Sermon: Christus Victor: the Harrower of Hell

Video

My memory played a trick on me. The title of Richard Beck’s book is The Slavery of Death. I picked up the book in a bookstore to find that Beck is heavily influenced by William Stringfellow and Ernest Becker, two writers who have heavily influenced my developing view of life and death. It was Beck’s contrast between the Western Church’s accent on sin and the Eastern Church’s accent on death – or the fear of death – that brought the “Aha!” for this preacher.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“Let all religious people beware. Their earnest longing for God is predicated on the reservation on their part that it is necessary for them to do something to find God. The Word of God in the Bible, however, is that God does not await human initiative of any sort but seeks and finds [people] where they are, wherever it be.”

- William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy (Eerdman’s, 1967).

Inspired by Stringfellow’s writings, six students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago gathered weekly at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings with Professor Bruce Rigdon to reflect together on our late-night (10: p.m. – 2:00 a.m.) “bar ministry” at Poor Richard’s, a “secular” place, in light of Stringfellow’s writings. God was already present everywhere; our privilege was to recognize it in the world.

Outside the fence at the seminary students from the Moody Bible Institute targeted McCormick people with tracts that threatened Hell for the liberal “sinners” who didn’t recognize the depth of human depravity. They wanted to save the “wretched” seminarians who scorned every hint of a shame and guilt as the starting point of the Christian faith. We believed that grace was amazing and that it was everywhere, but Amazing Grace‘s “saved a wretch like me” was the language of Moody, a wallowing in shame and guilt from which we were proud to have been freed.

It’s 1966 in Chicago’s Old Town entertainment district. Kay Zimmerman, a dear friend and classmate who lost her sight at the age of nine, and I walk into Poor Richards arm-in-arm. The bar is unusually full. A young man jumps up on a table with his guitar and starts to strum out  the hymn we seminary students ridiculed for it’s wretched theology of human wretchedness: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me…” and everyone rose to their feet to join . “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Several years following ordination, the Chaplain of Milliken University (Decatur, IL) invited me to an evening with “Bill” Stringfellow. It was two weeks before Stringfellow was to undergo major exploratory surgery for a misdiagnosed illness that threatened his life. During an evening in Bill Bodamer’s home Stringfellow spoke in terms that captured my attention in a new way.

It was during that visit that I began to move theologically from the prevalent paradigm of good v. evil to what Stringfellow argued was the biblical paradigm of life v. death. Even yet today, I am still moving from under the spell of my own form of pietistic slavery to “goodness” into the freedom for which Christ has set me free.

Over the years that followed, Bill became a guest in our home during his visits to campus ministry programs at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northern New York Campus Ministry (Canton, NY), and The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My children remember this frail man with the searching eyes, sensing perhaps that his physical frailty not only revealed a human frailty he never denied but a powerful faith in God’s great extravagance.

The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain  with Him, no necessity to meet Him half-way,…no way in which His godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise. The futility of pietism, ending as it does in honoring death in the name of fidelity to God, is that God has triumphed over death already, in the here and now of this life. What is given to men, in that triumph, is not to add to God’s achievement, since it is decisive, and it is not to complete His work, since God is not negligent, and much less to ridicule God’s passion for this world by resort to moralistic legalism, mechanistic ritualism, doctrinaire meanness or any similar religious exercises.

“The vocation of men is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is  the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptation. This is the gift of God to all in Christ’s Resurrection.

“Men of this vocation count all trials as joys, for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trial is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.”

- William Stringfellow,  conclusion of Count It All Joy

“Let all religious people beware.”

“You can’t cheat an honest man”

William Stringfellow observed that the greatest personal challenge is to be the same person… in every time…in every place.

If I’d been able to whisper words into the President’s ear last night, or make him speak like an Edgar Bergen dummy on my lap, he would have asked, “Which of the different people you have been  – from which time…and from which place – is the one you asking the American people to vote for?”

But, alas, I only get to grump and moan, holding the President on my lap, like Mortimer Snerd on the lap of Edgar Bergen. Are we really that dumb?

A lot of gas is holding up this balloon.

America and “the Fall”

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange addressed the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. His speech is reminiscent of American theologian William Stringfellow who declared in 1968 that we were already living under the rule of “extra-constitutional powers and authorities” that operate covertly in the shadows of democracy.

Watch WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaking by satellite from Ecuador where he lives in exile. Unedited Politics deserves credit for posting this.  Of particular interest are references to President Obama that hold his Administration accountable while seeming to grant some credit and holding out hope that he might change things.

Julian Assange Speech to UN General Assembly: “US Trying to Erect National Secrecy Regime” – 9/26/12.

