About Gordon C. Stewart

I've always liked quiet. And, like most people, I've experienced the world's madness. "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Jan. 2017) distills 47 years of experiencing stillness and madness as a campus minister and Presbyterian pastor (IL, WI, NY, OH, and MN), poverty criminal law firm executive director, and social commentator. Our dog Barclay reminds me to calm down and be much more still than I would be without him.

The Sin that Comprehends All Others

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Recent talk of “Willful blindness” in reference to the House Select Committee on January 6 public hearings leaves the door ajar to re-publish “Two Universities: Paris and Liberty” from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p.101-2.


Two Universities: Paris and Liberty

“Let’s teach them (i.e., Muslims)
a lesson if they ever show up here,”
Falwell told thousands of students here
Dec. 4, with an unsubtle reference to
a pistol in his back pocket. Five days
later, he announced plans to let
qualified students store guns
in residence halls for the first time.

—Nick Anderson, “For Many at Liberty University”

When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Scholars and presidents of real universities don’t talk like that.

In the thirteenth century CE, a young Thomas Aquinas enrolled as a student of Christian theology and philosophy at one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris. His professors introduced him to the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages, and to the Christian scriptures.

Lynchburg, Virginia in the twenty-first century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.

Thomas Aquinas wrote,

It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. …  For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.

Thomas aquinas,Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]

The sin that comprehends all others

Thomas Aquinas quoted St. Augustine, upon whose work his thinking drew, with a statement about willful ignorance. “Hoc et peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata” (This is the sin which comprehends all other sins).

Liberty University is not a thirteenth century Catholic university. It’s Protestant and fundamentalist. It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.

But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone there who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others? Someone who knew Matthew 26:52 by heart — Jesus’s words to Peter when Peter had cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest –“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” — and wanted to scream out loud about willful ignorance?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 13, 2022.

How could you have been so foolish?

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2122 Earth Day Question

The clock of climate catastrophe continues to tick closer to midnight. If anyone is still around on Earth Day 2122, they would likely ask how we could have been so foolish. “What were you thinking? What distracted your attention from the five-alarm fire that turned our Home to ashes?”

Earth Day 2022 Answer

“Well,” we might answer, “lots of things. Important things; really important things. Too many worries to number. Like Ukraine. Like bullies in Russia and America and Uvalde. Like weapons of war that slaughtered children learning their ABC’s and the teachers who were teaching them.  Like the resurgence of nationalism that drove us deeper into caves we assumed to be secure. Like the assaults on truth, the sudden appearance of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ Like our unwillingness to discuss what is real. 

“Most everywhere we turned, things were not good. Here at home, violence paraded through the streets of crowded neighborhoods. Guns and automatic weapons were killing civilians in shopping malls, schools, synagogues, mosques, churches, roadsides, and public squares. Misinformation and disinformation eroded public trust in the institutions essential to a democratic republic. A major television network promoted the former president’s certainty that the American election was stolen. Members of Congress advocated conspiracy theories that blaming our troubles on Satan operating in the Deep State. In Florida Mickey and Minnie, Donald Duck, and Goofy and Democrats were scorned as cannibals, sex traffickers, and pedophiles because they continued to say the word ‘gay’.

How could you be so foolish?

“All of that was important,” the 2122 Earth Day survivor might say. “But even the most worthy of those concerns was penultimate. They distracted your attention from the over-arching threat to everyone and everything, everywhere on the good Green Earth. Every day was Earth Day,  You ignored it.

“You were not the first generation with a chronic inability to focus, but you are the last. There were no safe rooms in the one House. No nation, no race, no clan, no caste, creed, ideology, gender, politics, tradition survives when its inhabitants become arsonists who burn their own House to the ground. The temperature was rising, the sea levels were rising, the oceans heating, the manatees dying for lack of clean water, the skies over Ukraine were black and filled with smoke and toxins. How could you have been so stupid?”

