An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Epilogue, "How Can a Person Live?"

Today we reach the end of William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

After discussing the spiritual gifts in Chapter 6 Stringfellow turns to answer a question he asks at the start of the chapter:
If Americans are dehumanized by the violence of babel and brutalized in the social chaos wrought by the demonic powers and principalities, how can a person live?
How can a person live? How can a person live in the midst of death, in the face of demonic, dehumanizing forces?

In answer Stringfellow revisits the theme from Chapter 5: Resistance. Resistance toward death is the only human way to live. Resistance is what gives us hope:
Where is hope?

The biblical response--again, an answer which also has empirical authority--is that hope is known only in the midst of coping with death...It is a person's involvement in that crisis in itself--whatever the apparent outcome--which is the definitively humanizing experience. Engagement in specific and incessant struggle against death's rule renders us human. Resistance to death is the only way to live humanly in the midst of the Fall.
It is the incessant struggle against death that humanizes us. Resistance to death is the only human way to live.

This is the notion--resistance to death is what makes us human--that sits behind Stringfellow's argument at the end of the book that Christian ethics is inherently sacramental in nature. The issue in Christian ethics, for Stringfellow, is less about adjudicating right vs. wrong. To be sure that's a vital and critical piece. You always have to do what you discern to be right. It's just that life in the Fall is so morally confused and complicated that you will never know that you were right. You try to do right. You just have no guarantees that you are right. As Stringfellow describes it:
[T]he issue of biblical ethics is not expressed in vain efforts to divine the will of God in this or that particular situation. On the contrary, biblical ethics asks how to live humanly in the midst of death's reign. And biblical politics, therefore, as it manifests resistance to the power of death, is, at once, celebration of human life in society. Or by parable, biblical politics means the practice of the vocation to live as Jerusalem, the holy nation, amidst Babylon...

Biblical living discloses that the ethical is sacramental, not moralistic or pietistic or religious.
The best that you can strive for, according to Stringfellow, is to resist death, to live humanly in the midst of death. Thus, Christian ethics is less about being right than about being a sign of life--a sacrament--in the midst of death. Christian ethics is about being a human being in the face of dehumanizing forces, no more, no less.

Living humanly in the Fall is such a sacrament, a sacranmt and sign of life in the midst of death.

As Stringfellow summarizes at the very end of the book:
To be ethical is to live sacramentally...

In resistance persons live most humanly. No to death means yes to life.

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8 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Epilogue, "How Can a Person Live?"”

  1. As one who has lost a child to suicide, as others who have gone through the same will affirm, the struggle that takes place within the soul is unlike anything else. Your are embracing the death, yet fighting it. You do not want the death of your child or loved one to be meaningless, yet you are screaming "NO" to each thought of it. The effort to live past it, while always living with it, makes being human more acute. That which seemingly ended your world, brings about a new hope for the others in your life, creating a new world. Those who have lost in this way, walk through death each moment of their lives, while refusing to surrender to it.

  2. 3am,

    Your beautiful revelation of your child reveals as much about the life of being human as any biblical passage.

    I would offer that the quickest means to cure human suffering would be to give up this level of order we call human, and live in the orders that non-human animals occupy. I have yet to witness suffering on the face of a canada goose for instance even when the water it's gliding in is about to freeze and it's being pelted by freezing drizzle; they just keep dunking their heads for green bits. We underestimate the difficulty involved in living the human life....

    This is why I think we should shift the center of our relationship with god from one of worship to one of partnership.

    By living with a consciousness that we do, god has someone to be intimate with in an otherwise cold infinity. We on the other hand, suffer the throes of reality that no other organism does; all the while doing so within a Mystery we're asked to put our ultimate faith in. We love our objectivity and prefer the reality we can hold in our hand.

    We who are human didn't invent it. In this context it's a grace. All too often we experience it as a curse. On one level, I'm no longer willing to center my relationship with god on worship because we've earned the place of partnership. On another though, I'd like to think that god seeks to enter into partnership with us, and as his own move into sacrament partakes with us, the quixotic nature of being utterly finite and utterly infinite at the same time.

    There's something truly sane in the action your child took


  3. The idea that fully living out our humanity is the best way to fight death is still sitting with me, though I read this blog post hours ago. I came back to say thank you. Also, to ask: could regular people pick this book up and read successfully, or is it heavy on jargon and such?

  4. The book sounds like the quotes from these posts. No jargon beyond what you encounter in them.

    The only thing, in my estimation, that makes a Stringfellow hard to read is that he frequently writes about political and social issues during his day. Some of that material dates his books.

  5. How do I sign up for your blog ??? I remember reading Stringfellow - A Public and a Private Faith (???) during the Vietnam War- how wonderful to run into him again. Such memories.

  6. After this series, I would think you could, without much difficulty, put together a Stringfellow reader! I'm sure that would be right up Wipf & Stock's alley!

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