The William Stringfellow Project: Suspect Tenderness

We continue on with The William Stringfellow Project where I read all of Stringfellow's books in chronological order and in their first editions. This is the ninth title of the fourteen tiles I plan to review.

In 1971 Stringfellow published, along with Anthony Towne, Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness. You'll recall, if you are following this series, that at this point in Stringfellow's life he'd moved from Harlem and was living with Anthony Towne at their home--Eschaton--on Block Island. 

On August 11, 1970 it was there at Eschaton where federal authorities arrested Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest who was friends with both Stringfellow and Towne. Fr. Berrigan had been on the run from some months having refused to turn himself over to authorities after being convicted and sentenced for the Catonsville Nine action protesting the Vietnam War.

Obviously, having given harbor to the fugitive priest, both Stringfellow and Towne faced their own legal troubles after Berrigan's arrest. Stringfellow and Towne successfully fought off these legal charges and avoided fines and prosecution. It probably helped that Stringfellow was a lawyer.

Suspect Tenderness is Stringfellow and Towne's account of their involvement with the Berrigan arrest. The book is part story, a recounting of the events leading up to and surrounding Berrigan's capture, and part theological apology for why Stringfellow and Towne gave sanctuary to Fr. Berrigan.

Incidentally, the most straightforward explanation Stringfellow and Towne gave for their actions was read aloud in their statement to the court when they faced their own indictment:

"Daniel Berrigan is our friend."

Suspect Tenderness is a hodgepodge of material. It opens with a sermon--"A Homily by a Fugitive Priest"--that Berrigan broadcasted while on the run from federal authorities. Part 1 recounts how Stringfellw and Towne came to give harbor to Berrigan and the events surrounding his capture and arrest. Part 2 gives four sermons and talks Stringfellow delivered to various audiences regarding the Berrigan witness and Stringfellow's own involvement. Part 3 is a concluding theological reflection regarding the relationship between the Christian community and the state. And finally, Part 4 collects all the court documents having to do with with the incitement brought against Stringfellow and Towne for giving shelter to Berrigan.

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one chapter from Part 2, a sermon delivered by Stringfellow that I think serves as an excellent summary of the theological thrust of the book.

The first chapter in Part 2 is a sermon of Stringfellow's entitled "Jesus as a Criminal."

The sermon starts off with the statement: "It is unambiguous in each of the gospel accounts that Jesus Christ was a criminal."

That statement might be taken as a banality as everyone knows that Jesus was crucified. Of course Jesus was considered to be a criminal.

But Stringfellow's point goes to the words "considered to be." That is, while Jesus was considered to be a criminal most tend to think that Jesus wasn't really a criminal. Jesus was innocent and he was crucified because of a miscarriage of justice. It was all just a big mistake.

Stringfellow pushes back and says, no, Jesus was actually a criminal. Jesus was--really, truly--a political threat and a disturber of the peace. Consequently, the civil and religious authorities did exactly the right thing. Jesus was a criminal. Stringfellow:
I say that Jesus was, according to the testimonies of the gospels, a criminal: not a mere nonconformist, not just a protester, more than a militant, not only a dissident, not simply a dissenter, but a criminal. More than that, as the Luke passage emphasizes [Lk. 23.1-2], from the point of view of the State and of the ecclesiastical authorities as well--from the view of the establishment--Jesus was the most dangerous and reprehensible sort of criminal. He was found as one "perverting [the] nation," and "forbidding...tribute" to the State. One translation names Jesus as a seditionist. In a congressman's jargon, Jesus was a subversive. He was a criminal revolutionary--not one who philosophized about revolution, not a rhetorical revolutionary (such as we hear much nowadays in America), but rather one whose existence threatened the nation in a revolutionary way.

Jesus Christ was, so far as the established authorities and, in the end, so far as the people were concerned, the most loathsome of criminals. And He was so accused, and He was so condemned, and as such He was executed in an aptly ignominious way.

...[Churchfolk] have been brought up to suppose that, in His arrest, trial, and conviction, Jesus was innocent. There is this notion that Jesus was fingered and betrayed by Judas, deserted by His other disciples, and then falsely accused, denied due process of law, and unjustly put to death. Many of us have been taught--wrongly, if the New Testament is credible--to regard Jesus as an ingenuous and hapless victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. But the truth is: He was guilty. Never has a man been apprehended, accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed of whom it may be more certainly avowed: He was guilty.
Stringfellow's point in all this isn't so much to highlight Jesus's guilt as to highlight the guilt of the political and legal system. That is, when the legal and political system find the innocent to be guilty then something has gone very wrong.