What was wise did not suit our tastes

“We had little taste for reality. We mistook a smorgasbord of tastes for reality itself. We took the table for granted. Everything was reduced to personal preference. Freedom without guardrails was the god we served. Few of us had the good sense to step back from the feast to wonder, ponder, gasp, or ask what was real and what was not. What is truth? Is anything really real?  Everything became subjective. Everything was a matter of opinion. Truth? Whose truth? Reality? According to whom?

“When the legs of the smorgasbord table began to crack, we continued to stuff ourselves. When the table legs began to creek, few of us noticed. Everything else might break, but not the smorgasbord table. Climate change? The end of Nature as we had known it? The Corona pandemic? Everything became fake news. We thought the table could not break.” 

Masters of Illusion

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply the illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

— Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) French author and polymath, quoted by L.K. Hanson in “You Don’t Say” in April 18, 2022 Star Tribune.

“When it came to things that mattered most, we had become the seducers and the seduced who en masse mistook personal freedom for Ultimate Reality. The Smorgasbord Table would never end.”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 12, 2022. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing and not hearing the Hearing

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Introduction: When the rooster crows, GCS

photo of rooster on car in Key West

Last night the House Select Committee investigating January 6, 2021 held its first public hearing. Responsible news outlets chose to air the hearing in prime time as a matter of national interest. Fox News did not. The Fox News audience did not hear the rooster crowing at daybreak.

Heather Cox-Richardson’s Letters from an American offers the following review of the hearing. The letter’s opening quotation of Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wy) has been highlighted by Views from the Edge.


Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, Jun 10, 2022

“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), Select committee public hearing, june 9, 2022

So Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, damned her Republican colleagues at tonight’s first hearing on the January 6 insurrection.

And that was only a piece of what we heard tonight.

Calmly, carefully, convincingly, and in plain, easy to understand language, committee leaders Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Cheney placed former president Donald Trump at the center of an attempt to overturn our democracy. They were very clear that what happened on January 6 was an attempted coup, an “attempt to undermine the will of the people.” All Americans should remember, they reminded us, that on the morning of January 6, Donald Trump intended to remain president, despite his loss in the 2020 election and his constitutional obligation to step down in favor of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, as every president before him had done.

The committee established that there was no fraud in the 2020 election that would have changed the results of the election, showing testimony from Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr that the argument that Trump had won was “bullsh*t.” The committee presented testimony from other administration figures, including Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Ivanka, that Trump had been told repeatedly that he had lost. And yet, even with his inner circle telling him he had lost, and even with more than 60 failed lawsuits over the election, Trump continued to lie that he had been cheated of victory.

It was Trump who “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame” for January 6, the committee says. Unable to accept his loss and determined to remain in power, Trump organized and deployed an attack on our democracy.

The committee established that the attack on the Capitol was not a random, spontaneous uprising. The rioters came at Trump’s invitation. While they had been muttering about the results since immediately after the election, it was Trump’s tweet of December 19, 2020, that lit the fuse. That night, the former president met with lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and others at the White House. Shortly after the meeting, Trump tweeted that it was “[s]tatistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Members of the extremist organizations the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers took Trump’s December 19th tweet as a call to arms. On December 20, they began to organize to go to Washington. These radical white supremacists had taken great pride in Trump’s shout-out in a presidential debate on September 29 that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” After that comment, membership in the Proud Boys had tripled.

Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers testified that they went to Washington because Trump personally asked them to. “Trump has only asked me for two things,” one man testified: “my vote, and he asked me to come on January 6.”

The committee provided evidence that 250 to 300 Proud Boys arrived in Washington to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker working to film the gang, testified that the riot was not spontaneous: the Proud Boys, who were allegedly in Washington to hear Trump speak, walked away from the rally at the Ellipse even before then-president Trump spoke, walking to the Capitol and checking out the police presence there. The Oath Keepers, too, were in Washington to stop the count and were expecting Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, enabling them to fight for him to remain president.

The groups quite deliberately fought their way into the Capitol in a planned and coordinated attack. Meanwhile, Trump continued to stoke the crowd’s fury at then–vice president Mike Pence for refusing to overturn the election in his role as the person in charge of counting the certified electoral votes. The rioters stormed the Capitol and went in search of Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), their calls for “Oh, Nancy,” echoing like the singsong chant from a horror movie. When he learned that the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the president said: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” He said that Pence “deserves it.”

