Friday 6 March 2009

William Stringfellow: a special offer

Thanks to our friends at Wipf & Stock, all of William Stringfellow’s works are now available to F&T readers at a big discount: if you buy any of his books from their website (they have reprinted all his works), you can enter the coupon code STRINGFELLOW40 to receive a 40% discount off the retail price.

Stringfellow’s work has made an enormous impression on me over the past months – I discovered him only recently (thanks to the suggestion of some F&T readers), and since then I’ve read nearly all his works and have thought about him constantly. (Even in Princeton last year, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade folks there to read less Barth and more Stringfellow – since what Barthians today need is precisely a good dose of theological ethics!)

If you’re interested in exploring Stringfellow for the first time, then let me offer a few tips. Personally, I think Free in Obedience is his best book; after that, I’d recommend another superb book on ethics, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Together with these two books, much of his best writing is found in his works of “autobiographical theology” (this is Stringfellow’s own peculiar genre), particularly in his profound meditation on personal illness, A Second Birthday, and in his deeply moving reflections on loss and mourning, A Simplicity of Faith.

Not convinced that you need more Stringfellow in your life? Okay, let me briefly outline a couple of his central themes and preoccupations:

The most striking feature of Stringfellow’s work is his powerful analysis and critique of the “principalities.” For him, the principalities are institutionalised forms of death. Institutions exist for the sake of their own expansion and self-perpetuation; they are not subject to human control, but are autonomous entities vis-à-vis all human agency. Human beings often believe “that they control the institution; whereas, in truth, the principality claims them as slaves” (Free in Obedience, p. 99). The institution seeks only its own prosperity and preservation, and it demands the absolute sacrifice of human life for this goal. “In the end, the claim for service that an institution makes upon human beings is an invitation to surrender their lives in order that the institution be preserved and prosper” (Free in Obedience, pp. 56-57).

The institution thus summons us to death: our idolatrous service to the institution is always a worship of death. “Death is the only moral significance which a principality proffers human beings…. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is – apart from God himself – the greatest moral power in the world, outlasting and subduing all other powers” (Ethic, p. 81). So each institution’s quest for survival and self-perpetuation is nothing else than “an absurd tribute to death” (Ethic, p. 90). And the autonomy of these principalities shows the utter vanity of liberal theology’s social gospel: “any social change predicated upon mere human action – whether prompted by a so-called social gospel or motivated by some pietism – is doomed” (Ethic, p. 18).

Stringfellow analyses the function of many types of institutions. For example, he critiques (based on his own experience as a street lawyer in Harlem) the capacity of the legal system to function as an “aggressor” against human life. It is mere sophistry to assume that injustice is merely occasional or aberrant; instead, injustice is built into the very functioning of law as such (Ethic, pp. 84-86). Or, again, he exposes the demonic character of the Protestant work ethic – an “obscene idea of justification” (Dissenter in a Great Society, p. 40) – which underlies middle-class America. “Despite all the ingenious pretensions and vain rationalizations to the contrary, men, according to the Bible, quite literally work to death” (Imposters of God, p. 25). Service to a middle-class work ethic is always ultimately an obscene tribute to death’s victory, and thus a denial of the gospel’s call to freedom from death.

But above all, Stringfellow’s prophetic importance lies in his critique of the way churchly institutions themselves function as demonic principalities. The demonic character of churchly institutions “cannot be hidden by the simple retention of some of the condiments of the Christian faith”; indeed: “Much of what is now discussed and practised in the American churches as the witness of the Church does not really pertain to the witness of the Church to the life and action of God in the world, but rather to the witness of the Church to itself as churchly institution” (Free in Obedience, p. 96). In particular, both “gospel and church [have] become adjuncts or conveyances of civil religion and of a mock-sanctified status of political authority” (Conscience and Obedience, p. 49). The church in America, Stringfellow argues, “has gained so huge a propertied interest that its existence has become overwhelmingly committed to the management of property and the maintenance of the ecclesiastical fabric which that property affords. It is a sign certainly of the demonic in institutional life where the survival of the principality is the dominant morality” (Conscience and Obedience, p. 103).

In all this, Stringfellow’s point is not to advocate any cheap anarchist refusal of institutional life; he is not dreaming of a world without institutions (cf. Free in Obedience, p. 94). Instead, his point is that Christ’s resurrection empowers us to exist with freedom within the various institutions by which our lives are structured; free to live and work without anxiety, without looking to any institution for moral worth or immortality. In short, the Christian is free to obey precisely because she is free from death and from the fear of death. “[Christ’s] resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death” (Free in Obedience, p. 72). The task of Christian witness is always “to expose the transience of death’s power in the world” (Free in Obedience, p. 44); and the church is liberated to become something like the true institution, the “exemplary principality” (as Stringfellow somewhere calls it) which fulfills its proper calling by serving God instead of death.

The resurrection of Jesus thus interrupts the demonic rule of the principalities, inaugurating a trajectory of freedom and life amidst the death-regime of the principalities. In this way, the resurrection makes it possible to confront and resist the demands of the principalities in true freedom. “In all idolatry, … death is the reality which is actually worshipped. Death is the deity of all idols; every idol is an acolyte of death…. In light of the Gospel, every life, every person, every event, is included in the context of death and resurrection – of death and the resurrection of life, of death and transcending the power of death…. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means the available power of God confronting and transcending the power of death here and now in the daily realities of our lives” (Imposters of God, pp. 63-65).

If this has whet your appetite, then you really should get into some Stringfellow for yourself: if you want a 40% discount off the retail price, just enter the coupon code STRINGFELLOW40 over at Wipf & Stock.


Peter Carey said...

Thanks for this posting, I am a big fan of Strinfellow...

(Just as an fyi, the discount is only 25%...)

I plan to order at least a couple of these.


Ben Myers said...

Hi Peter. Just to clarify — the web prices at Wipf & Stock are already reduced from the retail price; this additional discount makes it a total of 40% off the retail price (which might be an additional 25% or whatever). Sorry for the confusion...

Peter Carey said...

ah, Ben, now I see!

Many thanks - very good!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous, thanks!

Bob said...

Hi Ben,

Wonderful stuff. It seems he offers an alternative to the Neo-Cal temptation of blindly embracing institutions and the Anabaptist assumption of the church as a principality-less polity. If so this distinction might provide a more promising way to locate the powers.

I will definitely pick up Stringfellow. Thank you for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Ben.. and thanks for the discount! I recall Stringfellow from my undergrad days, years ago... maybe I heard of him via Sojourners or Radix... and had forgotten about him, sad to say! I took advantage of the discount and ordered Free in Obedience and look forward to reading it...

Anonymous said...

I have his works from used bookstores. I ALMOST did my dissertation on Stringfellow. An amazing human being.

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