THE WORD TURNED UPSIDE-DOWN: WILLIAM STRINGFELLOW

By Simon Barrow
These are some advanced extracts from a forthcoming chapter on the late American lay theologian and lawyer, William Stringfellow. The full version, Talking Nonsense to Power: the mission of William Stringfellow, will be published in a collection in Spring 2003. Details to follow.  Note that key references are in the text. Others will appear with the book.

.... To read through a set of essays and articles by William Stringfellow  (Bill Wylie Kellermann, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, USA, 1994) is to immerse oneself disturbingly in a world and a Word turned upside down (cf. Acts 17.6). Whereas the whole twentieth century Christian theological project has been conditioned by multiple arguments about how biblical texts can fit in to our way of seeing things (whether that way is one circumscribed by autonomous secular reason or by pluralistic religious expressivism), Stringfellow’s point of departure is to transform existing procedures and to invite us to re-encounter the world narrated biblically.  As he said in his Preface to An Ethic for Christians and Other Strangers in a Strange Land (1973), his purpose was to construe America biblically, not to construe the Bible Americanly. 

This account of the world, focussed on the contested events surrounding an obscure Mediterranean peasant in the backwater of an ancient empire, is at first entirely baffling from the perspective of the same world described by early twenty-first century techno-science. But such shock is, Stringfellow would claim, the only way such a world can regain its soul.  I am sure he is right. Even so, I have just summarised the Christian narrative in soothing interpretative cadences which are still far removed from the forceful, unapologetic approach of Stringfellow himself, who once wrote:

If one cares to discern the Word of God in the Bible, then one must listen to the Bible in the Bible’s own context and not deal with the Bible in a random, perfunctory, smattering fashion. Some will think this a naive approach to the Word of God in the Bible. I suppose it is just that. It is one that simply affirms that the Word of God has content, integrity, and life that belongs to God and that this can be received and comprehended by ordinary human beings (1967:17-18).

Unbounded hermeneutical confidence of this kind has been substantially lost in the two decades after Stringfellow’s death. But you do not have to be indifferent to the pitfalls of reading a single over-arching narrative out of a very diverse set of biblical texts in order to remain fully alive to the inspiring trajectory of this world-transforming counter-story, and to its instantiation in endless lively encounters between what appear to us to be the fragments of daily life and the fragments of the Word in the world. Such encounters are the principal fabric of Stringfellow’s approach, a continual, creative, difficult confrontation between worldly realism and eschatological realism.  ….

In spite of his avowedly confessional concern for the Bible, Stringfellow’s approach to the text was not naively literalistic. It was antithetical to the ideological concerns of Christian fundamentalism and could actually be surprisingly eclectic. Moreover, he saw ‘biblical witness’ as an ongoing process, founded by, but not restricted to, the texts themselves. In all this he was much more ‘modern’ than he sometimes appears.


   
Talking un-common sense

None of this should be allowed to mitigate the basic offence to ‘common sense’ of Stringfellow’s message, of course. According to a friend who heard him, he once spoke of glossolalia in the New Testament as ‘strange speech and utterance in resistance to the Beast’.  My shorthand for this is ‘speaking nonsense to power’. In a way all his advocacy and writing was like that. The forces of death in the economic, social, cultural, political and religious worlds are so constituted, he said, to render incomprehensible the message of life and hope to all in their thrall. And yet the whole point of the Christian Gospel is that the Word has already broken into human history and has communicated with the lowly and the unwise. Thus his distinctly protestant conviction that the biblical narrative can and will cut through to ordinary human beings.

Stringfellow believed fiercely (and tenderly) that the redemptive self-giving embodied in Jesus Christ, not violence, might and manipulation, is the most powerful force in the universe. This conviction shines through his counter-intuitive approach to almost every subject. But he was the first to see what non-sense it is given the present constitution of the world and the naturally comforting instincts of traditional religion. In Conscience and Obedience he wrote:

A most obstinate misconception associated with the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the gospel is welcome in this world. The conviction – endemic among churchfolk – persists that, if problems of misapprehension and misrepresentation are overcome and the gospel can be heard in its own integrity, the gospel will be found attractive to people, become popular, and, even, be a success of some sort. This idea is both curious and ironical because it is bluntly contradicted in Scripture and in the experience of the continuing biblical witness in history from the event of Pentecost unto the present moment. (1977:109-12).

In a ‘Homily on the Defeat of the Saints’, Stringfellow goes on to describe the way in which ‘Christians are authorized to recall political authority to the vocation of worship’ (by which is understood the right value or worth-ship of all things in relation to God) and to ‘reclaim dominion over creation for humanity.’ This calling, inevitably, produces conflict. But even here the approach of the Christian must confound expectations: ‘To bless the powers that be, in the midst of persecution, exposes and confounds their blasphemous status more cogently and fearlessly than a curse.’ (Wylie Kellermann 1994:349). 


