Recently Wipf & Stock Publishers reissued three books by the late Episcopalian lay theologian William Stringfellow: An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Conscience and Obedience, and Instead of Death. Bill Wylie-Kellermann reflects on the significance of these books for our day.
WILLIAM STRINGFELLOW was from day one a contributing editor (and theological mentor) to Sojourners and its earlier incarnation, The Post-American. Hence, the publication of these volumes, the first in a reviving series of his remarkable corpus, should be most welcome to readers of this magazine. And they couldn't come at a more welcome moment. This, not only because their appearance roughly marks the 20th anniversary of Stringfellow's death, March 2, 1985, but because their clear-eyed prescience will serve Christians and others in the current historical moment. These were important books when they were written and may actually prove even more so now. As Karl Barth, the great German theologian, once quipped to an audience regarding Stringfellow, "'You should listen to this man!" It is not too late to heed him.
Of Stringfellow's 16 books, these three, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Lank Conscience and Obedience, and Instead of Death, comprise something of an ethics trilogy. Stringfellow himself regarded the first two in such a relationship (anticipating another unfinished at his death), and the latter serves well to suggest a sequence. In their previous form, these books were published within the four years from 1973 to 1977, a tumultuous period in U.S. politics that encompassed the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Nixon presidency under the weight of Watergate, the elaborate mythic ritualization of the Bicentennial celebration, and the emergence of what Stringfellow termed "technocratic totalitarianism."
Because his ethics are sacramental and incarnational, advocating discernment of the Word within the contestations of history, mentioning those events is not incidental. What remains so striking is that his uttered vision in that moment and from that vantage should peer so deeply and precisely into our own. These books fall open as to the present, unsealing the signs of our own times. Technocratic totalitarianism indeed.
BECAUSE STRINGFELLOW urges a biblical ethic that is rooted in vocation--thus implicating our lives, our biographies, and our identities in the Word of God--it is apropos to mention his own involvements in this period. Stringfellow was then living with his partner, Anthony Towne, on Block Island off the Atlantic coast, where he kept something of a monastic regimen and was active in town politics. Having recently survived life-threatening illness, he remained a permanent, if vigorous, invalid--managing thronghout to travel, speak, and write with great authority. He was certainly the subject of government surveillance in these years, having recently been indicted for "harboring a fugitive," namely his friend, the anti-war priest and poet Daniel Berrigan. In this same period, moreover, he himself had called for the impeachment of President Nixon, prior to Watergate and on the basis of war crimes. Meanwhile on the churchly front, he served as canonical counselor and defender of the first Episcopal women priests irregularly ordained.
Years prior Stringfellow had been an international leader in the postwar ecumenical student movement, and in that connection first heard tell of the "principalities and powers" in the sober witness of those emerging from the confessional resistance movements of Europe. That theological insight was verified by his own experience in New York's East Harlem ghetto where, after graduation from Harvard Law School in 1956, he took up residence to practice and improvise street law. His neighbors spoke openly of the police, the Mafia, the welfare bureaucracy, even the utility companies as though they represented the power of death, predatory creatures arrayed against the community. …