Thursday 12 March 2009

Stringfellow on American leaders

“The … ingenious aggressions of the principalities against human life in society, the victimisation of human beings … by the demonic powers exposes a crucial aspect of the contemporary American social crisis. The American problem is not so simple that it can be attributed to a few – or even many – evil men in high places…. Our men in high places are not exceptionally immoral; they are, on the contrary, quite ordinarily moral. In truth, the conspicuous moral fact about our generals, our industrialists, our scientists, our commercial and political leaders is that they are the most obvious and pathetic prisoners in American society. There is unleashed among the principalities in this society a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process which assaults … and destroys human life even among, and primarily among, those persons in positions of institutional leadership. They are left with titles but without effectual authority; with the trappings of power, but without control over the institutions they head; in nominal command, but bereft of dominion…. The most poignant victim of the demonic in America today is the so-called leader” (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, pp. 88-89).


Alex said...


First of all correct me if I'm misinterpreting because I don't have the benefit of the context of Stringfellow's quotes. But I've noticed one consistent theme in all the quotes I've seen of him from both you and Halden. And hopefully you and/or him can respond to this. That theme is "the principalities." Stringfellow seems to be interpreting this phrase to mean the ruling powers, such as governments, empires, and maybe even totalitarian regimes that thrive on death. But doesn't Paul explicitly make a distinction between flesh and blood regimes and something else which he calls "principalities and powers"? It seems like Stringfellow is equating the two, or if not equating, coming really close to doing so? What difference is there if any between principality (in Paul's sense, since it is the only one that matters since he introduced the word into Christian conversation) and empire/regime? Can you or Halden or anyone else who is familiar with the writings help me flesh out the distinction?

Again, the reason I think it's so important is that Paul is making, not an implicit, but an explicit distinction between some thing and something else. And I'd like to know what two things Stringfellow, to the best of your interpretation, thinks Paul was distinguishing between when he said "flesh and blood" as opposed to "principalities and powers."

Hopefully my ramble made some sense.

gbroughto said...

Hi Alex,

I'll jump in here, and rather than quoting more Stringfellow, I'll refer to his "French double" Jacques Ellul, who says this about "the powers" - which I think answers you question. For Ellul (and I think Stringfellow shares this understanding) they exist "only in relation to us" (a favourite phrase of Ellul's when talking about the principalities - usually translated from the French as "dominions" - and powers):

"What we know is that they exist only in and by their relation to us... In other words, we are not possessed by something that is intrinsically evil. We are possessed by something that uses what is already ours.

The Bible refers to six evil powers: Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death. This is enough. Concerning these six, one might remark that if we compare them we find that they are all characterized by their functions: money, power, deception, accusation, division, and destruction.
In other words, they are not a kind of reality of their own.
We are told about powers that are concretely at work in the human world and have no other reality or mystery... they exist only in relation to us."

Ellul, Jacques. The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986, pp. 174-6

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