The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 2

This is Part 2 of my review of William Stringfellow's book Free in Obedience (an installment of my William Stringfellow Project).

Part 1 (for future readers finding this post) can be found here.

In Part 1 of this review I discussed the first two chapters of Free in Obedience. Here in Part 2 we'll discuss the final three chapters in the book.

In Chapter Three of Free in Obedience--"Christ and the Powers of Death"--Stringfellow turns to a discussion of the principalities and powers. Much of Stringfellow's notoriety among theologians is due to his particular take on the principalities and powers. Stringfellow's great treatise on this subject is his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, published in 1973. But we we find the seeds of this later work in Chapter Three of Free in Obedience. Because of this I won't go too much into Stringfellow's analysis, saving that for when we get to An Ethic for Christians. But I would like to draw attention to Stringfellow's analysis of institutions as principalities and powers and how they can be death-dealing and life-stealing.

Here is Stringfellow on the survival ethos of institutions and how that ethos leads to bondage:

The institutional principalities also make claims upon us for idolatrous commitment in that the moral principle which governs any institution--a great corporation, a government agency, an ecclesiastical organization, a union, utility, or university--is its own survival. Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence--officers, executives, employees, members, customers, and students--that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution.

This relentless demand of the institutional power is often presented in benign forms to a person under the guise that the bondage to the institution benefits the person in some way, but that does not make the demand any less dehumanizing...

...In the end, the claim for service which an institution makes upon an individual is an invitation to surrender his or her life in order that the institution be preserved and prosper. It is an invitation to bondage.
I don't know about you, but I think that passage should be posted in every employee bathroom. People should also read it before saying, say, the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, Stringfellow goes on to say:
Americans are now constantly, incessantly, and somewhat vehemently assailed with the word that the ultimate moral significance of their individual lives is embodied in and depends upon the mere survival of the American nation and its "way of life"...[Consequently] the survival of the nation as such becomes the idol, the chief object of loyalty, service, and idolatry.
But all these institutions, ideologies and nations will eventually give way to death. Thus, service to the principalities and powers won't, in the end, allow us to escape death:
Death is greater than any of the principalities and powers, and none of them prevail against it. The whole of creation exists under the reign of death. Men die. Images, though they survive us for a time, also die. Institutions and ideologies, though they have immense survival capabilities, eventually die. Nations die. The reality which survives them all is death itself. Death, it seems, is the decisive, ultimate and dominant truth in history. No man is safe from his own death who looks for his salvation in idolatry of some principality, whatever it may be.
Opposed to death is the reality of resurrection in Christ. But resurrection for Stringfellow is less about life after death than about life in this world free from power of death.
[Christ's] power over death is effective, not just at the terminal point of a man's life, but throughout his life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of individuals when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry which, in spite of all its disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.
The experience of the resurrection, then, is essentially about being freed from idolatry. That said, Stringfellow is a bit vague about how all this works. Sometimes Stringfellow just asserts the reality and experience of the resurrection without tracing out how one steps into this experience, what it might entail. I've done a lot of thinking and writing of my own in trying to connect these dots a bit more concretely. But I think the basic idea is discernible in Stringfellow. Specifically, as I've argued it (leaning on Ernest Becker and Arthur McGill) the issue has to do with identity. Being "free from death" in this world involves a renunciation of an identity founded upon idolatrous service to the principalities and powers (the cultural "hero system" as described by Ernest Becker). Receiving our identity from Christ allows us to have a sense of meaning, significance and purpose that is immune to the power and fears of death. And this immunity allows us to overcome self-interested fears ("perfect love casts out fear") when we give our lives away for the sake of the world.

In Chapter Four of Freedom in Obedience--"The Resurrection and the Church"--Stringfellow turns to talk about how the church should exist as a witness over against the principalities and powers. And yet, far too often the church has failed in this task. For example, Stringfellow talks about how the church has often been called upon to justify and bless the political status quo.
The essential claim with which the principality of the nation addresses the Church in America is, simply, that the Church stand ready to serve the national self-interest at any given time, however that interest may be defined.
One way the church has served the national self-interest is in staying silent about political issues and restricting its interests to how worship is conducted on Sunday mornings:
...the principality of the nation is served by the silence of the Church on issues confronting society; the nation willingly tolerates a silent, uncritical, uninterfering Church concerned only with such esoteric things of religion as public worship.
Of particular interest in this chapter is when Stringfellow turns to consider the church to be itself a principality and power, an institution that becomes concerned with its own success and survival:
Sometimes the Church yields or gravely imperils its integrity as the Church by becoming the handmaiden of the ruling principalities of race, class, or commerce. At other times the Church becomes so preoccupied with the maintenance and preservation of its own institutional life that it too becomes a principality. 
When this happens the church is governed by the same ethos of death that possesses secular institutions:
When churches are principalities they bear the marks essential and familiar to all other principalities of an institutional and ideological character. The moral principle which governs their internal life, like that which governs a corporation or university, is the survival of the institution. To this primary consideration, all else must be sacrificed or compromised.
I'm sure we've all had experiences with churches like this. But Stringfellow's point isn't to throw the institutional church under the bus. It's mainly a warning that service to the institutional church can be a location of life-sapping idolatry.