William Stringfellow

William Stringfellow – author, lay theologian, lawyer among the poor and defense attorney for Bishop James Pike and the Berrigan Brothers (Frs. Phil and Dan) – wrote the following in 1973:

“In this world as it is, in the era of time, in common history – in the epoch of the Fall, as the Bible designates this scene every principality has the elemental significance of death, notwithstanding contrary appearances. This is eminently so with respect to nations, for nations are, as Revelation indicates, the archetypical principalities… All virtues which nations elevate and idolize – military prowess, material abundance, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, high culture, racial pride, trade, prosperity, conquest, sport, language, or whatever – are

subservient to the moral presence of death in the nation. And it is the same with the surrogate nations – the other principalities like corporations and conglomerates, ideologies and bureaucracies, and authorities and institutions of every name and description…

“The Fall is where the nation is. The Fall is the locus of America… Since the climax of America’s glorification as a nation – in the ostensible American victory in World War II, most lucidly and aptly symbolized in Hiroshima – Americans have become so beleaguered by anxiety and fatigue, so bemused and intimidated, so beset by a sense of impotence and by intuitions of calamity, that they have, for

the most part, been consigned to despair… Racial conflict has been suppressed by an elaborate apartheid; products which supposedly mean abundance turn out to contaminate or jeopardize life; the environment itself is rendered hostile; there is a pervasive Babel; privacy is a memory because surveillance is ubiquitous; institutional coercion of human beings has proliferated relentlessly. Whatever must be said of earlier times, in the past quarter century, America has become a technological totalitarianism in which hope, in its ordinary connotations, is being annihilated.”

- An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, William Stringfellow, 1973. (Bolded print added by Views from the Edge)

“Sojourners” republishes piece today

Thanks to Sojourners for republishing a piece that first appeared here. Click I wish we were all that Crazy” to read the piece on Jim Wallis’ blog, “God’s Politics.”

If you missed it, it was a reflection on the late Bishop James Pike and the late William Stringfellow, the lawyer and lay theologian who defended the Bishop at the Episcopal Church’s heresy trial.

I wish we were all that crazy

Bishop James A. Pike (February 14, 1913 - September 1969)

Bishop James A. Pike (February 14, 1913 - September 1969)

It was a crazy week.I should rather say…I was a little crazy last week…in the sense that Bishop James Pike was a little crazy the night he walked down the hotel corridor in the altogether to knock on his friend William Stringfellow’s door at 4:00 in the morning.

According to the story, as told by Bill Stringfellow, the knock on his door awakened him from a sound sleep.

He opened the door to see the Bishop stark naked with a book in his hand. “Bill, you have to hear this! This is amazing!” The Bishop was oblivious to his nakedness. He plopped down in a chair and proceeded to tell his lawyer and his friend what he thought he had just discovered about Jesus in the wilderness. When he had shared the information, we wandered back down the hallway to his own room with his nose stuck in the book.

James Pike had become obsessed with Jesus in the wilderness. So absorbed in the Gospel accounts that he ate, drank, and slept them. His naked self was in those stories. Something about the wilderness temptations of Jesus consumed his total attention.

James Pike died sometime later in the Judean wilderness where the Gospels say Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights. The date of his death is known only as the month of September in the year 1969, about the same time that I met Bill Stringfellow.

Why do I tell this story now? I was a little like the Bishop last week with the story of Barabbas. I get like that sometimes. I’ve remembered to pull my pants on to take the dogs for a walk, but in every other way, I can identify with the completeness of James Pike’s attention to the biblical story. I’m a little ”nuts” – with apologies to everyone who knows better than to use that kind of pejorative language to describe a state of mental illness.

I write this today not to arrive at your door in the altogether to tell you what I think I’ve discovered about Barabbas. I write quite simply because I miss the likes of Bishop Pike and Bill Stringfellow. I feel the need to honor the sacred memory of two very strange saints, one of them (the Bishop) tried for heresy and the other (Bill) who defended him in the church courts. I’m grateful for the courage and idiosyncrasies that left the more conventional, less curious church bureaucrats and the House of Bishops mystified. Bill Stringfellow’s own words of tribute to his friend Jim speak, in hindsight, not only of the Bishop but of the Stringfellow himself. May the both rest in peace.

William Stringfellow (April 26, 1928 – March 2, 1985), lay theologian, lawyer, author, social critic, alien in a strange land.

“The death to self in Christ was neither doctrinal abstraction nor theological jargon for James Pike. He died in such a way before his death in Judea. He died to authority, celebrity, the opinions of others, publicity, status, dependence upon Mama, indulgences in alcohol and tobacco, family and children, marriage and marriages, promiscuity, scholarly ambition, the lawyer’s profession, political opportunity, Olympian discourses, forensic agility, controversy, denigration, injustice, religion, the need to justify himself.By the time Bishop Pike reached the wilderness in Judea, he had died in Christ. What, then, happened there was not so much a death as a birth.”

I wish we were all that crazy.

To learn more about Bishop Pike, click HERE. For William Stringfellow, click HERE.

