow’s struggle alongside the forgotten ones, personal illness and grief (and I suspect being gay) combine to afford him insight and practical wisdom that is a pearl of great price in the types of contexts I’m used to and somewhat rare in the scholarly circles I am now “playing house” with’. I think there is much wisdom here.

I also think that Mike Higton, summarising Rowan Williams’ essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, has outlined a very helpful beginning point for this conversation to take place. It certainly seems to me to be consonant with Stringfellow’s own approach. Higton writes:

  1. The gospel, the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel, as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about’.
  2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
  3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
  4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
  5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.

In his book Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, James Torrance recounts an experience that a colleague of his, Roland Walls (who was a member of the Community of the Transfiguration in Roslin village, a few miles out of Edinburgh) had. One day, James noticed in his garden a piece of sculpture he had not seen before. Roland told him about it. A young sculptor, brought up among the Exclusive Brethren, one day confessed to the fellowship that he was gay. As a result, he was asked to leave the Assembly. In his distress, he found his way to the Roslin Community, where Roland found him on his knees in prayer in the chapel. The young man poured out his story and unburdened his heart. At the end of their conversation, Roland simply put his arms around him and gave him a hug! That hug symbolised everything for the man. He knew he was loved, accepted, forgiven. He went back, found a block of sandstone and carved out a figure of the two Adams. They are kneeling, embracing one another. Christ lays his head on the right shoulder of fallen Adam, and fallen Adam lays his head on the right shoulder of Christ the second Adam. The only way in which one can distinguish between the two Adams is by the nail prints in the hands of Christ. That sculptor saw himself in fallen Adam, and in that symbolic hug he saw himself accepted in Christ, the second Adam. There one sees the Pauline theology of an Irenaeus – that what was lost in Adam has been restored in Christ. That is the biblical concept of ‘the one and the many’ – that we, the many, can see ourselves accepted by grace in Christ, the one Mediator, who fulfils God’s purpose – to gather together all things in Christ, the head – the doctrine of ‘recapitulation’.

Irenaeus used the metaphor of ‘the two hands of God’ in his criticism of Marcion. God our Father has ‘two hands’ – the Word and the Spirit – by whom he created and redeemed the world. Marcion had taught that the Creator God of the Old Testament was different from the Redeemer God of the New Testament. No, according to Irenaeus, the God who created this world (and Adam) has redeemed this world (with Adam) by the same Word and the same Spirit. The one by whom and for whom all things were created has taken our humanity upon himself in order to redeem us, i.e. ‘to bring many sons and daughters to glory’. It is by these ‘two hands’ that God gives himself to us in love to bring us to intimate communion. We can extend that metaphor further. Think of a hug! When we hug somebody whom we love there is a double movement. We give ourselves to the beloved, and in the same act by putting our arms around the other, we draw that person close to our heart! That is a parable of the double movement of grace, the God-humanward and the human-Godward movement, that takes place in the hypostatic union and in which we participate through the ministry of the Spirit. In Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Holy Spirit – his ‘two hands’ – God our Father in grace gives himself to us as God. But in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Spirit we are led to the Father by the intercessions of Christ and the intercessions of the Spirit. We are lifted up by ‘the everlasting arms’. As in the mediatorial ministry of Christ, the Spirit is the interceding Spirit, through whom Jesus Christ our ascended High Priest presents us to the Father.

One of the reasons that I found Ray Anderson’s posts on Homosexuality and the Church so encouraging is because Anderson is at least wanting to allow the gospel and its shape to determine our ethics, rather than some vague commitment to natural theology or to so-called Christian moralism. Regardless of whether one agrees or otherwise with his conclusions, this is the right ordering. He also takes sin seriously enough, and the tragic condition of human fallenness seriously enough, and the gift of Holy Scripture seriously enough, that he is not prepared to simply dismiss those texts in the Bible which speak to this issue.