In the final chapter of Free in Obedience--"The Freedom of God"--Stringfellow returns to his themes from Chapter One, the sacramental witness of the church and the witness of mere presence. The basic idea is the same, but having discussed the power of death in Chapters Three and Four along with the witness of the church, the discussion of sacramental presence in the final chapter is more clearly a communal witness of resurrection over against death. And this witness is mainly exhibited in freedom.  Freedom to live for others. Freedom from service to the principalities and powers. Freedom from the anxiety and need to justify our lives before others. Freedom in the face of death. All this culminates in the final two paragraphs of the book:
The Christian goes about--wherever she be, which may be anywhere, whomever she is with, which may be anyone--edified and upheld by the sacramental community which is the Church in the congregation. The Christian is ready to face whatever is to be faced knowing that the only enemy is the power of death, whatever form or appearance death may take. The Christian is confident that the Word of God has already gone before us. Therefore the Christian can live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of or bondage to either our own death or the works of death in the world. The Christian is enabled and authorized by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to each of us in baptism to expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all people, all principalities, all things from bondage to death.

That being so, the Christian is free to give his or her life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. The Christian does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth, and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his or her own death.

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6 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 2”

  1. My thinking has been radically shifted by the view of corporations, institutions, agencies, or organizations as tangible principalities and powers.  It's still a new concept and I'm probably unaware of how deep into bondage I could be to these things, but I've gained a deeper appreciation.  I find myself constantly realizing how tempting it is to voluntarily put ourselves into bondage for politics, the military, jobs, church, etc...  Sobering and even scary sometimes. 

  2. Q.  Can empiricism, which term qb has co-opted to mean "the practical quest for the way things really are," itself become a principality/power/idol?

    Much that we call "allegiance" in this world emerges from a growing confidence that the object of that allegiance reflects, in fact, the way things really are and the way things really work.  Stipulating that we err in our capacity as empiricists, still we are constantly building a case for an ever-denser, ever more comprehensive understanding of reality, which would seem to be a good thing, especially when we progressively align ourselves with that ever-crystallizing reality in the form of contingent allegiance.


  3.  Death does seem to prevail in the political powers that claim the survival or prosperity of their nation depends on using their military to shoot, assassinate, and bomb other rivals all over the world. And due to lack of jobs, more young people join the military and its bondage to death. Meanwhile the churches display the American flag and pray for the survival and prosperity of their nation--and tell members it is their duty to vote (for who will rule next among the political powers). Because most church members have accepted the necessity of such death, church leaders must accept it also in order for their institution to survive and prosper.

  4.  Perhaps this is a simplistic view, but is there a danger that the empirical reality of gravity can become a principality?  Now, the allegiance to the so-called empirical "reality" to the superiority of  Keynesian (or Austrian) economics, the Democratic or Republican Parties, the Aggies or Longhorns, or any other elements which people claim allegiance can become dangerous.  Maybe, as you said, it's the "quest" for empirical truth that becomes dangerous because the never-ending search for empirical proof becomes as much an idol as the thing itself.

  5.  That's sorta what I'm getting at, Brian.  And when empiricism (as I'm using the term) excludes loving one's brother, of course, it's off the rails.  But _a_priori_ allegiance to that which is empirically demonstrable, even when the data contain outliers or even when their distribution partially slops over into negative territory, need not exclude loving the brother.  In that case, why is contingent allegiance such a bad thing?  Thus an allegiance to market economics, limited government, and American-style republicanism is well inside the pale.  That they are not perfect is clear.  But in many demonstrable respects, not the least of which being the degree to which they have raised even the lowest end of the distribution of Americans' quality of life compared to that of the world at large, they are far less imperfect than their ideological competitors.

    Thomas Friedman affirmed earlier this week that one cannot possibly advocate the elimination of the EPA or resist federal gun-control measures and still rightly claim the label "pro-life."  Such a statement, though typical of Friedman's sophistry, is also typical of how doctrines such as Stringfellow's can be co-opted in a most ironic and humorous fashion.


  6. I've only recently discovered William Stringfellow's profound writings, wonderful and marvellous.

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