William Stringfellow

July 16, 2010

To retrace my path to Stringfellow is to try to follow a rather tangled thread (or string).

Alas, I have completely forgotten how I came to take an interest in Stanley Hauerwas, who really helped me out when he wrote, “I am still mad as hell at Christians, which certainly includes myself, for making the practice of the Christian faith so uninteresting.” I can’t even be sure of the year. It was some moment before the children were born and after the Towers fell, a moment in my life when I was seeking to open myself to risky social intercourse with Christians and acknowledge that I too was a Christian, or finally become a Christian. Somehow I heard about Hauerwas. His humor, which often managed to be self-deprecating and abusive at the same time, succeeded in making the practice of the Christian faith more interesting. The first book of his I picked up at the library, A Better Hope, had an essay on homosexuality and marriage that was by far the best thing I’d ever read on the topic. It was angry, funny, ambivalent and humane. It was content to resolve nothing, and so could shed light on nearly everything.

Flashing forward to the spring of 2009, I’d learned from an activist and writer named Dan Oudshoorn, whose blog I was following, about a conference in Toronto where Stanley Hauerwas would be speaking. Squee! Marlene and I had a meeting of the minds about a weekend trip to Toronto, my folks took the kids, and somehow we made it there. The theme of the conference was “Amidst the Powers,” and the other two speakers were Walter Wink and Marva Dawn. I started doing some reading on Wink before the conference, and was fascinated by his story. I’ll say more about that in another post, but suffice it to say that he was powerfully influenced by some guy named William Stringfellow and his book, provocatively titled Free in Obedience. I was drawn deeper into this question of the “powers and principalities,” and soon found that other people writing interesting things about it (Yoder, for example, in The Politics of Jesus) also mentioned Stringfellow. Finally, I wised up and got an anthology of his writing out of the library. I then proceeded to read it, little by little, and some parts repeatedly, and renewed it 23 times. I didn’t even know the library allowed so many renewals! It was one of the few books of theology which I have been seriously tempted to read aloud to my wife (who either has an allergy to Christianity or is immune to it, depending on how you look at it).

Then I realized that before I’d even learned about him from Wink, I’d actually already read about Stringfellow in a lovely memoir called Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will Campbell. Stringfellow plays a small but memorable role in one of that book’s many mesmerizing anecdotes:

1963 was a Kennedy year in America. It was a hundred years after Lincoln. Race was the prevailing issue and was still seen as a distinctively Southern problem. Government agencies, private organizations and philanthropic organizations with names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were pouring millions of dollars into the South for what had become known as Human Relations. And the churches decided to involve themselves in the social scene of the nation in a way they had not done since Prohibition. It was still token – one major denomination gave more than two hundred times as much that year to enrolling converts in foreign lands as for all social ills at home – but there were those who were at least trying.

In January of that year a conference was convened by leaders of the major religious faiths. In the planning stages it was called the Centennial Conference on Religion and Race. Centennial because it was to be held on the very day the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed one hundred years earlier. But the name got changed along the way. Some on the planning committee didn’t want to be reminded of the national institution of slavery. Just the institution of segregation. So it was named the National Conference on Religion and Race.

It was intended to be a gathering of thousands of people who would make their voice heard so loudly that it would make any further conference unnecessary. Names like Dr. Abraham Heschel, later known for his leadership in opposing the Vietnam War, Sargent Shriver, then Director of the Peace Corps, but also brother-in-law to the President, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were prominent on the playbill…

The conference, held in Chicago, began harmoniously enough with Rabbi Heschel declaring in the keynote address that “at the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses, when Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’ The exodus began, but it is far from being completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

His words of humor and wisdom were enough to bring the enthusiastic delegates to their feet. Everyone knew where those university campuses were. A few minutes later the unity was disrupted when William Stringfellow, then a relatively unknown attorney and theologian from New York, and one of three people who had been asked to respond to the address, stood up and calmly stated, “The issue, the only issue at this conference is baptism.” The delegates came to their feet again. But not with applause. Boos, jeers, and catcalls from outraged Christians filled the hall in apology to the offended Jews who sat in stunned silence. The remainder of the session concerned itself far more with Mr. Stringfellow’s words than with the solution to the racial crisis. Nothing can be more hostile and boisterous than 657 liberals bent on solving someone else’s problem when the harmony and unanimity of the occasion is threatened. We were not, after all, in agreement as to why we were there.

I love that. Stringfellow is this enigmatic figure who comes into focus for just a moment, then fades into obscurity, leaving chaos in his wake.

The more I thought about that anecdote, in light of having read some of Stringfellow’s work, the more curious I was about just what it was that Stringfellow said that Monday in Chicago. Fortunately, he has a groupie, Bill Wylie-Kellerman who has commented on this incident in more detail. In a piece called “Not Vice Versa,” originally published in the Anglican Theological Review (Fall 1999), he quotes a transcript of Stringfellow’s complete response to Heschel:

From the point of view of either biblical religion, the monstrous American heresy is in thinking that the whole drama of history takes place between God and humanity. But the truth, biblically and theologically and empirically is quite otherwise: the drama of this history takes place amongst God and humanity and the principalities and powers, the great institutions and ideologies active in the world. It is the corruption and shallowness of humanism which beguiles Jew or Christian into believing that human beings are masters of institution or ideology. Or to put it differently, racism is not an evil in human hearts or minds, racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence in their lives.

…This [racism] is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame. In other words, the issue here is not equality among human beings. The issue is not some common spiritual values, nor natural law, nor middle axioms. The issue is baptism. The issue is the unity of all humankind wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all humanity in God.

This is a very illuminating, if brief, excerpt from the man’s thought. I’m going to focus on his theories about the “powers and principalities,” in a future post, but I’ll emphasize in advance they only represent an aspect of his theology, the beating heart of which was Jesus, and the enjoyable prospect of sacramentally participating in the life of Jesus Christ.


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