William Stringfellow, Part 6: The human vocation

Continuing my series on Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973).


The Gospel of Mark frequently demonstrates the typically human ways in which Jesus’ followers misunderstand his words and deeds.  One pivotal story that speaks to William Stringfellow’s concern about modern American Christians and other people of faith is usually titled “the transfiguration” (Mark 9:2-8, New New Testament).

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There his appearance was transformed before their eyes, 3 and his clothes became of a more dazzling white than anyone on earth could bleach them.

4 And Elijah appeared to them, in company with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. 5 “Rabbi,” said Peter, interposing, “it is good to be here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, because they were much afraid.

7 Then a cloud came down and overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice: “This is my beloved Child; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, on looking around, they saw that there was now no one with them but Jesus alone.

Now and here

It is essential to understand that biblical ethics, in Stringfellow’s view, are not based on some notion of rewards and punishments later in some other-worldly afterlife.  Incarnation is not only for Jesus.  It is also the vocation of every human being, of life itself.  Now is God’s time, in the midst of the Fall.  Whenever we exercise that vocation, we experience moments of God’s realm here, in this world.

That being said, biblical ethics cannot be based on using the Bible as an “answer book.”  Asking what the ethics of biblical politics tell us about specific political concerns in America now, Stringfellow says,

To all such queries, biblical politics categorically furnish no answers.

The ethics of biblical politics offer no basis for divining specific, unambiguous, narrow, or ordained solutions for any social issue. Biblical theology does not deduce “the will of God” for political involvement or social action. The Bible—if it is esteemed for its own genius—does not yield “right” or “good” or “true” or “ultimate” answers. The Bible does not do that in seemingly private or personal matters; even less can it be said to do so in politics or institutional life….

[The] biblical witness affords no simplistic moral theology, no pietistic version of social ethics. Folk who yearn for the supposed reassurance of that kind of ethics can resort to the nation’s civil religion or one of its legion equivalents; they will find no support or encouragement in the Bible. (54-55)  1

Stringfellow underscores this argument repeatedly.  The nation’s “civil religion” is a creation of Babylon.  It serves the human powers and principalities represented in the contrast between Babylon and Jerusalem.  Those churches, mosques, meditation centers, and so on which can operate contentedly within this world, redirecting the attention of their people to some imagined “next world” or “enlightened state,” are by definition complicit.

How so?

The impotence of any scheme of ethics boasting answers of ultimate connotation or asserting the will of God is that time and history are not truly respected as the context of decision-making. Instead they are treated in an abstract, fragmented, selective, or otherwise, arbitrary version hung together at most under some illusory rubric of “progress,” or “effectiveness,” or “success.”

From a biblical vantage point as much as from an empirical outlook, this means a drastic incapacity to cope with history as the saga in which death as a moral power claims sovereignty over human beings and nations and all creatures. It means a failure to recognize time as the epoch of death’s worldly reign…, and, in turn, a blindness to imminent and recurrent simplistic redemptive signs in the everyday life of this world. [emphases added] (55)

 The sovereignty of death

 We are not talking here about death and death’s sovereignty in the sense of a personified supernatural force.  This is real physical death, used by the powers and principalities as threat and consequence for non-compliance.  Even more so, it is real death as the consequence of every human choice which deprives other creatures of well-being.

Every creature experiences death.  Human beings experience something extra: we know that we will die.  Every hurtful thing that we do to ourselves or to others throughout our lives is at some level ultimately done either to avoid death or to deny our awareness of mortality.

Death in itself, fearful and painful as it can be, is not a divine punishment.  Death in itself is simply part of the constant change, the constant rise and fall of life, within the world.  Death seems to disconnect us individually from that life, yet it does not break the thread of which we are a part.  At their best, human beings struggle to accept this reality, even though they continue to fear and flee from death and to grieve its arrival.

However, for Babylon, the powers and principalities of the human world, death and the threat of death are the ultimate weapons.  It is no accident that our metaphor is the “force of law.”  The state can use physical force—ultimately the threat of death—to compel behavior or to punish disobedience.  And in stateless societies, including those existing within the boundaries of a governed state, such force is also the weapon of control.

What does it mean, then, to come out from under the sovereignty of death?

