The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 1

This is a continuation of my William Stringfellow Project where I read through all of William Stringfellow's books in chronological order in their first editions. This is the fourth installment of this series. We've already done the first three of Stringfellow's books: A Private and Public Faith, Instead of Death, and My People is the Enemy.

In this post we turn to Stringfellow's fourth book Free in Obedience. Given the rich content of this book I'm going to do this review in two parts. Here in Part 1 I'll share from the first two chapters of the book. In Part 2 I'll discuss the final three chapters.

Free in Obedience was published in 1964 by Seabury Press. Unfortunately, the first edition copy I purchased didn't have the dust jacket. But pictured here is the title page of the first edition.

Free in Obedience is a book written for the church. The book is an attempt to call the church to faithful witness in the world. In making this call Stringfellow's task is both descriptive and prophetic. Descriptive in helping the church clearly discern death and resurrection in the world. Prophetic in calling the church to become a sign of life in the midst of death's works.

In the first chapter--"The Scandal of the Churches"--Stringfellow starts by calling the church to participate in the everyday experiences of the world, to participate in what he calls "the real issues of faith":
[T]he people and the things which an ordinary Christian comes into contact from day to day are the primary and most profound issues of her faith and practice...For me, the day to day issues are like these:

--a young, unmarried, pregnant girl--who says she is afraid to confide in either her parents or her minister--comes to see me to find out how her unborn child can be adopted.

--a convict writes to ask if a job might be found for him so that he can be paroled from prison.

--a college student, unable to find summer work, borrows twenty dollars.

--a woman, who has found another man, wants a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

--a Negro is arrested because he protested discrimination in the city.

--a seminarian is discouraged and disillusioned about the churches and thinks he cannot and should not be ordained.

--an addict want to get out of the city to try again to kick his habit.

--a family is about to be dispossessed from their tenement.

--somebody is lonely and just wants to talk.

These represent, in my life, the real issues of faith, just as the daily happenings in your life, whatever they may be, are the real issues of faith for you. The real issues of faith for the Church have to do not so much with the nature and structure of the ecclesiastical institutions as with illegitimate childbirth, or imprisonment, or with the problems of those who are unemployed, broke, estranged, persecuted, possessed, or harassed by the premonition of death. The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of [people] in the world and with the care for and service of those needs, whatever they may be, for which the Church exists.
The real issues of faith have to do with how people are "harassed by the premonition of death." The premonition of death takes many forms--from addiction to unemployment to loneliness to marital conflict to paying the bills to disillusionment with the church. Here is where the church should be active. The problem, according to Stringfellow, is that Christians and non-Christians have come to believe that "the Christian faith has nothing to do with the ordinary issues of daily life."

Stringfellow's response: "Witness to the faith means loving and serving the world."

In Chapter Two--"The Scandal of Palm Sunday"--Stringfellow turns to talk about the temptation the church faces in wanting to use ideologies and institutions--the principalities and powers--to save ourselves and the world.

(Incidentally, or perhaps very much to the point, in my opinion this is why American political discourse is so toxic. Americans are demonically possessed by politics. There is a devil inside of us. That's why we can't talk calmly and rationally about something like affordable and universal healthcare in this nation. We don't need more cable TV or talk radio. We need an exorcism.)

The "scandal of Palm Sunday," then, is the crowd (Christians often at the forefront) calling out for a political savior. Instead, the world was given the cross on Good Friday.

And the cross doesn't poll well.

Stringfellow describes the cross as giving our lives away as a sacramental sign of life in the midst of death. Bringing life, as much as we can, into those situations listed above. Stringfellow describing this:
[The Christian is to demonstrate an] utter and radical involvement in the existence of the world, an involvement which does not retreat even in the face of the awful power of death.

The counsel of Palm Sunday is that Christians are free to enter into the depths of the world's existence with nothing to offer the world but their own lives. And this is to be taken literally. What the Christian has to give to the world is his very life. The Christian is established in such an extreme freedom by the power of Christ, which is so much greater than the power of death, that the Christian lives secure from any threats which death may make.

It is in exercising this ultimate freedom in her involvement in the world that the Christian also understands how to use whatever else is at her disposal--money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or whatever else--as sacraments of the gift of her own life. The daily witness of the Christian in the world is essential sacramental, rather than moralistic. The public witness of the Christian is a symbol and communication of her death in Christ every day in each situation in which she finds herself. She thereby demonstrates her faith in God's triumph over death in Christ. The ethics of witness to redemption are sacramental ethics of grace...

[T]he Christian is free to enter into the midst of all or any of these ordinary realities of the world's existence, knowing what they truly represent, without succumbing either to their lust for idolatry or the fear of the work of death of which they are evidence. The Christian is so empirically free from the threat of death in his life and in the existence of the rest of the world that he can afford to place that life at the disposal of the world or anybody in the world without asking or expecting anything whatever in return.
Stringfellow describes these sacramental ethics of grace as "the witness of mere presence."
[T]he Christian (the Church) must simply be in the world, sharing in and caring eloquently and honestly for the life of the ordinary world--or the life of any person--just as it is.
This witness points to a freedom from our slavery to the fear of death, a freedom observed in our ability to overcome self-interest in loving others:
Whoever the outcast is in given circumstances, the Christian is free enough from his own self-interest, from the necessities of preserving his own life, to intercede for another and to take up the other's self-interest as over against the rest of the world.
Click here for Part 2 of the review.

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5 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 1”

  1. "We can't talk calmly and rationally about affordable and universal health care...?"  Of course we can.  And we do.  But there appear to be fundamental and therefore insoluble differences in the way people think about those things, and when those differences emerge in the conversation, frustration sets in, and the caricatures arise.  From your side, the caricature is, "if you oppose Obamacare, you obviously do not think everyone should have access to health care."  And then it becomes, "if you don't agree that Sandra Fluke ought to have her contraceptives paid for by everyone else, you are conducting a war on women."

    There have been many sound, well considered, and rational solutions put forth by those who oppose so-called "universal" health care, BHO-style.  The left doesn't like them, so they get ignored.  But they're out there for everyone to see, and they have an empirical basis.  qb

  2. A part of my quibble is that the Affordable Health Care Act is a moderate plan, one that originated with Republicans. The plan "the Left" wanted as a single-payer, government run insurance at minimum and government run health clinics at maximum. There are varieties of "socialism" and the President is, in comparison, very, very moderate. And reasonable people see that.

  3. Regarding national health care issues, I think Stringfellow's point (in his second chapter) is that the temptation of the church is to look to the principalities and powers to solve those issues. We want a political savior to heal our diseases. Then the church can wash its hands of any responsibility for the daily issues of those in need and suffering (his first chapter). And since some churches own and run "nonprofit" hospitals for profit, when they do deal with health issues, it's primarily for their own welfare: they wouldn't be doing all that if it was free (like Jesus' healing), or costly to them.

    Stringfellow's focus on contact with hurting people, and helping them at our own expense, will not make much difference nationally, but it will save us from the scandals and temptations of the church.

  4. Thanks for your insightful and provacative comments on Stringfellow, an activist and author who somehow escaped me in the sixties (Can't imagine why).

  5. Exactly. Powerful post Richard. The idea of being "demonically possessed" and in need of an "exorcism" I find really intriguing. What would this exorcism look like? The power of Christ compels..........

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