William Stringfellow, Part 1: Against interpreting the Bible for the convenience of America

The following is excerpted from the preface to An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land , by William Stringfellow (1973).

“My concern is to understand America biblically…. The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics—to understand America biblically—not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly.

“Th"An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land," by William Stringfellow (1973)ere has been much too much of the latter in this country’s public life and religious ethos. There still is. I expect such indulgences to multiply, to reach larger absurdities, to become more scandalous, to increase blasphemously as America’s crisis as a nation distends.

“To interpret the Bible for the convenience of America, as apropos as that may seem to be to any Americans, represents a radical violence to both the character and content of the biblical message.

“It fosters a fatal vanity that America is a divinely favored nation and makes of it the credo of a civic religion which is directly threatened by, and, hence, which is anxious and hostile toward the biblical Word.

“It arrogantly misappropriates political images from the Bible and applies them to America, so that America is conceived of as Zion: as the righteous nation, as a people of superior political morality, as a country and society chosen and especially esteemed by God.

“In archetypical form in this century, material abundance, redundant productivity, technological facility, and military predominance are publicly cited to verify the alleged divine preference and prove the supposed national virtue.

“It is just this kind of Sadducean sophistry, distorting the biblical truth for American purposes, which, in truth, occasions the moral turmoil which the nation so manifestly suffers today and which, I believe, renders us a people as unhappy as we are hopeless. It is profane, as well as grandiose, to manipulate the Bible in order to apologize for America.” (13-14)

About William Stringfellow (1928-1985)

Stringfellow (left) with his life partner, the poet Anthony Towne
Stringfellow (left) with his life partner, the poet Anthony Towne

William Stringfellow, 1928-1985,” in the Leadership Gallery of “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice,The Archives of the Episcopal Church.

William Stringfellow was a lay theologian and attorney whose long career in social activism began in his junior year at Bates College, when he organized a sit-in at a restaurant which was refusing service to African Americans.

Stringfellow’s theology and his dedication to equality and social justice were inextricably intertwined, and while as a lawyer he devoted himself to representing and defending the vulnerable according to civil laws, his remarkable response to injustice in society was rooted in his Christian convictions….

Socially and politically, Stringfellow often found himself aligned with the “liberal” sectors both of the Church and of society.

In addition to his regular legal practice, he defended the arrested members of the ESCRU “Prayer Pilgrimage” and the first women to be irregularly ordained to the priesthood; he harbored Catholic anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan (wanted by the FBI for burning draft cards); he defended Bishop James Pike against heresy charges; and he was a vocal critic of homophobia.

However, he was not a partisan of internal Church politics. He was adamant that the Church’s role was constantly to defy the status quo, whatever that might be at a given time.

Theologically he often differed with social liberals, and insisted unwaveringly that the Bible, approached honestly and not viewed through the distorting lens of even the most noble social theories, should be the sole arbiter of a Christian conscience….

Stringfellow’s companion of fifteen years, the poet Anthony Towne, with whom he shared a house and a dog, passed away in 1980.

An Inconvenient Theology [review],” by Nathan Schneider, Commonweal (12/6/2011).

Anthony Dancer’s new book, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow, will help change that. It takes us from Stringfellow’s working-class upbringing in Massachusetts, to his coming-of-age in the 1950s as a Christian student leader, through his move from Harvard Law School to practicing law among the poor in East Harlem, and ends with the publication of his important 1973 book, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

The strength of Stringfellow’s theology lies in his exploration, specifically within the context of the Cold War-era Pax Americana, of the worldly “principalities and powers” described in the New Testament. Stringfellow saw these malign spiritual forces at work in the most familiar of secular and religious institutions—in IBM, in  the popularity of Marilyn Monroe, and even in Billy Graham’s crusades—as well as in all the -isms that seek to shape how we think and act. They’re idols, “impostors of God.”

Stringfellow’s work poses a challenge to the imagination, and manifests a refusal to confuse things as they are with how they could or should be. We confuse a Hallmark card with actual love, and next year’s car model with actual progress. For Stringfellow, the gospel calls us to something better. He gives a wildly creative, occasionally funny, and often disturbing picture of a world upside-down and a gospel right-side-up. His apocalypticism is far more akin to the Book of Revelation’s hope-amid-empire than the Left Behind-style sci-fi prophecies of rapture so popular among Evangelicals today.

