The William Stringfellow Project: A Private and Public Faith, Part 4

Stringfellow opens the final chapter of A Private and Public Faith--The Fear of God--with with a powerful idea:
The ministry of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world is the same as the ministry of Christ. The ministry of Christ is the ministry of a servant in the world and for the world--a servant of the world in the name of God.
Like Christ the Christian is called to be "a servant in the world" and "a servant of the world in the name of God."

What does that look like? Stringfellow continues with one of those passages of his that routinely takes your breath away:
Perhaps it is helpful to notice a few things about the ministry of Christ. One is that the ministry of Christ is a ministry of great extravagance--of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of His life for the sake of the world's life. Christ gives away His life. The world finds new life in His life and His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not--by ordinary standards--a very successful life.

He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics, not even those tempted to suicide, not even alcoholics, not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed Him, not even those who betrayed Him, not even His own enemies. He shunned no one.

The words that tell of the ministry of Christ are words of sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical unpopularity. They are words of agony.

It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the Body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.
Preach it, brother Stringfellow.

This willingness to endure "radical unpopularity" should characterize the life of the Christian. A few lines later Stringfellow says this:
...the Christian is suspicious of respectability and moderation and success and popularity. And this is so because the genius of the Christian life, both for a person and for the company of Christians, is the freedom constantly to be engaged in giving up its own life in order to give the world new life.
Later in the chapter he says this:
Prudence, the anxiety to conserve and preserve their own lives, rather than the freedom to expend their lives in the manner of the ministry of Christ, is the temper that prevails in the churches...
The freedom of the church is to give up and expend its own life in order to give life to the world.

That'll preach as well.

Unpacking, Stringfellow goes on to make some interesting observations about how all this looks in practice. Specifically, we shouldn't assume that this "giving life away" is an act of charity, of creating programs to feed and clothe the poor. To be sure, that's a part of what will happen. But these good works to aid the poor are secondary to the primary mission of the church. For if these social works do become primary for the church a couple of not-so-good things will happen. First, the poor are treated as objects, as an abstraction. "The poor" are reduced to the soup line that needs to get fed. The focus of the church becomes the program--the doing of the good deed--and not on the poor, the forming of relationships with fellow human beings. And this relates to a second problem. If good works become primary the church loses its warrant for even being a church. For the central mission of the church is the proclamation of the Gospel, telling the good news that life is at work in the midst of death. The mission of the church is to live among the poor in order to name the activity of God in the midst of their lives. Naming life where only death can be seen. This relates to what Stringfellow said in Chapter 3 (our Part 3), that the primary activity of the Christian in the world is the discernment of the Word of God at work in our lives. As Stringfellow continues in Chapter 4:
The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to discern and the courage to expose the Gospel as it is already mediated in the life of the poor.
And with that task is accomplished, once we are in relationship with the poor armed only with the ability to name God in the midst of their lives and ours, we will be equipped to use material resources in life-giving and life-affirming ways. As Stringfellow says:
When the Church has the freedom to go out into the world with merely the Gospel to offer the world, then it will know how to use whatever else it has--money and talent and buildings and tapestries and power in politics--as sacraments of its gift of its own life to the world, as tokens of the ministry of Christ.
So what does this sacramental life look like? For Stringfellow one proxy is simply friendship. In this chapter he describes his relationship (Stringfellow was living in a Harlem tenement at the time) with a boy addicted to narcotics. Stringfellow discusses how various clergy and social workers had come to view this boy with suspicion, as a lost cause, as a waste of their time and effort. And Stringfellow agrees that the boy probably is a lost cause from those pragmatic and programmatic perspectives. And insofar as Stringfellow can help the boy he helps. But his central concern is simply being a sacrament of life in the world of this boy. To be a life-giving oasis. To bring resurrection where only death is at work. To being a friend.
He often visits me when he is free, and we have talked a lot together. I am not aware that I have ever told him that he has a bad and costly and very debilitating habit. He knows that better than I do. And while he and I have talked about how his habit might be controlled or even cured, our relationship is not contingent upon his breaking his addiction. Acceptance of another person is acceptance of the other as he is, without entailing any demands that he change in any empirical way. This boy is an addict, and while I would rejoice if he were freed from this affliction, that would not change or increase my acceptance of him as a person. And though I am not an addict, that makes me no better nor worse than he. I am not his judge. I am just his friend.
And that, according to Stringfellow, is the central and primary witness of the Christian in the world.

