In 1971 Stringfellow published, along with Anthony Towne, Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness. You'll recall, if you are following this series, that at this point in Stringfellow's life he'd moved from Harlem and was living with Anthony Towne at their home--Eschaton--on Block Island.
On August 11, 1970 it was there at Eschaton where federal authorities arrested Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest who was friends with both Stringfellow and Towne. Fr. Berrigan had been on the run from some months having refused to turn himself over to authorities after being convicted and sentenced for the Catonsville Nine action protesting the Vietnam War.
Obviously, having given harbor to the fugitive priest, both Stringfellow and Towne faced their own legal troubles after Berrigan's arrest. Stringfellow and Towne successfully fought off these legal charges and avoided fines and prosecution. It probably helped that Stringfellow was a lawyer.
Suspect Tenderness is Stringfellow and Towne's account of their involvement with the Berrigan arrest. The book is part story, a recounting of the events leading up to and surrounding Berrigan's capture, and part theological apology for why Stringfellow and Towne gave sanctuary to Fr. Berrigan.
Incidentally, the most straightforward explanation Stringfellow and Towne gave for their actions was read aloud in their statement to the court when they faced their own indictment:
"Daniel Berrigan is our friend."
Suspect Tenderness is a hodgepodge of material. It opens with a sermon--"A Homily by a Fugitive Priest"--that Berrigan broadcasted while on the run from federal authorities. Part 1 recounts how Stringfellw and Towne came to give harbor to Berrigan and the events surrounding his capture and arrest. Part 2 gives four sermons and talks Stringfellow delivered to various audiences regarding the Berrigan witness and Stringfellow's own involvement. Part 3 is a concluding theological reflection regarding the relationship between the Christian community and the state. And finally, Part 4 collects all the court documents having to do with with the incitement brought against Stringfellow and Towne for giving shelter to Berrigan.
For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one chapter from Part 2, a sermon delivered by Stringfellow that I think serves as an excellent summary of the theological thrust of the book.
The first chapter in Part 2 is a sermon of Stringfellow's entitled "Jesus as a Criminal."
The sermon starts off with the statement: "It is unambiguous in each of the gospel accounts that Jesus Christ was a criminal."
That statement might be taken as a banality as everyone knows that Jesus was crucified. Of course Jesus was considered to be a criminal.
But Stringfellow's point goes to the words "considered to be." That is, while Jesus was considered to be a criminal most tend to think that Jesus wasn't really a criminal. Jesus was innocent and he was crucified because of a miscarriage of justice. It was all just a big mistake.
Stringfellow pushes back and says, no, Jesus was actually a criminal. Jesus was--really, truly--a political threat and a disturber of the peace. Consequently, the civil and religious authorities did exactly the right thing. Jesus was a criminal. Stringfellow:
I say that Jesus was, according to the testimonies of the gospels, a criminal: not a mere nonconformist, not just a protester, more than a militant, not only a dissident, not simply a dissenter, but a criminal. More than that, as the Luke passage emphasizes [Lk. 23.1-2], from the point of view of the State and of the ecclesiastical authorities as well--from the view of the establishment--Jesus was the most dangerous and reprehensible sort of criminal. He was found as one "perverting [the] nation," and "forbidding...tribute" to the State. One translation names Jesus as a seditionist. In a congressman's jargon, Jesus was a subversive. He was a criminal revolutionary--not one who philosophized about revolution, not a rhetorical revolutionary (such as we hear much nowadays in America), but rather one whose existence threatened the nation in a revolutionary way.Stringfellow's point in all this isn't so much to highlight Jesus's guilt as to highlight the guilt of the political and legal system. That is, when the legal and political system find the innocent to be guilty then something has gone very wrong.
Jesus Christ was, so far as the established authorities and, in the end, so far as the people were concerned, the most loathsome of criminals. And He was so accused, and He was so condemned, and as such He was executed in an aptly ignominious way.
...[Churchfolk] have been brought up to suppose that, in His arrest, trial, and conviction, Jesus was innocent. There is this notion that Jesus was fingered and betrayed by Judas, deserted by His other disciples, and then falsely accused, denied due process of law, and unjustly put to death. Many of us have been taught--wrongly, if the New Testament is credible--to regard Jesus as an ingenuous and hapless victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. But the truth is: He was guilty. Never has a man been apprehended, accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed of whom it may be more certainly avowed: He was guilty.
Still, Stringfellow wants to push the notion that, in the eyes of system and onlooking populace, Jesus was in fact guilty according to the laws of the State. As was Fr. Berrigan. The point being that being "guility" is no final guide as to the morality of an action. And yet, that is the default assumption. To be guilty--to be a criminal--is to be wrong.
