My People is the Enemy was published in 1964 (original dust jacket pictured here) and was the first of what would become a distinctive style of Stringfellow's, the theological memoir where Stringfellow blends his autobiography with theological and political analysis.
My People is the Enemy is my favorite book of Stringfellow's. Perhaps because this part of Stringfellow's biography is so compelling. For My People is the Enemy recounts Stringfellow's reflections about living in Harlem after he had graduated from Harvard Law School. At the time of the writing Stringfellow had lived in Harlem for seven years. This sets the subject matter of the book which is focused on race relations and urban poverty. Much of the material in the book is dated as Stringfellow always wrote to the issues of his day, speaking concretely about politicians, policies, and events in 1964, both nationally and in NYC. (This is why I don't recommend My People is the Enemy to others despite the book being my personal favorite.) But the issues Stringfellow was wrestling with are still very much with us.
The content and style of My People is the Enemy makes it hard to review and summarize. Many of the most powerful passages are biographical in nature, long passages impossible to distill. One of the most powerful of those passages, coming at the end of the book and functioning almost as its theological culmination, is the story of Lou Marsh who was killed by the gang members he was reaching out to and working with. Another powerful story is Stringfellow's account at the start of the book about moving into his Harlem tenement on East 100th Street. Before moving into his apartment Stringfellow tells of some extermination work he performs:
I had taken one precaution for my first inspection of the premises--I had a DDT bomb (of the sort that was used in the Army), which I had picked up at a military surplus store. I entered the apartment and looked around. I found a dead mouse in the toilet, which I disposed of. I opened a window, so as not to DDT myself, and then I released the bomb. I sat down on something for a moment to see what would happen. From everywhere--from every crack and corner, from the ceilings and walls and from underneath the linoleum, from out of the refrigerator and the stove, from in back of the sink and under the bathtub, from every place--came swarms of creeping, crawling vermin. I shuddered. I remember saying out loud to myself, "Stringfellow, you will never know here whether you have become an alcoholic." Who could tell, in such a place, whether or not he is having delirium tremens?The first part of the book deals mainly with poverty and the second half turns to race relations.
In his discussions of poverty Stringfellow mainly describes poverty as vulnerability to death, his great theological theme:
Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and cloths and heat and housing and rest and play and work.Because of this vulnerability the lives of the poor expose the activity and power of death in human affairs. Death becomes visible in the struggles of the poor to find food, secure shelter, and keep warm. Most of us, being affluent, are relatively immune to these struggles which creates the illusion that death isn't at work in our lives. But the lives of the poor puncture this illusion. The struggles of the poor reveal the activity and power of death in the world. More, the poor witness to the fact that we, the affluent and rich, live at the expense of others. Stringfellow on these points:
The travail of the poor is intercessory for the rich--for them, in their behalf, in their place, it substitutes for their own suffering. They [the rich] would suffer if the poor did not purchase for them some immunity from suffering...For Stringfellow, then, the heart of the Christian witness is to step into this state of vulnerability as a sacrament of resurrection, to bear witness to life in the midst of death's works. This is why the Christian witness is most potent among and with the poor. Among the poor the power of death at work in all our our lives becomes most obvious and, thus, creates the location where the witness of resurrection is most clearly revealed. This is why the work of God is most clearly observed among "the least of these."
...All men, in short, live in a history in which every action and omission and abstention is consequently related to all else that happens everywhere. That is the theology of Adam's Fall and with him, the fall of all men. In history, we live at each other's expense.
What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is not innocence, nor extremity, nor loneliness, nor the fact that it is unknown or ignored by others; but, rather, the lucidity, the straightforwardness with which it bespeaks the power and presence of death among men in this world. The awful and the ubiquitous claim of death is not different for the poor than for others, or, for that matter, for nations or ideologies or other principalities or powers; but among the poor there are no grounds to rationalize the claim, no way to conceal the claim, no facile refutation of the claim, no place to escape or evade it...
...What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is only the proximity of their life to death every day...
...The awful vulnerability of the poor is, in fact, the common vulnerability of every man to the presence and power of death in the world
How is resurrection made manifest in this arena where death is active and militant? A large part of it, for Stringfellow, is the sacrament of presence and using that presence to discern and name resurrection in the midst of death. A passage where Stringfellow discusses this:
The Word of God is present among the poor as well as among all others, and what I have called earlier the piety of the poor reveals the Word of God. The piety of the poor is prophetic: In a funny, distorted, ambiguous way it anticipates the Gospel. This is confirmed every day in East Harlem. There is a boy in the neighborhood, for instance, who is addicted to narcotics and whom I have defended in some of his troubles with the law. He used to stop in often on Saturday mornings to shave and wash up, after having spent most of the week on the streets. He has been addicted for a long time. His father threw him out about three years ago, when he was first arrested. He has contrived so many stories to induce clergy and social workers to give him money to support his habit that he is no longer believed when he asks for help. His addiction is heavy enough and has been prolonged enough so that he now shows symptoms of other trouble—his health is broken by years of undernourishment and insufficient sleep. He is dirty, ignorant, arrogant, dishonest, unemployable, broken, unreliable, ugly, rejected, alone. And he knows it. He knows at last that he has nothing to commend himself to another human being. He has nothing to offer. There is nothing about him that permits the love of another person for him. He is unlovable. Yet it is exactly in his own confession that he does not deserve the love of another that he represents all the rest of us. For none of us is different from him in this regard. We are all unlovable. More than that, the action of this boy's life points beyond itself, it points to the Gospel, to God who loves us though we hate Him, who loves us though we do not satisfy His love, who loves us though we do not please Him, who loves us not for our sake but for His own sake, who loves us freely, who accepts us though we have nothing acceptable to offer Him. Hidden in the obnoxious existence of this boy is the scandalous secret of the Word of God.Let me highlight that last bit (with one edit) again:
It is, after all, in Hell—in that estate where the presence of death is militant and pervasive—that the triumph of God over death in Jesus Christ is decisive and manifest.
The Word of God is secretly present in the life of the poor, as in the life of the whole world, but most of the poor do not know the Word of God. These two facts constitute the dialectic of the Church's mission among the poor. All that is required for the mission of the Church in Harlem is there already, save one thing: the presence of the community which has and exercises the power to discern the presence of the Word of God in the ordinary life of the poor as it is lived everyday. What is requisite to mission, to the exposure of God's Word within the precarious and perishing existence of poverty, is the congregation which relies on and celebrates the resurrection.
All that is required for the mission of the Church among the poor is there already, save one thing: the presence of the community which has and exercises the power to discern the presence of the Word of God in the ordinary life of the poor as it is lived everyday. What is requisite to mission, to the exposure of God's Word within the precarious and perishing existence of poverty, is the congregation which relies on and celebrates the resurrection.