An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 6, The Charismatic Gifts

We've reached Chapter 6, the last chapter of William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. In this post I want to summarize Stringfellow thoughts concerning the charismatic gifts. In the next and final post of this series I'll share Stringfollow final reflections from the book regarding the sacramental nature of Christian ethics.

Continuing his practical focus from Chapter 5, Stringfellow discusses the charismatic gifts in Chapter 6 and how the gifts support our resistance to death, how the gifts humanize life in the Fall.

For Stringfellow the foundational gift is "discerning the spirits." According to Stringfellow "discerning the signs and spirits" is learning to read the world biblically, which means apocalyptically and eschatologically. Two fancy words there. For Stringfellow, reading the world apocalyptically means discerning truth from lies in the dehumanizing forces facing us in the world. Apocalypse means "unveiling." Discerning the spirits is lifting the veil of lies to see the forces of death at work in the background, the forces we cannot see because of the babel produced by the principalities and powers. For Stringfellow, reading the world eschatologically is placing those dehumanizing forces under judgment and living in hope.

Stringfellow describing the gift of discernment:
Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair. Discerning the signs does not seek spectacular proofs or await the miraculous, but, rather, it means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death's vitality in all that happens.
This is one of my most favorite Stringfellow passages. What is the gift of discernment? It is discerning the remarkable in common happenings. Perceiving the saga of Salvation all around us. Interpreting ordinary events in biblical ways. Seeing portents of death where others find progress and success. And finding tokens of resurrection where there is confusion and despair.

In summarizing the gift of discernment Stringfellow says, "In the midst of babel, speak the truth."

Truth telling--reading the world biblically--is a charismatic gift that allows us to find and care for our humanity in the midst of the Fall.

Stringfellow goes on to describe three other gifts--speaking in tongues, healing and exorcism. In each case Stringfellow is less concerned with the personal and "miraculous" experience of these gifts than with the political character of the charismatic gifts:
It spares Christians, and others, the pitfalls of vain, exotic, individualistic, and exclusive views of the charismatic gifts to treat them, as the Bible does, politically...

Each and every charismatic gift is concerned with the restoration and renewal of human life in society. All have to do with how, concretely, human beings are enabled to cope with the multiple and variegated claims of death. The charismatic gifts furnish the only powers to which humans have access against the aggressions of the principalities. The gifts dispel idolatry and free human beings to celebrate Creation, which is, biblically speaking, integral to the worship of God. The gifts equip persons to live humanly in the midst of the Fall. The exercise of these gifts constitutes the essential tactics of resistance to the power of death.
Speaking in tongues at Pentecost expressed "the emancipation of human beings from the bonds of nation, culture, race, language, ethnicity." Speaking in tongues recognizes a universal humanity--of which the church is a sign--stripped of the false divisions created and maintained by the principalities and powers.

More, speaking in tongues represents the ability of the church to speak freely and spontaneously in the midst of babel. Speaking in tongues represents the church speaking in her own voice and language. Life-giving words that cannot be co-opted, controlled or censored by the powers.

Healing is less about physical healing than a declaration that the threat of death--a threat made by the powers--holds no fear for the confessing community. Consequently, a community freed from the threat of death falls outside systems of control as death is the means of coercion wielded by the powers, the state especially. As Stringfellow says,
To so surpass death is utterly threatening politically, it shakes and shatters the very foundation of political reality because death is, as has been said, the only moral and political sanction of the State...[Resurrection exemplifies] life transcending the moral power of death in this world and this world's strongholds and kingdoms.
Finally, exorcism is casting out the spirituality of death. Exorcism, thus, sits at the heart of the Christian resistance to death. As Stringfellow points out, the Lord's Prayer is itself "a form of exorcism." In invoking God and asking for protection from "evil" and "the evil one" the Lord's Prayer is a "act of exorcism."

Stringfellow goes on to describe how exorcism can be expressed as "sacramental protest" against the forces of death. For example, he describes the actions of the Catonsvile Nine, who burned Vietnam draft cards with homemade napalm while saying the Lord's Prayer, as a "liturgy of exorcism."

Such are the practices, according to Stringfellow, which humanize life during the Fall.

Link to Epilogue

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7 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 6, The Charismatic Gifts”

  1. Yes. Stringfellow has so many great lines and phrases. It's why I love him so much. Few theologians have made me stop in my reading tracks and say, "Holy crap, that's good."

