An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 5, "The Christian Resistance to Death"

Having described the nature and stratagems of the principalities and powers in Chapters 3 and 4 of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land in Chapter 5 Stringfellow finally turns to practical matters, the subject of spiritual warfare.

How are we to resist the moral and spiritual influence of the principalities and powers upon us?

For inspiration Stringfellow turns to the resistance movement in Europe during the Nazi occupation. Stringfellow visited Europe after WW II and had a chance to talk to many within the resistance movement. How had they resisted the Nazi occupation? How did they maintain their conscience and humanity living within a dehumanizing and oppressive regime?

For Stringfellow, the actions of the resistance movement provide lessons for "Christians and other aliens living in a strange land," a world controlled by the principalities and powers:
[T]wo matters from those firsthand exposures to the realities of the Resistance against Nazism have particular pertinence to the contemporary malaise of Americans because of their relevance to the practical situation prevailing in the nation.
What are these two lessons learned from the resistance movement?

The first lesson is that humanity, sanity and conscience are preserved by small, daily actions of resistance and subversion. Acts so small that they seems nearly pointless, even foolhardy given the risk/reward ratio involved:
[T]he Resistance, undertaken and sustained through the long years of the Nazi ascendancy in which most of Western Europe was conquered and occupied, consisted, day after day, of small efforts. Each one of these, if regarded in itself, seems far too weak, too temporary, too symbolic, too haphazard, too meek, too trivial to be efficacious against the oppressive, monolithic, pervasive presence which Nazism was, both physically and psychically, in the nations which had been defeated and seized. Realistically speaking, those who resisted Nazism did so in an atmosphere in which hope, in its ordinary connotations, had been annihilated. To calculate their actions--abetting escapes, circulating mimeographed news, hiding fugitives, obtaining money or needed documents, engaging in various forms of noncooperation with the occupying authorities or the quisling bureaucrats, wearing armbands, disrupting official communications--in terms of odds against the Nazi efficiency and power and violence and vindictiveness would seem to render their witness ridiculous. The risks for them of persecution, arrest, torture, confinement, death were so disproportionate to any concrete results that could practically be expected that most human beings would have despaired--and, one recalls, most did. Yet these persons persevered in their audacious, extemporaneous, fragile, puny, foolish Resistance.
I'm put in mind here of the White Rose and the description of spiritual warfare I gave awhile back in my "On Weakness and Warfare" series. When I speak about "spiritual warfare," about resistance to the principalities and powers, I'm speaking about what Stringfellow is describing here and what the White Rose martyrs exemplified. Spiritual warfare is about learning to live "humanly in the Fall," to use Stringfellow's phrase. Spiritual warfare consists of small, even symbolic, daily acts of resistance and subversion within systems--organizational, political, economic and ideological--to resist the dehumanizing effects of living with and among the principalities and powers.

And yet, these small acts of defiance seem pointless and even hopeless. Nothing will change! Regarding the resistance to the Nazis Stringfellow notes that those involved "were engaged in exceedingly hard and hapless and apparently hopeless tasks." If nothing changes, the question must be asked: "Why would human beings take such risks?" Stringfellow puzzles out an answer to his question:
It is not, I think, because they were heroes or because they besought martyrdom; they were, at the outset, like the Apostles, quite ordinary men and women of various and usual stations and occupations in life. How is their tenacity explained?...Why did these human beings have such uncommon hope?
The answer, according to Stringfellow, is that resistance became the only way to live as a human being:
The answer to such questions is, I believe, that the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience. In the circumstances of the Nazi tyranny, resistance became the only human way to live.

To exist, under Nazism, in silence, conformity, fear, acquiescence, obeisance, collaboration--to covet "safety" or "security" on the conditions prescribed by the State--caused moral insanity, meant suicide, was fatally dehumanizing, constituted a form of death. Resistance was the only stance worthy of a human being, as much in responsibility to oneself as to all other humans, as the famous Commandment mentions. And if that posture involved grave and constant peril of persecution, imprisonment, or execution, at least one would have lived humanly while taking these risks. Not to resist, on the other hand, involved the certitude of death--of moral death, of the death of one's humanity, of death to sanity and conscience, of the death which possesses humans profoundly ungrateful for their own lives and for the lives of others.
To draw another parallel here, spiritual warfare, according to the analysis of Václav Havel in his essay "The Power of the Powerless," is "living within the truth" rather than "living within the lie." And the way you do this, according to Havel, is similar to what Stringfellow describes above, small acts of dissent and subversion in the face of the propaganda ("babel" to use Stringfellow's word from Chapter 4) produced by the principalities and powers.

I know many progressive and liberal Christians have not liked my use of the metaphor "spiritual warfare." But my consistent use of this metaphor is pointing to this Stringfellowian and Havelian understanding of spiritual and moral resistance to the dehumanizing forces in the world. Spiritual warfare is learning to live humanly in a dehumanizing and violent world, learning to live within the truth in the face of the lies, propaganda and babel that justify and support the violent and dehumanizing systems of the world.