In response to a recent comment on my blog, I wrote that ‘if I was at some stage to try and articulate a theologically-robust reflection on the issues of sexuality, sin and ministry, I think that I would try to explore the relationship between these issues twofold: (i) in light of an ethic determined by eschatology, i.e. by the coming of God in Jesus Christ, and (ii) in light of the Church’s two sacraments – namely the Baptism by which we are put to death and inaugurated into a new humanity, and the Table at which sinners feast in anticipation of the great banquet which is to come. Clearly, it is christology that must determine a Christian response to these questions. If the word one of us is given to speak during this time-between-the-times comes via something of a contradiction in one’s own personhood, then this, it seems to me, does not abrogate the message. Clearly I have no problem with learning from Stringfellow’. I do not think that one’s sexual orientations disqualify or qualify one from being heard, nor from being ordained.

NT scholar Richard Hays devotes a chapter to homosexuality in his excellent book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. While that particular chapter is in some ways among the least satisfying in the book, his response to the question ‘Should persons of homosexual orientation be ordained?’ is worth recalling here in the context of thinking about Stringfellow’s own life and witness. He writes:

‘I save this question deliberately for last, where it belongs. It is unfortunate that the battle line has been drawn in the denominations at the question of ordination of homosexuals. The ensuing struggle has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing a double standard for clergy and lay morality; it would be far better to articulate a single set of moral norms that apply to all Jesus’ followers. Strictures against homosexuality belong in the church’s moral catechesis, not in its ordination requirements. It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination. (Certainly, the New Testament does not do this.) The church has no analogous special rules to exclude from ordination the greedy or the self-righteous. Such matters are left to the discernment of the bodies charged with examining candidates for ordination; these bodies must determine whether the individual candidate has the gifts and graces requisite for ministry. In any event, a person of homosexual orientation seeking to live a life of disciplined abstinence would clearly be an appropriate candidate for ordination’ (p. 403).

There is, of course, much more to be said, not least on the relationship between Christians who are non-celibate homosexuals and the Church’s teaching ministry. But this post is about Stringfellow, and what I’ve written will have to do for now.

William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part V

The final chapter in Free in Obedience is a reflection on the freedom of God, which the opening paragraph describes thus:

‘The freedom of God in his ruling love for this world in this world is not at all coincident with, contingent upon, nor captive of the Church, much less so of the churches or of individual Christians. If the Church or those within the churches do not see and honor the freedom of God, if they will not thus acknowledge and worship God, if they persist in vain commendations of themselves instead of in gladness in the Word of God, if they indulge in boasting witness to themselves rather than bragging of their weakness to explain and attest God’s grace and strength, if they conceive of salvation as in part attributable to themselves and not wholly the gift of God’s initiative in this world, then God, as has been the case before, in his terrible and magnificent generosity with himself in the world, will simply find his own way of working his will and do without the churchly institutions and those who profess to be Christians and, so to speak, take over wholly himself the ministry of the Church’ (pp. 107–8).

This is a chapter written with Bonhoeffer-like boldness, where the demarcation often made (by pietists and moralists) between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is erased, as is the case in love. So what then is the believer’s task in the world? It is, Stringfellow contends, ‘to so enjoy the Word in the world as to attest the veracity of the Word of God for all men in any and every event’ (p. 117), it is to witness to the one Word of God in the gospel, an action which is always an ‘inherently sacramental event’ (p. 117) and as such is a ‘festival of the event of reconciliation already taking place in the midst of history’ (p. 118). He warns that where the sacraments fail to represent the unity of being and doing in the Church then they become idols, ‘no different from the other principalities of tradition and institution in the world’ (p. 119) and their use then becomes idolatrous. He also warns that ‘when the forms of the sacraments become idols and the sacraments become radically secularized, the world is misled about the meaning and grandeur of God’s work and bewildered about the scope and substance of the Christian faith’ (p. 119). He writes about church offerings, about the daily work and witness of God’s people in the world, and about how Christian freedom consists of the acceptance of the fact of one’s own justification as the work of divine freedom which relieves believers of the anxieties over how God judges us. The believer can therefore live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of, or bondage to, either their own death or the works of death in the world. The believer is both enabled and authorised by the gift of the Spirit in baptism to ‘expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all men, all principalities, all things from bondage to death’ (p. 128). He continues:

‘That being so, the Christian is free to give his own life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. He does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his own death’. (p. 128)

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