A Life Between: First in a Series

The Moral Power of Death

When I first heard anyone speak of “the moral power of death,” I thought I must have been mistaken. Morality is one thing; moral power might describe the morally responsible use of power; death is something else altogether.

“Death is not a power,” I said to myself. “Death has no power. Death is the total absence of power. Death is what happens at the end; it is passive — an outcome of death-dealing powers in life. It has no morality. Death makes no distinctions among the powers that delivers every one of us all into its final keeping — e.g., a cardiac arrest, a traffic accident, cancer, ALS, old age, a gun shot, a murder, a war, or suicide — death doesn’t know the difference. The variety of means that deliver us to the end are varied, but death is always the same. It takes us when life is gone. It has no power of its own. Why, then, speak of death as a moral power? Who would talk like that?”

A Strange Man Named Stringfellow

William Stringfellow saw things differently. Forgoing Wall Street law firms’ lucrative offers, he rented a small tenement apartment in East Harlem after graduation from Harvard Law School. “The stairway smelled of piss,” he write.

“The smells inside the tenement — number 18, 342 East 100th Street, Manhattan — were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.”

William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic (1964, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston).

Though I never had lived in a place like East Harlem, Stringfellow’s autobiographical polemic read like a personal letter. During the summers of 1961 and 1962, the hour-long daily commute between my suburban home and my summer internship on the streets of north Philadelphia put me in a dense fog between two different realities that had once seemed a world apart. The commutes became cognitive pauses that begged the fog to lift, but it didn’t . . . until three years later.

My People Is the Enemy became the text for the small group of seminarians engaged in bar ministry at Poor Richard’s in Chicago’s Old Town. Each Wednesday morning the seven of us convened at 6:00 a.m. to reflect on our experience at Poor Richard’s in light of Stringfellow’s book and to share a bare-bones Agape Meal.

My People Is the Enemy was transformative. I began to understand the title of Stringfellow’s book. Corinthian Avenue and Opal Street were not an accident. My people, not theirs, was the enemy. My people owned the tenements, evicted tenants, bribed the cops, provided the drugs, and red-lined property in Philadelphia, Broomall, and most everywhere else. My people, not the poor folks welfare, was the leach sucking blood from the ghetto we created and maintained. “My people” were the spillers and the sponges dependent on keeping the milk and hope spilling.

Stay tuned

Thanks for coming by.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief social commentaries on the news of the day, writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 27, 2022. 

2 thoughts on “A Life Between: First in a Series

  1. Yes. More are coming to awaken to this truth….death is the final statement for all of us, it is the absence of a fair life that is the slow diminishment of living. Being a person of priviledge because I am of the dominate culture it has been an awakening on top of many others. While living in white suburbia I became aware of things I missed, like sidewalks and alleys, a variety of different types of food from other parts of the world, and, other languages spoken. Coming from the city I noticed few people here use the bus. After 45 years here, kids are raised, on to the next generation, and am sad they don’t know diversity. These past two years of zoom gatherings has included many book groups around culture, race, and the intersectionality of -sims caused by power, both state and church. So….now that we are awake, what do we do? Can’t go back, now ordinary life in the suburbs is missing a full expression of all life for me. Am grateful for involvement in North Minneapolis, although since George Floyd’s murder it is less, covid but also a crack, a gap in relationship, unspoken, polite on zoom…hopefully being in person this summer will have opportunity to reconnect. Will be different. I am awake to being white. Being a restorative justice believer I assumed a heart posture of openness to talking, healing circles. Some of that has begun, but this will be a two generational process I think. Jesus never said it would be easy, but that He is with us on the journey. Our calling is to respond with love, release fear, bitterness, resentment or whatever anchor is weighing the heart. Trust we are part of the transition! Hugs, chris

    Sent from Mail for Windows

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    • Chris, what a thoughtful reflection. Your substance and writing are so rich You deserve a wider circle of influence. “What do we do?” During seven years at the Legal Rights Center I, too, was a participant in a north Minneapolis circle restorative justice circle and LRC became a significant player in restorative approaches for juveniles. The Mpls school system turns to LRC when a student is about to be expelled. It’s satisfying to know that our small effort is making a difference in the city.

      Soon Views will post “Every Day Is Earth Day.” I hits me like a ton of bricks. Our “House” (the good green Earth) is on path to becoming a heap of ashes. If the house becomes uninhabitable, all the justice and peace work to which we’ve given ourselves will be no more. Indeed, “What do we do?”

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