So that's the first lesson learned from the WW II resistance movement--sanity and conscience is preserved in small, even symbolic, acts of resistance, dissent, noncooperation, and subversion.

For Stringfellow, the second lesson learned from the WW II resistance movement was this:
The other recollection which now visits me from listening to those same Resistance leaders concerns Bible study...
For many within the resistance movement the Bible gave them a story to narrate their experience, a source of prophetic and apocalyptic critique that allowed them to recover their humanity in the face of dehumanizing forces attempting to strip them of dignity:
[In the Resistance] the Bible became alive as a means of nurture and communication; recourse to the Bible was in itself a primary, practical, and essential tactic of resistance. Bible study furnished the precedent for the free, mature, ecumenical, humanizing style of life which became characteristic of those of the confessing movement. This was an exemplary way--a sacrament, really--which expounded the existential scene of the Resistance. That is, it demonstrated the necessities of acting in transcendence of time within time, of living humanly in the midst of death, of seeing and forseeing both the apocalyptic and eschatological in contemporary events. In Bible study within the anti-Nazi Resistance there was an edification of the new or renewed life to which human beings are incessantly called by God--or, if you wish to put differently, by the event of their own humanity in this world--and there was, thus, a witness which is veritably incorporated into the original biblical witness.
A great example of this use of the Bible to support human life in the midst of demonic oppression is Bonhoeffer leading the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. See Bonhoeffer's discussion of Bible study and the use of the psalms in Life Together. See also how Bible study supports those on the margins of society in Bob Ekblad's Reading the Bible with the Damned. Or even my many posts here about my bible study in a prison.

So those are the two techniques Stringfellow describes to support "the Christian resistance to death": 1) small acts of dissent within dehumanizing systems to preserve sanity and conscience and 2) nurturing this resistance by living within the apocalyptic narrative of the Bible.

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18 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 5, "The Christian Resistance to Death"”

  1. That's an interesting approach to resistance, and on the face of it, I find myself fully agreeing with the first answer Stringfellow offers. The second one strikes me as more problematic, if only because the language he's using potentially suggests subscribing a literal End Times narrative where people act as though they're in the last days. Given that many people take their literal eschatology as an excuse to treat everyone who's not in their tribe as an enemy, I'm wondering how we'd go about inhabiting an apocalyptic narrative without succumbing to the selfish end of the world mentality.

  2. I think some of the answer depends upon who is reading the bible and how.

    In Stringfellow's presentation is was an underground resistence movement being oppressed by the Nazis. In Howard Thurman's analysis in Jesus and the Disinherited, it was blacks being oppressed by White supremacy. In South American liberation theology it was the poor being oppressed by totalitarian dictatorships and military regimes. In each case these groups weren't focused on literal ends times as much as they were seeking out a story that gave voice to their suffering and placed the oppressive forces persecuting them under divine judgment. In this, the biblical story gave hope and life to a demoralized and embattled community.

    In short, the bible is best read "from below."

  3. "Spiritual warfare is learning to live humanly in a dehumanizing and
    violent world, learning to live within the truth in the face of the
    lies, propaganda and babel that justify and support the violent and
    dehumanizing systems of the world."

    The problem is that within Christianity we differ on what we believe to be the violent and dehumanizing systems. I didn't watch the Grammys this week but from what I saw of it it appeared to me to be violent and dehumanizing, and I'm not even talking about the wedding. Other Christian friends saw nothing wrong with it whatsoever. If Christians are warring against each other because they can't agree on what is violent and dehumanizing, it seems to me we have a larger problem within Christendom.

  4. While the small acts of dissent can be many, I see one in particular fulfilling that role today; and that is communication through the social media. Now, I realize that when Facebook, Twitter and blogs are brought up in certain circles, it brings about a scornful reaction, even a laughter, from some. But what I see are the "principalities and powers", and those who trust them for their own desperate need for power, if only for curiosity's sake, reading dissenting views they would never read if we had wait for them to pick up a book or a journal. And when that happens, little seeds are planted, small candles are lighted; and in that, I find hope.

  5. Jason and Richard, I wonder if there's something even more nuanced happening when suffering people turn to the scriptures for a sense of sanity. I may need some help with this.

    As human in being, unlike any other biological life form, we seek "ultimacy" besides seeking calories. Richard, you've noted in an earlier post the startling observation that great evil is carried out by people who weren't seeking evil but good. In this situation where the Powers- in this case Nazi culture- are in power, they are united by a shared sense of ultimacy. Hence the heightened experience of patriotism. Sanity is recast and joined into by an entire nation.

    Here's the rub. How does one decide from all the ways of being human, which of those ways is the ultimate way of human life?

    "The dissenters" felt that something was awry in the Nazi movement. How could they justify their deep seated feeling from within our human situation? The Nazi movement utilized the cutting edge of scientific understanding of genetics, as well as the agrarian experience of weak farm animals. The Nazi world view was utterly credible in that historical moment.

    What could the dissenters stand on that at least equaled the credibility on which Nazism found itself?