Stringfellow argues that such an equivalence is a form of idolatry. Right and wrong is ultimately adjudicated by God and not by the State. Jesus was a criminal. God has a mug shot. Thus the criminality of the Christ stands as a historical and prophetic witness that the State cannot be the ultimate moral authority. There will be times when being right means being guilty.
And yet, the prospect of this raises the specter of social dissolution and violent revolution. So Stringfellow quickly moves on to consider the revolution of Jesus, contrasting it with the revolution of Barabbas.
Stringfellow suggests that before us are two sorts of revolutions. The violent revolution of Barabbas or Jesus's revolution of resurrection. Yes, Jesus was guilty. But the revolution he brings isn't violent uprising. Stringfellow:
Jesus was a revolutionary. Barabbas was a revolutionary. But the two are distinguished one from the other. That distinction is illuminated, I think, if we also remember that, while Jesus took the place of Barabbas, Barabbas was released and, in a sense, he replaced Christ. In days alive with ferment called "revolutionary" in this society and elsewhere, the Christian must be alert, and others must be warned, about the issue of mistaken identity symbolized, in the New Testament, by Barabbas taking the place of Jesus in the world. In the turmoil and excitement of Barabbas' revolution, it is easy to be seduced into supposing that the revolution of Barabbas is actually the revolution of Jesus.What, then, is the revolution of Jesus? For Stringfellow, in his typical move, the revolution of Jesus is simply being a human being, freed from the thrall of death. In the case of Jesus--and also, as Stringfellow would argue, Fr. Berrigan--revolution is being freed to be a human being in the face of the power of death as wielded by the State. Because death, according to Stringfellow, is the ultimate power behind the Sate:
According to the biblical witness, death is not the decisive moral power in history, but it is the only moral power the State (or any other principalities) can invoke as a sanction against human beings and against human life as such. That is, also, plainly to be seen now in this nation...Stringfellow goes on to list the power of death manifest in the issues facing America in the 1970s. And there are parallel examples today: economic inequity, the abandonment of the poor, drone warfare, the mass incarceration of minorities, capital punishment, the dehumanization of immigrants, wars in the Middle East, billions in military spending, abortion, the American embrace of torture, the continuing damage to the environment. Such are the fingerprints of death working through the legal, political and economic apparatus of the State.
To live as a revolutionary, then, in the midst of death, is to live as Jesus lived, as a resurrected person, as a living one, as a human being. Stringfellow:
Why is there this terrible hostility between the State and Christ? Why is Jesus so threatening to the nation? Why is he found to be a criminal?The revolution of Jesus, then, is freedom from the power of death as manifested by the State, or any other power. The revolution of Jesus is being a human being in the midst of death's works. And the important point here is this: being a human being in a world run by death has political implications.
The answer to such questions is in the indictment: He says that "He himself is Christ a king."
...Christ as king means Man no more enslaved to institutions, no longer a pawn of technologies, no mere servant of the State or of any other authority, no incapacitated victim of a damaged environment. Christ as King means Man free from bondage to ideologies and institutions, free from revolutionary causes as well, free from idolatry of Caesar, and, not the least of it free from religion which tries to disguise such slaveries as virtuous, free from all these and all similar claims which really only conceal death--only the dehumanization of life--for all.
Being alive--living as a resurrected person--in the midst of death can make you a criminal.
When death rules resurrection is often a crime.
Christians have known the transcendence of death's assaults, politically as much as personally, so that they live unintimidated by the continuing, ingenious, and versatile aggressions of death. The mark that distinguishes a Christian (which, by the way, has nothing to do with either religion or rectitude) is that the Christian has endured, already, a reconciliation of his or her own life with the world, so that conflict, injustice, alienation, brutality, moral confusion, or any other portents of death are no longer an intimidation, enticement, enslavement, a threat or defeat. The mark of the Christian is, simply, that he or she is a matured and freed human being. The direct political implication of this risen character of the Christian is that, as contrasted with other revolutionaries, of which Barabbas is the example and symbol, the Christian is an incessant revolutionary. The Christian is always, everywhere, in revolt--not for himself or herself but for humanity. There is something inherently, invariably, persistently, perpetually, inexhaustibly, inevitably revolutionary in the suffering of reconciliation--in the experience of one's own personhood as humanity in society--which constitutes the Christian life in this world. The Christian as revolutionary is constantly welcoming the gift of human life, for himself and for all others, by exposing, opposing, and overturning all that betrays, entraps, or attempts to kill human life...
...the Christian, living as a free human being, living in transcendence of death's power, living, thus, as an implacable, insatiable, unappeasable, tireless, and resilient revolutionary, should be regarded by all authorities as a criminal.
As in the time of the trial of Jesus Christ, so in this day and place, to be truly free is to be a criminal.