Selected Titles

  • A Public and Private Faith, 1962.
  • My People Is the Enemy, 1964.
  • Conscience and Obedience, 1977.
  • A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning, 1982.
  • The Politics of Spirituality, 1984.

Image Source

“Stringfellow with his long-time partner, the poet Anthony Towne, in 1970,” “William Stringfellow, 1928-1985,” The Archives of the Episcopal Church.

2 comments On William Stringfellow, Part 1: Against interpreting the Bible for the convenience of America

  • Stringfellow did a powerful job in the 60s-80s. He spoke truth to the perverse political power of the so-called “Moral Majority” just as it was coming into its own. He predicted and called out precisely the abuses of political power we now witness on the part of the faux-Evangelical mega-churches that now rule our culture.

    But he did so for the sake of us floundering progressive Christians who didn’t know how to recover inward moral authority and give witness…as we are finally learning to do now.

    This 1973 book by Stringfellow is brought up to date in profound ways by Quaker scholar Douglas Gwyn’s recent book, The Anti-War: Peace finds the purpose of a peculiar people (2016).

    Both authors reclaim the Book of Revelation from the absurdly pseudo-theological political ideology represented by works like the Left Behind series.

    They return Revelation to its proper role, not as a violently allegorical and self-righteous prophecy of mythical “end times,” but as sacred poetry describing the suffering and hope of all people of genuine faith who fall under totalitarian economies, technologies, and governments.

    From Babylon aka Rome to the present day United States.

  • America freed Filipinos from Spanish colonialism in 1898, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. Filipino leaders at that time submitted to the offer of Pax Americana. In short, Filipinos were again colonized by the new white people of America.

    America became the so-called “foster-parent of the Philippines,” imparting English education, the arts of governance, and the arts of banking interest and usury, as well as American diet, health, and vaccination, etc. The new colony was known as the Philippine Commonwealth, with the first President Manuel L. Quezon. America promised to give the Filipino people independence, yet it was only realized 48 years later in 1946 at the end of World War II.

    William Stringfellow writes: “My concern is to understand America biblically…. The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics—to understand America biblically—not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly.”

    I used to interpret the Bible doctrinally, but now I interpret it practically. I am not saying that Biblical interpretation according to doctrinal guidelines is wrong, but I prefer the words of God on my lips, in my thoughts, and in my actions.

    There is some argument that American’s foundation as a nation was not actually rooted in Christianity, but there were Biblical themes used by the Founding Fathers to support the American independence from British domination. They may have blessed the nation with a rendition of “Americanized Biblical interpretation,” just as we Filipinos have a “Filipinized Biblical interpretation.” That is, not official interpretation by Vatican-based Catholic doctrines and canonical guidelines, but according to sola Scriptura (“only the Scripture”), reading and interpreting for ourselves.

    Each one of us has the special gift of Biblical interpretation, in terms of personal, communal, or universal meaning, and in the same manner, I believe that each nation also has those special, presuming that the leaders of a certain nation are also believers. If they are non-believers, then, that’s the dilemma.

    America has also that gift, despite the pluralistic or relativistic interpretations, which, I think, confuse present events in that nation. There is crisis and disorder, generally manifesting in spiritual, social, political, economic, and monetary circumstances at heightened pressures. There are also prophets, as before, in America, the way there are also prophets in other nations, albeit uniquely different to each but towards the same glory of God, and for the good of humanity. I don’t believe that America is posing a threat to Biblical interpretations.

    America, with Founders’ noble visions of all rights and blessings for the nation, therefore, partly complied with the plans and will of God for America. On the other hand, being human with fallen human nature, Americans have “disobeyed” the continuation of the will and plans of God, because of inevitable deceptions of power and arrogance.

    America succeeds but also staggers. Some say America is neither good nor bad but in between. However, theological allegation that needs to be confirmed is that America, in front of God, is a ‘lukewarm nation” and not pleasing to God. To be fair, not only America but all other nations on earth.

    America by itself is, I believe, still loved and blessed by God, the way God loves those American inhabitants particularly the faithful believers, the utterers, and the doers of God’s holy. If there is a Biblical manipulation in America, I am sure it’s not the ordinary American people doing it so, but those powerful using the Biblical words for their self-interest and put America in great disorder and in peril – with those blinders misleading Americans.

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