  6. I understand the concerns expressed about the discourses of "spiritual warfare" and (if you like) "living apocalyptically", (particularly in an American context where the good Lord is often portrayed as a butt-kicker), but they have purchase only if these two themes are not radically deconstructed and reconstructed according to the nonviolent Christ, his reign as the slain Lamb, and his peaceable kingdom.

    The manifesto of "spiritual warfare" (which is full of examples of small acts of dissent) is the Sermon on the Mount: (sub-title) "How to Live as Lambs amidst Wolves [and American Eagles]". "Living apocalyptically" means, first, the transformation of our seeing and knowing in the light of the world disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ - that is the real world, the world which should shape Christian vision and identity - and, second, (in the words of the Brian Wren hymn) "liv[ing] tomorrow's life today", the life of shalom, the life of the both-now-and-not-yet, the life of disruption and empowerment, not denying evil and suffering but dealing with them as Jesus dealt with them. Between the times - well, as Stringfellow said: "If you want to know what a Christian looks like, a Christian looks like a man on a cross."

  7. I understand the concerns expressed about the discourses of "spiritual warfare" and (if you like) "living apocalyptically", (particularly in an American context where the good Lord is often portrayed as a butt-kicker), but they have purchase only if these two themes are not radically deconstructed and reconstructed according to the nonviolent Christ, his reign as the slain Lamb, and his peaceable kingdom.

    Been reading Peter Leithart and James K.A. Smith. Imagery trumps explicit exegesis, pretty much all the time, so spiritual warfare talk is likely going to form the person who hears it in ways that are counter to what you may intend. Deconstructing that isn't really going to much to change that. Of course, that's another reason why I don't think liberal Christianity is actually effective at much, and whatever vitality it has is mostly a residue from it's more unreconstructed forms.

  8. Of course, the lessons of Stringfellow can be applied by dissidents of all stripes. Small acts of resistance can be and are used by anti-feminists, people who oppose the normalization gay sexual relationships etc. That certainly conforms to my practice.

  9. This is even more so on questions of feminism and gay sexuality. Which side is the violent and dehumanizing one?

  10. "Liberal Christianity", Thursday1? Well, if Stringfellow, Hauerwas, Yoder, Bonhoeffer, ... are liberal. I'm with Barth (another "liberal"?!), who near the end of his life, when ask to comment on his understanding of "liberal", said that he understood the term in such a way that "I myself am also a liberal - and perhaps even more liberal than those who call themselves liberal." That is to say, he a proponent of libertas, (Christian) freedom.

    As for the lessons of Stringfellow can be applied by dissidents of all stripes, only if you want to colonise the word in a Humpty-Dumpty kind of way, and quite at odds with Stringfellow's own semantics. For example, Stringfellow wrote: "Can a homosexual be a Christian?" And he answered: "Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol." He might equally have asked: Can a heterosexual be a Christian? And I'm sure his answer would be: Yes: if his heterosexuality is not an idol. And that would be my observation about much of the anti-gay Christian lobby: they have made an idol of heterosexuality.

    And as for anti-feminism: Stringfellow speaks (as Richard observes) of "dissent within dehumanizing systems". Dehumanizing systems - that is precisely what (Christian) feminists are trying to oppose and rectify, in church and world, which are both (if you hadn't noticed) still overwhelmingly androcentric and patriarchal, oppressive and unjust.

  11. Some questions:
    1. I'm not sure "from below" is always the appropriate standard.
    2. It is often difficult to tell exactly who is "below." In fact, that is often one of the most contested things.
    3. One rarely gets the voices of those "below" in themselves, but rather the voices of those who claim to speak on behalf of those "below," often with agendas of their own.

  12. Thursday1,
    First, welcome back.

    Second, you're sort of trolling the comment thread. You made your first comment, that's great, it's an interesting application, made me think, but from there you're just trolling the thread and everyone else's comments.

  13. We can find resonance in Wendell Berry's words here, from 'The Unsettling of America'

    "This has become, to some extent at least, an argument against institutional solutions. Such solutions necessarily fail to solve the problems to which they are addressed because, by definition, the cannot consider the real causes. The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way -- a way that a government or agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a person may think of it: one must begin in one's own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.”

    Institutions are in service to Death. As such, any legislative 'solution' to the problems created by institutions will result in the same. Resistance is not grandiose - it is small and affirming of life. When truth is imprisoned in injustice the only justice that a community or person can hope to attain in the midst of large institutions is, as Wendell reminds us, small and fragmented.

  14. I am not sure I understand what you are asking. I think Bonhoeffer believed that the only thing that could save the church and consequently turn his country around and away from the ultimacy that Hitler and Nazism offered would be Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. To understand that Jesus fully intended for Christians to work his words from the sermon into their lives until there hearts were transformed into people capable of inhabiting his Kingdom and the ultimacy that Jesus offers. I think Bonhoeffer believed for at least awhile and maybe until his death, that if Christians in Germany and outside (mainly through the ecumenical bodies that arose after the devastation of World War I), Hitler would not have been able to remain in power, there would have been no second World War and the holocaust would not have happened.

  15. Took me forever, but I finally published a piece that was partly inspired by this post. Thanks for how often you keep my mind turning.

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