 The human vocation

 Stringfellow writes that, “biblically speaking, the singular, straight-forward issue of ethics—and the elementary topic of politics—is how to live humanly during the Fall.

Any viable ethic—which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope—is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall. (55)

This is why Stringfellow is distressed by the “ethics typically concocted from religion or ideology or philosophy, including the Christianized, if unbiblical, editions of the same.”  Such systems of ethics posit some pietistic ideal world outside of history and time and then challenge or scold people for not behaving appropriately.  They rely on nostalgia for non-existent “golden ages,” but they offer no insight into how to grapple with the actual world.  They are “radically irrelevant to immediate mundane issues.” (56)

Instead of this, genuine biblical ethics challenge us to enter a vocation.  We are to live now and here, making our choices for this world, not merely preparing for some “next life.”

And such a vocation is a challenge, not only because of the brutality of powers and principalities, but because the scriptures we have—from whatever religious or secular traditions—are neither rule books nor self-help guides.  With genuine biblical ethics,

no pretext is furnished for reading it as a private or individualistic query. Indeed, the use of the adverb humanly renders the question political; there is, in the biblical witness, no way to act humanly in isolation from the whole of humanity, no possibility for a person to act humanly without becoming implicated with all other human beings. (56)

Furthermore, Stringfellow warns us that the ethical wisdom of human beings, the ethical discernment of human beings, cannot and must not claim the authority of God’s will.  Our action out of our ethical sense

is an existential event, an exercise of conscience—transient and fragile. To make such an affirmation and confession involves a radical reverence for the vocation of God and an equally radical acceptance of the vocation to be human.

Moreover, it is the dignity of this ethical posture which frees human beings, in their decisions and tactics, to summon the powers and principalities, and similar creatures, to their vocation—the enhancement of human life in society (Gen. 1:20-31; cf. Mark 10:42-43). (57)

With biblical ethics as a collective vocation that we embrace, we remain in uncertainty—despite our access to all the resources of sacred story and guidance.  But this is what God created us for: to live in this mortal world, under the powers and principalities of death, yet to keep reaching for an inwardly arising moral choice in each real moment of our history. 2


But how can we do this if we cannot use the Bible or other scriptures as they have conventionally been used?  How can we pursue a vocation that we must discover as we go along?  How can we answer the query of early Quaker leader George Fox?

Then what had any to do with the Scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say Christ saith this and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? 3

In Mark’s story of the transfiguration, Peter is still confounded by his own people’s traditions, both those from the sacred story of Israel and those created by Babylon, that is, by each successive generation of local ruling hierarchies and foreign empires.  Thus, when he sees Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, the prophet of the past and the prophet of the future, he immediately thinks to build tents for the three of them.  Why?  So that they (and Peter, James, and John) can stay there in that moment, fixed forever in one time and space.

Then Peter hears this: “This is my beloved Child; listen to him.”  And suddenly, there is no one with them but “Jesus alone.”  Jesus leads them back down the mountain into everyday life, with all its blessings and tribulations.  What Peter and his fellows don’t yet understand is that the transfiguration of Jesus is a transient moment that they share with him.  It isn’t a place to stay; it is an experience to remember.

Stringfellow expresses wariness about naming any happening as Church, that is, as the living, constantly evolving kinship between human beings and God.  His reason is that to do so “tends to diminish the spontaneity and momentary character of the reality of the Jerusalem event in history.”

To be more concrete about it, if a [gathering of people] somewhere comes to life as Jerusalem at some hour, that carries no necessary implications for either the past or the future of that [group]. The Jerusalem occurrence is sufficient unto itself.

There is—then and there—a transfiguration in which the momentary coincides with the eternal, the innocuous becomes momentous and the great is recognized as trivial, the end of history is revealed as the fulfillment of life here and now, and the whole of creation is beheld as sanctified.

So far as the human beings who are participants and witnesses in any manifestation of the Jerusalem reality of the [group is] concerned, nothing similar may have happened before and nothing similar may happen again.