Still, Stringfellow wants to push the notion that, in the eyes of system and onlooking populace, Jesus was in fact guilty according to the laws of the State. As was Fr. Berrigan. The point being that being "guility" is no final guide as to the morality of an action. And yet, that is the default assumption. To be guilty--to be a criminal--is to be wrong.

Stringfellow argues that such an equivalence is a form of idolatry. Right and wrong is ultimately adjudicated by God and not by the State. Jesus was a criminal. God has a mug shot. Thus the criminality of the Christ stands as a historical and prophetic witness that the State cannot be the ultimate moral authority. There will be times when being right means being guilty.

And yet, the prospect of this raises the specter of social dissolution and violent revolution. So Stringfellow quickly moves on to consider the revolution of Jesus, contrasting it with the revolution of Barabbas.

Stringfellow suggests that before us are two sorts of revolutions. The violent revolution of Barabbas or Jesus's revolution of resurrection. Yes, Jesus was guilty. But the revolution he brings isn't violent uprising. Stringfellow:
Jesus was a revolutionary. Barabbas was a revolutionary. But the two are distinguished one from the other. That distinction is illuminated, I think, if we also remember that, while Jesus took the place of Barabbas, Barabbas was released and, in a sense, he replaced Christ. In days alive with ferment called "revolutionary" in this society and elsewhere, the Christian must be alert, and others must be warned, about the issue of mistaken identity symbolized, in the New Testament, by Barabbas taking the place of Jesus in the world. In the turmoil and excitement of Barabbas' revolution, it is easy to be seduced into supposing that the revolution of Barabbas is actually the revolution of Jesus. 
What, then, is the revolution of Jesus? For Stringfellow, in his typical move, the revolution of Jesus is simply being a human being, freed from the thrall of death. In the case of Jesus--and also, as Stringfellow would argue, Fr. Berrigan--revolution is being freed to be a human being in the face of the power of death as wielded by the State. Because death, according to Stringfellow, is the ultimate power behind the Sate: 
According to the biblical witness, death is not the decisive moral power in history, but it is the only moral power the State (or any other principalities) can invoke as a sanction against human beings and against human life as such. That is, also, plainly to be seen now in this nation...
Stringfellow goes on to list the power of death manifest in the issues facing America in the 1970s. And there are parallel examples today: economic inequity, the abandonment of the poor, drone warfare, the mass incarceration of minorities, capital punishment, the dehumanization of immigrants, wars in the Middle East, billions in military spending, abortion, the American embrace of torture, the continuing damage to the environment. Such are the fingerprints of death working through the legal, political and economic apparatus of the State.

To live as a revolutionary, then, in the midst of death, is to live as Jesus lived, as a resurrected person, as a living one, as a human being. Stringfellow:
Why is there this terrible hostility between the State and Christ? Why is Jesus so threatening to the nation? Why is he found to be a criminal?

The answer to such questions is in the indictment: He says that "He himself is Christ a king."

...Christ as king means Man no more enslaved to institutions, no longer a pawn of technologies, no mere servant of the State or of any other authority, no incapacitated victim of a damaged environment. Christ as King means Man free from bondage to ideologies and institutions, free from revolutionary causes as well, free from idolatry of Caesar, and, not the least of it free from religion which tries to disguise such slaveries as virtuous, free from all these and all similar claims which really only conceal death--only the dehumanization of life--for all.
The revolution of Jesus, then, is freedom from the power of death as manifested by the State, or any other power. The revolution of Jesus is being a human being in the midst of death's works. And the important point here is this: being a human being in a world run by death has political implications.

Being alive--living as a resurrected person--in the midst of death can make you a criminal.

When death rules resurrection is often a crime.

