Plunging into Life: William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land”

As I look at the structural violence symbolized by today’s funeral for Michael Brown in Ferguson and consider the Blackhawk helicopters from Fort Campbell, KY that turned Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN into an Army urban training ground last week, I’m remembering William Stringfellow with thanksgiving.

Bill Stringfellow was a thorn in the side of both church and state, a predictably  unpredictable, lovable, hatable, tenacious, brilliant street lawyer, constitutional lawyer, and Episcopal lay theologian. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth observed, during a speaking tour across the United States, that Stringfellow was the person who most captured his attention. If he were an American, he would listen to Bill.  My copy of his most poignant work on the subject of what he called “principalities and powers” – An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land – was water-logged and mildewed because of a flood in the church basement, but his earliest book, My People Is the Enemy, sits prominently on my book shelf.  He wrote the following from the one room, rat- and cockroach-infested tenement apartment in East Harlem where he had chosen to live and work among the poorest of the poor instead of accepting one of the New York law firm offers following graduation from Harvard Law School.

 To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a “better” world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for “moral and spiritual values” (whatever that may mean), nor self- serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God. It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for [humanity] in Jesus Christ. He has borne death itself on behalf of [humanity], and in that event he has broken the power of death once and for all.

 

That is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all [humanity].
To become to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily, common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of [humans beings], even to the point of actually taking the place of another [person], whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or [black], rich or poor.
For a Christian to be poor and to work among the poor is not a conventional charity, but a use of the freedom for which Christ has set [humanity] free.
~ William Stringfellow – 1964,  My People is the Enemy [Anchor Book edition, p. 32.]

 

Thank you, Bill, for your wisdom, courage, and witness. We need it now as much as when you wrote it. “Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis” (“May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.)”

 

“Homeland” Militarization

Thanks to MinnPost for publishing Views fro the Edge‘s submission this morning.

Click Homeland militarization — tanks in Ferguson, Blackhawks in Minneapolis — must be stopped to read, like, or comment on MinnPost’s site.

One of the more informed responses to this piece came in a personal email rather than through the MinnPost site. It’s worth sharing here.

“About 15 years ago, there were articles in the NYT about new, non-lethal, technologies for subduing criminals and quelling riots. They were clever, stuff like a slime-cannon that basically lobbed a ball of K-Y jelly into a crowd, making it impossible to walk, run, or even get up off the ground. Or sticky webs that wrap around the target with tenacity enough to immobilize an All-Star wrestler. But why mess with all that when you can really send a message?

“The six shots that murdered Michael Brown were an act of terror; and so is all the police combat drag, including the assault rifles and armored personnel carriers. H.L. Mencken once said about a Baltimore cop, with a wink, “He loved a long, hard chase almost as much as a quick, brisk, clubbing.” These are different times. They still love clubbings, and a little pepper spray in the face while your hands are zip-tied, but the number of police killings using insanely unnecessary levels of force these days broadcasts notice that, no matter what they’re doing to you at this moment, anything less than complete submission could cost you your life. Everybody should know by now that you could cross a cop in your birthday suit and have your birthday taken away by six rounds from a 9-millimeter.

“Do you know much about the 1967 riots on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis? I don’t really know what set it all off. Stores were burned and looted, and yet it all hardly drew mention in the national press, overshadowed, maybe, by the really angry riots in Watts and Detroit and on the East Coast. There was a war on then, too, but it’s said the National Guardsmen who were called in carried rifles with empty magazines.

“Today, everybody who complains that Americans never had to give up their domestic comforts during more than a decade of war should get some grim satisfaction out of the black helicopters and armored personnel carriers in the cops’ garages. Isn’t it ironic, when we remember how everybody likes to praise the warriors who fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘to keep us free’?”