The sacrament of friendship.

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20 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: A Private and Public Faith, Part 4”

  1. Richard, thanks for putting up this series.  The
    chatter has fallen off a little after the first post, but I have been eagerly
    drinking this in every morning (and I've ordered the book).  Stringfellow
    cuts to the quick in ways that are deeply challenging.  His writing style
    reminds me so much of Paul... its simple at the core, but maddeningly dense sometimes....
    requires a lot of unpacking, and then reads differently when I come
    back to it.  Reading your posts in light of "Unclean" is interesting.
     There is no doubt where Stringfellow would come down on the mercy vs
    sacrifice divide... as you say "there is no division between the sanctuary
    and the world".  I don't think he would make any allowance for a
    segregated place of holiness, except that I think he would argue that there is
    no place, even the most profane, that is not made holy by the word of God... much like the power of Christ that heals the unclean leaper and not the other way around.... many thanks.

  2. Thanks Ronald for the note. This book is one of my favorites. Last post for this book. In a few weeks I'll post about his second book, Instead of Death. It's an interesting book, written to be used as a study for teens and youth.

  3. The chatter may have fallen off, but I am more captivated by this man's writings that by perhaps any other I have read yet on the blog other than George MacDonald. Thank you for introducing me to him Richard!

  4. I am so encouraged by your posts, Dr. Beck.  I, too, begin each morning with coffee and your blog.  As stated, this series cuts deep--every Christian needs to read "A Private and Public Faith."  It will become the latest and newest of my book collection.  

    We are all ever blessed by your good work and words.  Thank you and thank God for you!  ~Blessings~ 

  5. I deeply appreciate this series, as it has given me a frame a reference for our life in the inner city here.  This latest post helps me understand why, despite the amazing generosity of others to help fund programs and building projects for our neighbourhood, my plea for 2 or 3 people willing to simply share life with our rag-tag church plant has gone unanswered.  The sacrament of friendship...

  6. Stay tuned. :-) One reason I'm writing is to share some of Stringfellow for those light on time or the $$$.

  7. Thanks so much. It's a joy to share with the readers here. Y'all are awesome. (That y'all is for all my non-Texan readers, some cultural flavoring to make the blog feel exotic.)

  8. Friendship is messy and unpredictable. We like our interactions with "the margins" to be clean and on a schedule.

  9. Amazing story, Susan. And the contrast of your simple kindness with the wariness of others is so heartbreaking.

  10. Thank you for all these posts on Stringfellow.  I love his words, and the beauty of accepting people just as they are, loving and not condemning, with no fear that secretly God is condemning people for being broken.  It is slowly helping me remain connected to the truth that the Divine is so much more compassionate and merciful than I would ever have thought.

  11. Hi Richard: I really appreciate you doing the "hard work" of reading and summarizing excellent books like this one by Stringfellow. While I had heard his name before, I would not have known of the deep wisdom in his book except for reading these posts. Thank you!

  12. Hopefully, though, Stringfellow isn't denying the importance of an intervention :)

    Who wants to LOSE their friend, after all?

  13.  Indeed, which is why I need to find ways for people to be present- to allow the messy and unpredictable nature of our community reach them.  I think then they might be able to learn to see past the pretense and recognize the messiness and unpredictability in their own "safe and stable" lives.  And then mutuality begins.

  14. I've not read all your comments on Stringfellow, so my apologies if you've commented on this issue before.  Though I am in complete agreement about the practical ministry of the Church in Stringfellow (and it is told in some lovely ways by him), nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the notion (found also in Karl Barth) that the Church and Jesus Christ are ontologically equivalent.  I see the upside but the downside, esp. in terms of power, self-referential justification and general triumphant-ism makes me cringe a bit, esp. considering the incredible and obvious failures of most church(es) and denominations.  Is this ontological assertion warranted from the Scriptures? I fear not. Is this ecclesiology bending toward heresy?

    Thanks, and I do love Stringfellow just the same...

    jon m., m.div

  15. Hi Jon,
    I'm having trouble tracking. I think I see the problem with ontological equivalence, but practically speaking the church is tasked with being the Body of Christ in the world. Though we should make distinctions between the various "bodies," ontologically speaking. What above is ontologically worrisome to you?

