The Common Good
July-August 1995

Listen, Trust, Discern, and Live the Word

by Randy A. Newlson | July-August 1995

The theology and life of William Stringfellow

In the fall of 1964, I entered seminary for ordination having just returned from a year of study in Europe. I had left the United States the year before, shortly after the bombing of an Alabama church in which four young black girls had been killed. I returned to the United States shortly after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Those two events were formative in defining the issues of the decade. And one of the most important voices with respect to both of those issues was an Episcopalian lawyer and lay theologian by the name of William Stringfellow.

Not long after beginning seminary, I first learned of Stringfellow with the publication of his book My People Is the Enemy. It was based primarily on his experiences living in East Harlem, first as a staff member of the East Harlem Protestant Parish and then on his own. For a generation of seminarians anxious to redress social injustice, Stringfellow symbolized, through his life and his writing, an advocacy stance on behalf of the poor that the times, and the gospel, seemed to demand.

Until his death in March 1985, Stringfellow was a prolific writer and frequent speaker and lecturer, often in spite of severe health issues that finally claimed his life at the age of 56. Now, 10 years after his death, none of his books are in print, and this current generation of seminarians (as well as most contemporary Christian laypeople) hardly know his name.

That, in itself, is sufficient reason to welcome the recent appearance of two books designed to bring Stringfellow's life and work to the attention of a new generation of readers. Keeper of the Word, except for a brief introduction by editor Bill Wylie Kellermann, consists of selections from virtually all of Stringfellow's own work. Andrew McThenia's Radical Christian and Exemplary Lawyer is a collection of essays reflecting on the impact of Stringfellow on those who knew him or have been affected by what he did and said. Each, in its own way, seeks to acquaint this generation with the thought and life of this remarkable man. (Stringfellow, however, would likely disavow such a description, for in his own mind he was simply living out his vocation as a Christian, a vocation which he shared with all other Christians.)

STRINGFELLOW exercised a commanding voice in the social and religious turmoil that characterized the U.S. social scene in the '60s and '70s-not that he was always well-received and certainly not by religious and political leaders. For example, he was outspoken in his criticism of the leadership of his own church, calling in an open letter for the Episcopal presiding bishop to resign because of what Stringfellow considered the bishop's abdication of leadership with respect to the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. Earlier, the federal government had sought to have him jailed for providing hospitality to Daniel Berrigan when Berrigan was under indictment for actions taken in opposition to the Vietnam War.

All of this and much more is brought back to public awareness through Kellermann's skillful editing of Stringfellow's work. Sometimes convoluted and dense in his style of writing, Stringfellow is not always easy to read or understand. Kellermann's choice of material, as well as the way in which he has arranged it, has made Stringfellow's thought quite accessible. What emerges is the portrait of a man, as well as a theological perspective that has much to contribute to contemporary theological discussion.

Stringfellow's understanding of theology, for example, challenges all Christians to see life holistically, while calling professional theologians to accountability in the exercise of their responsibilities.

There is nothing whatever in the experience in history of human beings or nations that is not essentially theological, and the discipline of academics is not to speculate or innovate from [some] supposed stance on the outside of common experience but to expound and enlighten empirical reality, relating inheritance, memory, and the happenings of the past to the contemporary scene, alert for portents of that which is to come in this world.

Likewise, Stringfellow serves as a corrective voice to any attempts to limit the scope of biblical authority to the privacy of the believer's relationship with God.

The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.

What Kellermann's book does very well is lay before a new generation of readers the theme that is at the heart of Stringfellow's theology: namely, that of the principalities and powers. Stringfellow looks at the world with an uncompromising realism, and what he sees is a world under the Fall described in apocalyptic tones. His first systematic treatment of these themes occurred with the 1973 publication of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

Many readers, even some sympathetic to Stringfellow, found the description of a society under the domination of death to be excessively harsh. But from Stringfellow's perspective, it was not a hopeless picture. It was simply a realistic one based on his reading of the Bible, his involvement in the social realities of his time, and his own personal battle with illness and disease. Each source contributed to his awareness that in a world after the Fall, institutions, structures, and ideologies are themselves fallen, have become idolatrous, and serve the power of death. Thus, resistance is the only human way to live; and in resistance to the power of death, the even greater power of God is made manifest and the veracity of the resurrection is verified.

He describes his experience of the '60s thus:

The decade locates me, at its outset, deeply in the midst of work as a white lawyer in Harlem, but it closes in fragile survival of prolonged, obstinate, desperate illness. It begins in social crisis; it ends in personal crisis. For me, these are equally profound because the aggression of death is the moral reality pervasive in both and, moreover, the grace to confront and transcend death is the same in each crisis.

Kellermann's selections place that theology in the context of a very human life, lived courageously in the face of often overwhelming pain. And as principalities and powers, ideologies and structures continue to hold sway, what was learned under the Nazi tyranny needs to be affirmed now as well: "The integrity of resistance to the power of death [is] the only way to live humanly." Furthermore, there continues to be "relevance and resilience [to] the biblical style of life."

In this 10th-anniversary year of William Stringfellow's death, Kellermann's book of selected writings gives expression both to the integrity of resistance and a biblical style of life.

McTHENIA'S VOLUME consists of three sets of essays about Stringfellow. The first two sets-those concerned with the themes of the principalities and powers and the apocalyptic, and those that are primarily personal remembrances-work very well as a companion to the Kellermann volume. The third set of essays-those concerned with the law and the legal profession-were less helpful and less interesting to this reviewer, with one or two exceptions.

What both volumes demonstrate, however, is that there was an integrity to the witness of William Stringfellow that authenticates both his theology and his life. That integrity is rooted in scripture and can be summed up in the advice that Stringfellow gave to people across the religious spectrum-"listen to the Word, trust the Word, discern the Word, live the Word." That is what William Stringfellow was all about.

RANDY A. NELSON is the director of contextual education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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