But that does not detract from the event; it only emphasizes that the crux of the matter is the transcendence of time, rather than temporal continuity. (60-61)

Any transfiguring moment can be such a Jerusalem event.  It might be the first Pentecost of Jesus’ followers4 or it might be the moment when people realize that the homeless woman on the street is a human being and sit down to talk with her.  The point is that, for that moment, those involved are already in the Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation.

Commitment to humanity

When people have a transfiguration experience, they also learn something else that Stringfellow insists upon.  Remember here that, although Stringfellow speaks explicitly to Christians, he means to include all “other aliens in a strange land.”

There is no unilateral, private, insulated, lonely, or eccentric Christian life. There is only the Christian as the member of the whole body; the Christian vocation for every single Christian is inherently ecumenical; the exclusive context of biblical ethics is biblical politics; even when a Christian acts apparently alone he does so as a surrogate for the Church; baptism signifies the public commitment of a person to humanity. (61)

This is critical.  Baptism or convincement or other outward signs of transfiguration are not about “joining” a church or mosque or meeting or temple, they are about making a personal commitment to the entire human race.  These are all ways of affirming

the corporateness of the [human] vocation and of emphasizing that ethical decisions and acts are essentially vocational—that is, they have to do with becoming and being human and not with guessing or imitating God’s will. (61)

This is why Stringfellow places biblical ethics firmly in the realm of “being human during the Fall.”

In biblical ethics, a Christian is implicated in merely but truly human decisions. These are unpredictable; extemporaneous; serious but not pretentious; conscientious but not presumptuous; dynamic and never immutable; historically serious and realistic and, hence, often inconsistent; momentary or imminent and yet transcendent, commonplace, and sacramental. (63)

We cannot claim the authority of God for our decisions, our speech, our actions.  Yet we can claim “the authority of life freed from bondage to death” (63).  We know we are mortal, yet we can deny the powers and principalities the authority to use sufferings and death as weapons against us or against those we witness to.

The person who already knows how to dwell in Jerusalem

confounds the decisions and deeds of this day and the day before and wiles and stratagems of death by insistently, defiantly, resiliency living as no less and none other than a human being; he enjoins the works of death by living in human fulfillment now. He warns of the autonomy of God’s judgment while rejoicing in the finality of God’s mercy. He suffers whatever death can do as he celebrates the resurrection from death here and now. (63-64)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Excerpts from and reflections on William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973).

Preface: A tract for these times in America

Chapter 1: The relevance of Babylon

Chapter 2: The empirical integrity of the Biblical witness

Image Source & Notes

Image: “A lonely homeless woman,” by Pedro Ribeiro Simões on flickr (9/29/2012) [Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)].

  1. What is the Quaker understanding of this lack of simplistic, ready-made answers? In each moment when we seek to discern right action, we know to center down into the silence of worship and wait for the Spirit.  If we receive any leading, it is a revelation for this moment, this situation.  We trust the Bible for examples, yet we trust the Spirit to teach us the next step in our given circumstances.
  2. Again, this is the heart of Quaker faith and practice. We listen as best we can to the inward guidance of the Spirit.  We test that individual guidance against the judgment of other Friends worshiping with us.  We attempt what we believe we are led to do.  And we take the outcomes and observations from that attempt back into worship to revisit the whole concern again.
  3. “The Testimony of Margaret Fox Concerning her Late Husband, George Fox; together With a brief Account of some of his Travels, Sufferings and Hardships endured for the Truth’s Sake,” in A Journal or Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, Christian Experiences and Labour of Love in the Work of the Ministry, of that Ancient, Eminent and Faithful Servant of Jesus Christ, George Fox, London: Thomas Northcott, 1694, vol. I, pp. i–ix.
  4. The story of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles 2:1-8, New New Testament).

    1 In the course of the festival of Pentecost they had all met together, 2 when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong wind rushing by; it filled the whole house in which they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared tongues of what seemed to be flame, separating, so that one settled on each of them; 4 and they were all filled with the holy Spirit, and began to speak with strange tongues as the Spirit prompted their utterances.

    5 Now there were then staying in Jerusalem religious Judeans from every country in the world; 6 and, when this sound was heard, numbers of people collected, in the greatest excitement, because each of them heard the followers speaking in his own language. 7 They were utterly amazed, and kept asking in astonishment: “What! Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our own language?”

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