Saturday, August 05, 2006

Reading Stringfellow

Reminded by Kwakersauer (scroll down to July 21 or so) of William Stringfellow, I went to our new library and checked out three of his books. (I'm indifferent to the new building in general, but I'm delighted that upwards of 90% of its collection is now on the open stacks for browsing; previously only about 60% was, that made browsing a drag.)

I first heard of Stringfellow when I edited a story in my college newspaper about his visit to campus. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet him. He is usually described as a lay Episcopal theologian, and it is also usually mentioned that he was a Harvard-trained lawyer who practiced for ten years or so in East Harlem. He is of the generation of my teachers, and now 30 years later I finally am getting a clue as to what they were talking about, trying to get us to learn.

I've found his writing to be at once provocative, challenging, chillingly contemporary and yet in a language and writing style that is so quintessentially 60's that he takes me back in time. A brief excerpt illustrates both the style and substance of Stringfellow's writing:

According to the biblical witness, death is not the decisive moral power in history, but it is the only moral power the State (or any other principalities) can invoke as a sanction against human beings and against human life as such. That is, also, plainly to be seen now in this nation: death is the moral power upon which the State relies when it removes citizens from society for preventive detention or other political imprisonment, or when it estops free speech, or when it militarizes the police, or when it drives youth into exile, or when it confines millions in black ghettos and consigns millions more to malnutrition and illiteracy, or when it manipulates inflation and credit to preoccupy, demoralize, and thereby conform the middle classes, or when it purchases grapes of lettuce to covertly break a strike, or when it collusively abets a governor's defiance of the courts, or when it hunts priests as fugitives.

No wonder, in the earlier circumstances, when the State confronted Christ the king -- Christ the free human being -- that it should find him a criminal and send Him to the cross.

And no wonder, at this moment, in this country, where the power of death is so militant in the universities, in the corporate structures, in the churches, in the labor movement, in the political institutions, in the Pentagon, in the business of science, in the technological order, in the environment itself, in the realms of ideology, in the State, that, as with Jesus, the Christian, living as a free man, living in transcendence of death's power, living, thus, as an implacable, insatiable, unappeasable, tireless, and resilient revolutionary, would be regarded by all authorities as a criminal.

As in the time of the trial of Jesus Christ, so in this day and place, to be truly a free man is to be a criminal.
(from Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1971) (written with Anthony Towne).

The quote is from a sermon Stringfellow gave in 1969 at Cornell University, prior to Daniel and Phillip Berrigan's failure to show up for prison after exhausting their appeals of their conviction for obstructing conscription by (with seven others) burning draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968. Eventually, after an amazing time in the underground, where he surfaced to give sermons in several prominent churches only to slip away again, Dan Berrigan was arrested by the FBI at Stringfellow's and Towne's home (called "Eschaton") on Block Island, RI. Stringfellow and Towne were later indicted for harboring a fugitive, but the charges were dismissed by the federal judge.

I just love his long, precise, digressive, parenthetical-filled sentences, a writing style that is long out of fashion but which I love. Kwakersauer complained mildly that Stringfellow is hard to read, and it's an accurate criticism, but only in the same way that it's hard to eat a sandwich made with thick slabs of 7-grain bread: you've got to chew a lot, and it takes a while, but when you're done you feel like you've accomplished something worthwhile.

But more important, I am captivated by his message which is largely captured by the quote above. I may write a little more about my responses to his writing later, but here is (free registration with Sojourners required) an essay that summarizes what he was about. One thing I'm mulling over is how his theology, which is radically Gospel, resurrection, and biblically based and focuses on how Christians engage a fallen world jibes with Quaker understandings of the nature of the world.

Revised 8-5-06 to try to fix the Sojourner's link and to insert paragraph spaces in quote.


Liz Opp said...

Your link of the new Minneapolis downtown library caught my eye... since I had found this other, interactive link the night before I came across this post!

Sorry I don't have anything to add about Stringfellow...

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Liz Opp said...

P.S. Not sure if the link in my original comment, above, is time-sensitive or not. Oh well. -Liz Opp

Matt said...

I'm so glad to read this -- I was recently referred to the writings of Stringfellow by a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest, and am currently reading a collection of excerpts from his various books. I also have two books on order, so I look forward to reading quite a bit more.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this remarkable writer!

- Matt

forrest said...

Both he and Walter Wink took up the questions of whether, and in what sense, the "powers" are a reality apart from their specific embodiments in one institution or another. Wink has certainly worshipped with Quakers; I don't know whether he actually joined up with us or not. People drawn to activism often find some resonance with this early church notion, because it fits our experience of continually finding the same demons in charge, whatever outward changes we might effect--or whatever specific organization or institution we may be addressing.

I don't find Quakers in general to be much drawn to the notion. I do think they might find it useful toward understanding our collective condition, which leaves us free from some of the more popular public insanities, while still ultimately captive to their underlying premises. (You can find what I've made of all this in a series of posts at I used Stringfellow a lot, but ended up not quoting him nearly as much because a Quaker editor evidently found them less compelling than I had.

Stringfellow's understanding of the Bible... verbally this was very far from ours; he grew up speaking a different theological language. But I think the way he describes finding the immanent word of God in his readings of the text... was much closer than it sounds to how our founders approached the Bible--and this world we are also given to 'read.' I don't claim to "understand" him, just to believe he had a valuable take on It All.