Videos of the violence outside the Capitol further undercut the attempt of Republicans to downplay the rioters as “tourists.” Asked by Thompson if any one memory from January 6 stood out to her, Officer Caroline Edwards, who fought to protect the Capitol, said yes: the scene of “carnage” and “chaos.” It was like a war scene from the movies, she said, with officers bleeding on the ground, vomiting. She was slipping in people’s blood, catching people as they fell. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think… I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” she said. More than 100 police officers were wounded in the fighting, attacked with cudgels and bear spray, and at least nine people died then and immediately after.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was only one of many people caught up in the violence to contact Trump and beg him to call off the rioters. Clearly, Republicans as well as Democrats knew the mob were his people and that they would respond to his instructions. And yet, he refused. He did nothing to call out the military or the National Guard to defend the Capitol.

Ultimately, those requests came from Vice President Pence, in what appears so far to be an unexplained breakdown in the usual chain of command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testified that Pence was very clear that the military needed to turn up and fast to “put down this situation.” In contrast, Meadows talked to Milley not about protecting the Capitol, but to say “we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.” Milley said he saw this as “politics, politics, politics.”

After the attempt to overturn the election and keep Trump in power had failed, according to Cheney, Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) and “multiple other Republican congressmen” tried to get Trump to pardon them for their participation. While they are now insisting they did nothing wrong, the requests for a presidential pardon show that they were aware that they were in trouble.

After the hearing, CNN congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles talked to Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is on the committee. “It’s actually a pretty simple story of a president who lost, who couldn’t stand losing, who cared nothing about the constitution and was determined to hold on to power and who incited a mob when everything else failed,” Schiff said.

The hearing provided some new information about the January 6 coup attempt that had not previously been publicly available. It also put what we already knew into a clear and compelling narrative using the words of Trump’s own advisors, including his daughter, and video previously unseen by the public. That story singled Trump out as the author of an attack on our democracy and isolated him even from those in his inner circle in a way that could weaken his influence in his party.

At the same time, the committee’s presentation was horrifying, reviving the pain of January 6 and clarifying it by bringing together the many different storylines that we have previously seen only in isolation. The timeline juxtaposed the mob violence with Trump’s own statements about how Pence was letting them down, for example. It showed Officer Edwards being knocked unconscious while Trump claimed the mob was made up of “peaceful people… great people,” and described “the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pundits had speculated before tonight’s televised hearing that it would not make compelling television, but they could not have been more wrong. The Fox News Channel, some of whose personalities were involved in the events surrounding January 6, refused to air the proceedings. Nonetheless, that channel inadvertently proved just how powerful the hearing was when it ran Tucker Carlson’s show without commercial breaks, apparently afraid that if anyone began to channel surf they might be drawn in by the hearing on other channels.

Veteran reporter Bob Woodward called the evening “historic.” Looking back at the 1954 hearings that destroyed the career of Senator Joe McCarthy by revealing that he was lying to the American public, Woodward said that tonight’s event “was the equivalent of the Army-McCarthy hearings.”

Thanks for subscribing to Letters from an American. This post is public, so feel free to share it.
© 2022 Heather Cox Richardson

Copied and republished on Views from the Edge by Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 10, 2022.

Just Another Day

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Just another day. Another mass shooting. Funerals for young children who left home with homemade sandwiches in their backpacks on their way to school in Uvalde. Another day of partisan hide-’n-seek for who is to blame. Just one more day of jabbering and cross-fire when the NRA sheds tears and offers prayers for the kids and families of Uvalde, and then applaud the former president and Texas senator talking about the need for more good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns. Just another day in the land of the free, the home of the bullies.