Elie Wiesel on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author and survivor of the Holocaust, has called on Mitt Romney to join him in calling on the Church of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”) to stop baptizing Jews who have died.  I wrote the following comment on the Huffington Post story:

We’re taught, and rightly so, to be respectful of religions and views different from our own. But that does not erase the responsibility to think critically about one’s beliefs and practices or those of others. I have the greatest respect for Elie Wiesel and am grateful to him for exposing a practice that insults every Jew, every Christian, every Muslim, every Buddhist, everyone who could not in good conscience embrace any religion at all, by imposing Mormon baptism. Nothing could be more arrogant. The proxy baptisms are not the only beliefs and practices that deserve thoughtful examination. More troublesome to me is the underlying Mormon assumptions that make the United States of America the very center of all human history – the alleged geography of a real Garden of Eden (in Missouri) and of the Second Coming of Christ (also in Missouri). As much as the proxy baptisms, those beliefs should send chills down the spines of everyone whose God belongs to no one nation, no one culture, no one religion – the God of the heavens and the Earth “Whose ways are not our ways and Whose thoughts are not our thoughts.”

An earlier commentary on the matter (posted earlier) addresses the matter moer fully. It’s a reflection that includes a visit to the Mormon Visitation Center in NYC. Let me know what you think.

The God of American Exceptionalism

Gordon C. Stewart          February 7, 2012

Jacket of My People Is the Enemy

“The stairway smelled of piss….

This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri .

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

The Jesus Beyond Our Categories

Steve Shoemaker, host of “Keepin the Faith” (WILL/AM, Illinois Public Media) emailed this morning asking for thoughts about a post on “Protestants for the Common Good: ‘People of Faith Advancing Justice in Public Life’”: Can Christians Be Conservative? - an insiders’ academic debate among contemporary Christian theologian-ethicists. It’s worth a read. Tell me what you think.

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m not sure quite how to respond to the piece or the discussion. Off the top, I would say that Jesus himself didn’t neatly fit any of the four polar categories: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary. Even more, if the question whether the “authentic Christian” can be a conservative is more than a rhetorical question, it should be immediately dismissed – the question itself means that the answer has already been decided in the negative. Sort of like the question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”

Greenfield’s take on Mark 1 is interesting, but, on first reading, it seems to me to miss the point that John the Baptist’s wilderness movement involved all four dimensions. It was conservative, liberal, reactionary, and revolutionary all at the same time. The trek to the Jordean wilderness was a reaction to the collusion between the local religious and political authorities (e.g. Vichy France?) and their Roman (e.g. Third Reich) occupiers. It was also a revolutionary call for a new social order, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” The grounds for that claim sprang out of the tradition that John and Jesus were conserving, while liberating it from captivity to the spirit of self-serving gains, idolatrous collaboration, self-righteousness and ethnocentrism. In short, the John-Jesus movement doesn’t fit nicely in any one or two categories.

Everywhere I look in the Gospels, I see a Jesus who doesn’t fit our categories. I still don’t know what to do with him.  “Can a Christian be conservative?” assumes from that outset that to be conservative is to be an “inauthentic” Christian. But even if one believes that conservative views and practices are inimical to the way of Jesus, there is the deeper question that puts that question in proper perspective: “Can a sinner be a Christian?” Only a sinner can be a disciple of Jesus. Some of the sinners and sins are primarily conservative, some liberal, some reactionary, and some revolutionary by disposition and by political persuasion. Most of us are some strange mixture of the four. So I would answer Larry’s question “Can Christian be conservative?” with “You betcha!”  How do I know?  Because it’s the wrong question. I don’t get to choose who is “authentically” Christian anymore than Jesus let his detractors decide.  Moreover, I know conservatives who call themselves Christian who put my stewardship and hands-on work with the poorest of the poor to shame. While I’m calling for the revolution, the conservatives I have in mind spend every Saturday preparing and serving meals at the homeless shelter and every Sunday afternoon after putting up with my sermons visiting people they know in town who are down and out – slipping them $100 bills so the utilities don’t get turned off – while I, having preached the revolution, go out for lunch and then go home for a nap.

William Stringfellow stops us all cold in our tracks with his criticism of the church:

Christ’s is a ministry of great extravagance – of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of his life for the sake of the world’s life. Christ gives away his life. The world finds new life in His life and in His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not – by ordinary standards – a very successful life. He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics…not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed him, not even those who betrayed him, not even his own enemies. He shunned no one. The words that [describe] the ministry of Christ are…sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical, unpopularity. They are the words of agony. It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.

For Stringfellow the gospel was the vitality of the Word-made-flesh among the principalities and powers of death in this world. None of us has a corner on that Word. One might say that for Stringfellow there is a fifth category that describes the authentic following of Jesus: the life of ‘resistance’ as articulated in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and The Politics of Spirituality, books uniquely addressed to the church in the American situation.

The question, it seems to me, is beyond ethics, and it is certainly beyond the false choice between the polar opposites: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary: Can or should a Christian be conservative, liberal, a reactionary, or a revolutionary? The ethics question rises from the theological-faith question: “Where today do we encounter the vitality of th e Word Made Flesh,and, in that encounter, who and how does God call us to be among the principalities and powers as the sinful, timid, confused, forgiven and redeemed disciples of Jesus

In terms of Christian ethics, as I see it, the answer, depending on the situation, involves all four dimensions supplemented by Stringfellow’s fifth descriptor.

I see elements of all five, for example, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who boldly conserved the tradition against the false interpretation of the German Third Reich and its ecclesiastical collaborators and paid the price with bodily resistance. Yes?  No? Maybe?

Look forward to hearing your comments.