Christians have known the transcendence of death's assaults, politically as much as personally, so that they live unintimidated by the continuing, ingenious, and versatile aggressions of death. The mark that distinguishes a Christian (which, by the way, has nothing to do with either religion or rectitude) is that the Christian has endured, already, a reconciliation of his or her own life with the world, so that conflict, injustice, alienation, brutality, moral confusion, or any other portents of death are no longer an intimidation, enticement, enslavement, a threat or defeat. The mark of the Christian is, simply, that he or she is a matured and freed human being. The direct political implication of this risen character of the Christian is that, as contrasted with other revolutionaries, of which Barabbas is the example and symbol, the Christian is an incessant revolutionary. The Christian is always, everywhere, in revolt--not for himself or herself but for humanity. There is something inherently, invariably, persistently, perpetually, inexhaustibly, inevitably revolutionary in the suffering of reconciliation--in the experience of one's own personhood as humanity in society--which constitutes the Christian life in this world. The Christian as revolutionary is constantly welcoming the gift of human life, for himself and for all others, by exposing, opposing, and overturning all that betrays, entraps, or attempts to kill human life...

...the Christian, living as a free human being, living in transcendence of death's power, living, thus, as an implacable, insatiable, unappeasable, tireless, and resilient revolutionary, should be regarded by all authorities as a criminal.

As in the time of the trial of Jesus Christ, so in this day and place, to be truly free is to be a criminal.

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14 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: Suspect Tenderness”

  1. This is incredible stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    As a point of contact, have you read Herbert McCabe? A lot of his stuff (say, in *God Matters*) sounds like this, and like Stringfellow he was something of a theological realist. Both of their projects and ways of being politically radical while theologically traditional—esp. McCabe whose Thomism was a millennium old—would be interesting to set alongside some of the positions and people you've engaged who tend towards a/theism or who are theologically liberal. (One other nice comparison would be Yoder in *The Original Revolution* and *Revolutionary Christianity.*)

    Since you don't already have enough to write about . . .

  2. I read God Matters awhile back. But I've been meaning to read it again to digest it some more (sometimes I read too fast and nothing sticks). Thanks for the push to pick it back up!

  3. "Stringfellow's point in all this isn't so much to highlight Jesus's guilt as to highlight the guilt of the political and legal system. That is, when the legal and political system find the innocent to be guilty then something has gone very wrong"

    yes, yes. Marvelous.
    And my Girardian sensibilities can remain intact. ;)

  4. Yes, some of this pinched my Girardian sensibilities as well. But in the end it does work together.

  5. I've been reading 'Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance' by Will D. Campbell. I should note that I first learned of Campbell through this blog, so thanks for that! A couple of lines from Stringfellow's sermon reminded me of Campbell's writings:

    "The Christian is always, everywhere, in revolt--not for himself or herself but for humanity."
    "Christ as King means from idolatry of Caesar, and, not the least of it free from religion which tries to disguise such slaveries as virtuous."

    Campbell was in continual revolt, it seems, but always in the pursuit of reconciliation with segments of humanity who had been ignored, thrown out, or despised. His continual push against "the steeples", his refusal to call virtuous the coziness the steeples had with politics, reminds me of what Stringfellow is describing here. I love it, and I'm especially intrigued by the idea of resisting religion that "tries to disguise such slaveries as virtuous." Seems especially relevant when most American Churches that I've had contact with encourage us to be good citizens protecting the idols of economy, nationalism, and security. I'm starting seminary in the fall and am wrestling with these questions and will continue to wrestle with these questions. I really appreciate the unique thinkers and streams of thought you gather on your blog, Richard.

  6. You know what's great? All these people knew each other and were regularly interacting and corresponding: William Stringfellow, Will Campbell, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers.

    I consider this nexus of "theologian activists" to be the high water mark of radical Christianity in America.

  7. And I should probably add Martin Luther King Jr to this mix. They all knew and interacted with MLK.

  8. That is pretty cool, and it also inspiring to see how they spurred one another on. Man, I would've loved to have been in the room when any number of them gathered together!

  9. What function does Pilate saying, "I find no fault in this man", perform in the Gospel account? Is it to highlight the madness and impotence of the State in accomplishing real justice? That is, since Pilate then proceeded to let the masses decide the fate of Jesus.

  10. I do think Stringfellow's strong reading of "guilty" struggles a bit with parts of the trial narrative. But his larger point--resurrection runs into legal conflicts with death--I think is pretty potent.

  11. I haven't read much McCabe (yet), but this one has always stayed with me: C"If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed."

  12. That's a good portion of the list I use when I respond to people who are "down" on Christianity/religion in general (with MLK , of course).

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