Just another day 100+ days after mass graves began to be dug in Ukraine for children and parents as innocent as the children mowed down in Uvalde. Another day in far-away Ukraine and close-by in neighbors in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa. Another day when Members of Congress ignore the oath to the Constitution they solemnly swore. Another day when patriotism falls prey to partisan propaganda insisting, though they know better, that “guns don’t kill; people do.” A day like any other when nothing happens to stop the power of the gun lobby, dark money, PACS, and the belief, without evidence, that the election was stolen.

Just another day when the monsters of lies and fear turn us against each other.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 5, 2022.

An Autobiographical Theology Chapter 2 Meeting Bill Stringfellow

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Photo of William Stringfellow, lay theologian, author, and lawyer.

This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.

A Good Friday World

Forlornness then and now

Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas, May 26, 2022

The anguish keeps coming. Ukraine, Buffalo, Uvalde. There are no words. Only screams, gasps and tears in a Good Friday world. The crucifixion, then and now, stops the chatter, the distractions, and the illusion that positive thinking will save us.

 Ukranian Easter Eggs

On Good Friday hope is gone. There are no empty tombs, no resurrections, no hosannas, no palms, no lilies, no chocolate bunnies, no jelly beans, no Easter egg hunts, no Fabergé Easter eggs from Russia or Ukraine. Goodness has been nailed to a cross.

God-forsaken

The good man who hangs there screams a desperate cry religious people do not expect to hear: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — the cry of the forlorn psalmist of Psalm 22. The lament is heard in our living rooms on TV, our androids and iPhones. Although the New Testament Gospels do not complete the first verse of Psalm 22, the sense of the words would have pounded the ears of the three Mary’s who stayed at the foot of the cross: “Why are You so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

On Good Friday we come face-to-face with god-forsakenness. Not just the fear of it, the loneliness of it or the terror of it. The body on the cross bursts every bubble of denial, illusion, suppression, fancy, or flight.

The Hydra and the Savages

It’s a huge leap from John Calvin to Franz Kafka, but they saw the same thing hiding in every bubble. Calvin used the metaphor of the hydra. There is a hydra, said Calvin, lurking in the breast of every human being. Lop off the head of the hydra? Two new heads grow in its place. Lop off two? Two will become four and four will be replaced by eight. “We acknowledge and confess before You our sinful nature — prone to evil and slothful in good,” I remember praying as a child, wondering what it meant. Now I know.

Franz Kafka spoke of our nature in parables like The Savages:

The savages of whom it is recounted that 
they have no other longing than to die, 
or rather, they no longer have even that
longing, but death has a longing for them,
and they abandon themselves to it, or rather
they do not even abandon themselves, 
but fall into the sand on the shore 
and never get up again -- those savages 
I much resemble, and indeed I have fellow 
clansmen round about, but the confusion 
in these territories  is so great, 
the tumult is like waves rising and falling
by day and by night, and the brothers 
let themselves be borne upon it . . .
. . . . .  

And yet the fear! How people do carry their own enemy, 
however powerless he is, within themselves.

Becoming children again

The public enemy hanging from the cross had spoken in ways that had offended:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. -- Gospel According to Matthew 18:2-4 NIV.

When Easter eggs break in Uvalde, Ukraine, and Buffalo, the god-forsaken cry from Golgotha (“the Hill of Skulls”) echoes in our hearts. The broken eggs and burst bubbles of 2022 reveal what we prefer not to see: the enemy we carry in ourselves, the hydra that lurks in every breast.


Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, May 29, 2022.

A Pastoral Letter after Uvalde

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Moments ago Andrew Long gave Views from the Edge permission to re-publish his pastoral letter to the people of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, NY. If you read nothing else, I call attention to the fourth and fifth paragraphs that offer a peek into the new world of his five year old son and his peers.

Dear Friends in Christ, 

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. I didn’t sleep very well last night. The smallest sound in the cool evening air through our open bedroom widows roused me. And these words from Scripture kept circling my mind: 

A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more.–Jeremiah 31:15


We wept last night watching the news from Uvalde, Texas. We wept at the sight of parents frantically searching for their children. We wept for the dead. We wept over the immediate shenanigans coming from the talking heads. 

And we wept because we have an elementary-aged son who has told us about the shelter-in-place, active-shooter drills they routinely have at school.