Paul’s injunction (Romans 12.14) and Jesus’ practice of enemy-loving are rendered politically operative in an unsentimental but only uncommonly sensible way.  This is an ethic for an eschatological people who share none of the conventional assumptions about success, power, popularity, progress or effectiveness – and few if any of the privileges and investments these assumptions confer.

If Christ the Fool presides at the Feast of the Kingdom, as Stringfellow suggested through his love of circuses, then the company of Jesus will be equally ridiculous – and death-defying. So it is no surprise that this East Harlem lawyer consorted with the fractious, the disturbingly single-minded and the disobedient – an uncomfortable ekklesia of persons, church-going or not, whose whole business consisted in publicly not bowing the knee to the gods of the age. The Berrigan brothers, who he met in the mid-1960s, are among the best known of these consorts.


    
Christ as the meaning of the world

But who is this Christ who keeps such odd company, calls us to peculiarity, and justifies blatantly strange behaviour and speech?  He is none other than the One who reveals to us the true nature of the world, says Stringfellow:

The meaning of Jesus Christ is God's concern for and presence in this world.  The Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as people know it, and see it, and touch it, and smell it, and live and work in it.  That is why, incidentally, all the well meant talk of ‘making the gospel relevant’ to the life of the world is obscene: it secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumph and issues and efforts.  The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to people, to all people, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them which constitute our existence in this world.  That is the theology of the incarnation. (1961: 584-6).

What we have here is a particularity that issues in universality, a local that brings a global hope into a specific horizon without absorbing or dominating it:

Jesus Christ is the assurance that all of life, the life of every human and of the rest of creation, originates in and ends in the life of God.  Your life, or mine, or that of anybody, issues from the word of God.   This is and remains the essential truth about you or me or anybody, no matter whatever else may seem to be true. (1963:6-7).

This viewpoint is at once characteristically Christian and also affirming of human diversity – another Stringfellow distinctive in an age where the fruitless intra-theological battle over the ‘uniqueness’ or ‘finality’ of Jesus Christ continues to confuse the particularity of obedience in the now with the kind of ambition about universal systems that is actually contrary to a truly eschatological reading. By contrast, for Stringfellow God is decisively Christ like, but this in no way predisposes him to judge others too readily, to hijack Christ for one community only (even the one that names him), or to fall prey to the idea that the Word issues in a closed system.

    
God’s freedom and ours

What is at stake in all this is the relationship between the freedom of God and the freedom of human beings.  This was Barth’s theme, of course, and while Stringfellow enjoyed a natural affinity with the great Swiss theologian’s thought, his own provocations are too untidy and episodic to fall prey to that ‘positivism of revelation’ which Bonhoeffer deduced would result from Barth being turned into too much of a Barthian (c.f. John de Gruchy, 2000, passim). There is, indeed, something very akin to Bonhoeffer’s unswerving commitment to the freedom of the world as realisable within the freedom of God in Stringfellow’s assertion that:

One must somehow live in this world – just as it is and not always as one may wish it to be. One must gain one's redemption within it, not in separation from it. If one accepts the Christian Gospel one will work within it, helping to change it, by sharing with others the meaning and hope one has found in one's own redemption.  Thus one may experience the thrill that countless others have found in the knowledge that God is working through you, toward the consummation of your eternal purpose (1963).

Earlier in the same piece, on evangelism and conversion, he says:

The work of God which is conversion is truly saving in the most personal sense.  There is not – as some folk vainly preach – an element of self-denial or constriction in conversion. The converted do not denounce or give up that which they were before as persons. In conversion, that which they were before as persons is restored to them in maturity and fulfilment (1963).

Here we see Stringfellow speaking in personal language that is also political and cosmic in scope. Against those who have read into his work a mere political reductionism, this points to the deep spirituality which infuses his writing – born of much pain and personal turmoil. As Edwin Robertson once spoke of Bishop Bell, ‘nothing human was alien to him’. This resulted not in a rejection of ethics but in a refiguring of the ethical challenge to ‘live humanly’ in the face of inhuman forces, above all through a realisation of the transforming grace and judgement of God which goes far deeper than even our (his) most confident moral pronouncements.  Just as Jesus contended with the religious authorities in his day who wished to usurp to themselves the power to bless and curse, so Stringfellow refused to judge his enemies, even as he opposed them. 
....

(c) Simon Barrow, 2002


    
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