  16.  Thanks for your response Richard. Certainly the nomenclature of "the Body of Christ" is not very problematic and very orthodox.  In that case whoever is the church (and that is hard to define certainly) is a symbolic presence, witnessing and point to Jesus Christ.  We are a body or gathering of Christians pointing always to Jesus, never to ourselves. 

    In terms of ontological categories though it would be odd to say we are Jesus Christ, just as it would be a mistake to say I am my you, but we are the same qua humanity.  Yet within this cadre of theologians: Barth, Bonhoeffer and Stringfellow, it is very easy to find many a passage that makes that assertion: The Church is Jesus Christ, period.  If that's the case, then transpose all the Christological and doctrinal baggage (much of which I think is at best extrapolated from the text rather than stated) and you have folk who become drunk with power because of course their church or denomination is not, in fact, Jesus Christ, but they actually act out that godlike role.  Were the pro slavery Presbyterians Jesus Christ?  Were the scores of theologians who signed off on Hilter's progrom Jesus Christ?  That hopefully makes the problem clearer: The Church is not ontological the same as the Person of Christ, just like the Eucharist (at least for Protestants) is not ontologically the same as Jesus, but a pointing/witnessing of/to Jesus Christ.
    But maybe it is an academic point that ought not be bothered with. The reason I draw attention to it is that I have seen over my 30 years of Christian service more folk in power w/in a church organization actually believe that they are acting on God's behest and thus whatever they decide simply has to be not just right, but if challenged, those that challenge are enemies of God... sounds like how much of the horrors of the last 100 years have played out, from Kamikaze pilots praying to their God, to 9/11 suicide pilots praying to theirs, to conservative Christians praying to theirs to exclude homosexuals, etc.

    Yours is a most helpful work and I'm grateful to you.

    all the best,

  17. Thank you Susan. What a wonderful, lifeful witness to the God we meet in Jesus.

    I am ashamed of the church sometimes, when it fails to look like the church mostly. I have to keep reminding myself we are a community of sinners so why do I expect us to act like a community of saints.

    I have recently been at a discipleship conference where the only transsexual person in the community was consistently on the edge of things. It struck me that no matter what we heard in the Bible talks or proclaimed in the small groups or even how well we ate and celebrated together, as long as she was feeling excluded we were failing to be disciples.

    There is a simplicity to your attitude toward Sharon (as Stringfellow suggests). All that is required, is a sort of overcoming of the fear of death. In your actions, you faced the death of yourself in order that Sharon may live. Not physically (although others seemed to fear physical death), but spiritually. It is a quiet confrontation with death.

    God bless you.

  18. Thank you, Phil, your words are a blessing and an encouragement to me.

    After I posted this comment, I had second thoughts about the negative portrayal of some of those in my church, but I didn't want to ramble on and on -- and dominate the conversation.  Maybe now is a better time for me to make this right.

    When Sharon showed up, and as I observed the reaction of many people with whom I was newly acquainted, I had to do some hard thinking about my next move.  The option of leaving church, once and for all, crossed my mind...

    Instead, I let my voice be heard in my small group -- and many of them disagreed.  But they heard me out, patiently and respectfully.  There were no nasty repercussions to me or my family, for my dissension.

    I really love the pastor.  He is a good man, and a good leader.  He is imposing in stature, but gentle and humble in every way that I have ever observed.  He feels responsible to look out for the good of all.  Why he said what he said to me that night, I do not know.  Except, he must have had safety in mind.  I know he has a good heart, and works really hard -- *really* hard -- to be a good pastor.

    Obviously, I made the decision to stay on and join with the people of this church.  There are many wonderful people whom I have come to know, love, and admire.  They're not perfect, and neither am I.  But there's space and freedom to grow, individually and as a community.  There's work and worship in which to take part, together.

    Theologically, the message is very simple:  God is good, gracious, merciful, faithful, and loving.  Christ calls us to be His presence in the world, *for* all people.  Peace and justice are priorities to God.  We should be about His business.  That's about as real as it gets.  Until they kick me out, I think I'll be staying.  :-)

    Peace to you, Phil.  Keep pressing on, brother.

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