I wish I was exaggerating. God, I wish I was exaggerating. It almost sounds comical. I had fire drills when I was in school and was told not to pick the paint off the radiator because it likely had lead in it. Our son has had to learn, before age five, how to hide and keep silent so that an active shooter in his school won’t find him. 

Are you OK with that? I’m not.

Frankly, I don’t think God is OK with it either. I know Jesus isn’t. He nearly excommunicated one his disciples when that disciple tried to keep children from coming to him. And in a society where laws are made and/or reversed to ‘protect’ the unborn, but only ‘thoughts and prayers’ are given to the families of children who are gunned-down at school, we must look at ourselves deeply and question what we truly value in life. Right now, sadly, life for every one of God’s children does not seem to be at the top of the list. 

Right now I’m thinking of the statue of Jesus that stands across the street from the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Jesus has his head in his hands and his back turned to the site of the bombing. He stands on a pedestal made from the same number of polished marble stones as the number of children who were murdered in the bombing. Jesus weeps. 

We should, too. 

Feel deeply the intense sadness of this moment. As people of faith, we do not have the luxury of turning away. Our faith is founded on the truth that all people are created equally in the sacred image of God. When one of those beloved image-bearers is taken from this earth, all of us are diminished. It is no longer ‘out there’ or ‘somewhere else’; it is right here, right now. We must not turn away. 

And in our weeping, maybe the Lord will fill us with just the right amount of righteous anger to truly work for a more just and peaceful world.

A world where children can learn their ABC’s before they learn about active shooters. 

A world where thoughts and prayers are followed by action and policy. 

A world where idolatry gives way to true, robust faith in God. 

A world where every person can fully access the abundant life Jesus Christ came to give us all. 

Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so! 
 +andrew

P.S.–Secondary Traumatic Stress is a real concern in times such as these. STS happens when we witness the first-hand trauma of others. Please know that I stand ready to pray with you, visit with you, even sit with you in silence if you are struggling right now. Please reach out to me at (Phone numbers and emails deleted by Views from the Edge) if I can be of assistance.
Copyright © 2022 First Presbyterian Watertown, All rights reserved. 

Thanks for coming by Views from the Edge, May 26, 2022

Elijah’s Fifth Birthday

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Conversation the day before Elijah’s birthday

Bumpa (Grandpa): Tomorrow’s your birthday, Elijah!

Elijah: Yeah, tomorrow I’m gonna to be five! I’m gonna be a BIG boy tomorrow!!!

I remember when you walked with your hands behind your back, like Grandpa. You don’t remember because you were little. I don’t think you’ve seen this video Grandma took.

Elijah at 15 month

You were only 15 months back then. You’re much bigger now, but you’ve always been big in my eyes. Tomorrow you’ll be another year older.

Yeah! I’ll be five! I won’t be four anymore. I’ll be big a big boy!

Great expectations

Elijah opens his eyes with great expectations, checks out his hands, his feet, his arms and legs, and bursts into tears. Hearing his sobbing, Mommy does what good mothers do. She comes to console him.

Mommy: What’s wrong, honey? It’s your birthday. Did you have a bad dream?

No.

Does your tummy hurt this morning?

No.

Does your throat hurt?

No. Don’t ya know? You know!!!

I don’t, honey. I won’t know unless you tell me.

Uh-uh!!! You know everything. Mommies always know.

Well, I don’t unless you tell me. Today’s a happy day. It’s your birthday. You’re not four anymore. Today you’re five! You’re a big boy now!

I’m not! Bumpa lied!!! I’m just the same. I’m not bigger! I’m still four!

Honey, Grandpa wouldn’t lie to you. Did he tell you your arms and legs would get bigger over night?

He did. He said I’d be bigger on my birthday. Bumpa lied!!!

Did he say you’d wake up bigger on did he say you’d wake up older today?

Whatever! Bumpa’s confused and confusing. I’m not walking like him anymore!

Elijah 5th Birthday
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and life. Writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, May 23, 2022.

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.