  2. I think I'm getting a handle on why I'm feeling frustrated while reading Stringfellow's ideas even as I thrill at his insights.

    While I see Stringfellow's insights getting at really real stuff when it comes to living the human life, and does so in ways that no scientific or post modern language has yet to, when it comes to the context of our difficulty being pinned to The Fall, this part doesn't fit that sense of being really real.

    The Fall points to a time and place where perfection was the order of the day. The point then, for us who live since then, is to return to a state of perfection: I have two problems with this notion

    1. In reality, a perfect state would have to be a mechanized one. Here, we would be transformed from something fleshy and alive into something rigid and robotic. Who in their right mind would want that?

    2. According to the facts of reality before us, life isn't so much a straight-line happening, as much as it's a complex becoming. Evolving from less complex molecular systems into complex biological ones better describes the situation in which we find ourselves today.

    I'm wondering if there's a way to translate this into modern language without resorting to "scientific' frame works-- including psychology and philosophy-- since these will squeeze Stringfellow's insights into some form of technological form of seeing: a disease/cure or problem/solution or broken/fixing. I don't think Human Aliveness can be reduced to- or captured by technological thinking which is why I'm thrilling at Stringfellow's thinking: where as modern evangelical thinking has transformed the Christ-Event into a technological kind of structure, Stringfellow isn't. Hence I marvel and struggle- not with his thinking; because I was once evangelical and am thoroughly familiar with Christianity as system and I can therefore travel with him through his brilliant thinking.

    His thinking is bigger than Christian system though. Are we suggesting that one must have to participate in reality through Christian system in order to be participating in the really real, and become in the fullest way possible really human?

  3. Hi MIke, I do think that many Christians, when they appeal to "the Fall," do have the sort of frame you're struggling with, a fall from perfection and a return to perfection. But I don't think we should import that frame onto Stringfellow. Recall from the earlier posts how Stringfellow is very (disconcertingly so for many Christians) focused on the NOW. Some of the quotes I shared from Chapter 2:

    "In [the biblical] story, there is no other place actually known to human
    beings, except this world as it is--the place where life is at once
    being lived; there are no other places for which to search or yearn or
    hope--no utopia, no paradise, no otherworldly afterlife; and no limbo

    In this history, in this time, Eden and the Fall, Jerusalem and Babylon, Eschaton and Apocalypse converge here and now."

    "[T]he Bible deals with the sanctification of the actual history of
    nations and of human beings in his world as it is while that history is
    being lived."

    For Stringfellow "the Fall" isn't really about the past or future. It's about right now and always about right now. Same with salvation. Salvation is about right now. Living in the midst of death.

    For Stringfellow "the Fall" is about moral confusion, ambiguity and antagonism as we experience it this day. With the goal to "live humanly" in the midst of that confusion, ambiguity and antagonism.

  4. Yes, and toward your clarifying answer here, I'm also recalling another move Stringfellow makes when he marks a situation not by a notion of place, but by one of event.

    Also, I'm getting everything you're clarifying here. In a way, I'm seeing him being metaphorical in the right sense of the word- in metaphor happens, we thoroughly understand its underlying "thing" in all its concrete attributes and historical situation, and then something magical happens when that "thing" points us to somewhere else and allows us to see something that otherwise couldn't be grasped.

    Maybe the best we can do is thoroughly explain the historical situation the way that Stringfellow has and hope that for someone we're speaking to, metaphor happens? Do we have to begin with "ancient minds" in order to understand "modern ones"?

  5. It seems Jesus was more concerned to cultivate within his disciples "eyes that see" and "ears that hear" rather than a "knowing" based upon mere factual data. He constantly led his disciples into edgy situations to reshape the way they saw the world and the nobodies who populated it. If we're going to retrain the senses to discern spiritual realities behind the everyday and to really see people, and hear the voices the broader world seeks to mute, our discipleship efforts must help our people to see the world through a radically different lens. Such efforts shatters our assumptions, biases, and learns to listen and discern the systemic causes of our brokenness. When we can applaud the way of the Kingdom expressed in places far beyond our stained glass, and within people pushed to the fringe, our mission becomes to liberate and release the human potential to embrace and practice the sacred as a "liturgy of exorcism" in a world held captive. Thanks for sharing the insights of Stringfellow who provides the categories and perceptions that resonate so well with Jesus' efforts to train Kingdom practitioners.

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