An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Prelude, "To Understand America Biblically"

We now reach the tenth installment of my William Stringfellow Project where I read all of Stringfellow's books in their first editions and in chronological order.

We've come to the book many consider to be the most significant of Stringfellow's books An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

An Ethic was published by Word Books in 1973.

Since An Ethic is considered to be Stringfellow's magnum opus I thought we'd go more slowly through this book, devoting a post to the Preface and each of the six chapters.

Stringfellow begins the Preface and the book with these words:
My concern is to understand America biblically.
What does Stringfellow mean by this? Stringfellow starts on an answer by emphatically stating what he doesn't mean: "[T]o understand America biblically... is not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly."

The goal is to place America under the prophetic judgment of the bible, not to use the bible as an excuse or justification for American exceptionalism. As Stringfellow writes:
To interpret the Bible for the convenience of America, as apropos as that may seem to be to many Americans, represents a radical violence to both the character and content of the biblical message. It fosters a fatal vanity that America is a divinely favored nation and makes of it the credo of a civic religion which is directly threatened by, and, hence, which is anxious and hostile toward the biblical Word. It arrogantly misappropriates political images from the Bible and applies them to America, so that America is conceived of as Zion: as the righteous nation, as a people of superior political morality, as a country and society chosen and especially esteemed by God.
Stringfellow goes on to say that "It is profane, as well as grandiose, to manipulate the Bible in order to apologize for America." We must not "violate the Bible to justify America as a nation."

In short, An Ethic sets out to be a biblical and prophetic critique and indictment of America.

From there Stringfellow goes on to describe the political relevance of the Bible, for America or any other social or political organization. As Stringfellow says: "The biblical topic is politics."

What sort of politics?
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.
As Stringfellow argues it, salvation is inherently a political issue, "the reality of human life consummated in society within time in this world, here and now, as the promise of renewal and fulfillment vouchsafed for all humans and every nation--for all of Creation--throughout time." Stringfellow's vision of salvation is, thus, very this-worldly. The Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. This is why the subject of the bible in inherently political.

There is another aspect as to why salvation is inherently political. Specifically, according to Stringfellow our moral fallenness is intimately associated with our captivity and bondage to the principalities and powers.

This is important for Stringfellow as his political orientation might be rejected by pietistic and conservative Christians who think that what is needed to "restore" America to the Christian path is a moral revolution in the lives of individuals. Stringfellow contends that this individualistic and pietistic approach is overly naive about the nature of the Fall and the degree to which inviduals have become enslaved to and bound up with social, cultural, economic and political structures and ideologies--what the bible calls "the principalities and powers." Thus, a moral revolution in the hearts and souls of individuals cannot happen until we attend to our ideological and political captivity and slavery. This wrestling with the principalities and powers is another reason as to why our spiritual struggle in inherently political in nature.

As Stringfellow argues it, "most Americans are grossly naive or remarkably misinformed about the Fall." Thus An Ethic is a book about "the political significance of the Fall," the Fall being this "era in which persons and nations and other creatures exist in profound and poignant and perpetual strife."

Again, political naivete about the Fall is manifested in the belief that the "customary propositions of moral theology concern individual decision and action and suppose efficacy of the conviction of the individual for social renewal and societal change." A focus on individual moral action--Christian piety, being a nice and responsible person--is not enough to address the full scope of the Fall.

To address the full scope of the Fall we need to attend to the principalities and powers and our bondage to them:
What is most crucial about this situation, biblically speaking, is the failure of moral theology, in the American context, to confront the principalities--the institutions, systems, ideologies, and other political and social powers--as militant, aggressive, and immensely influential creatures in the world as it is. Any ethic of social renewal, any effort in social regeneration--regardless of what it concretely projects for human life in society--is certain to be perpetually frustrated unless account is taken of these realities named principalities and their identities and how they operate vis-a-vis one another in relation to human beings.
Stated more strongly:
[A]ny social concern of human beings which neglects or refuses to deal with the principalities with due regard for their own dignity is delusive, while any social change predicated upon mere human action--whether prompted by a so-called social gospel or motivated by some pietism--is doomed.
Thus the focus of the book:
[T]o behold America biblically requires comprehension of the powers and principalities as they appear and as they abound in this world, even, alas in America.
Finally, the goal of this exposition of the powers is to create the capacity for moral freedom in the quest for societal renewal, the search for life in the midst of death. The aim is to find an answer to Stringfellow's central question:
How can we act humanly in the midst of the Fall?
Link to Chapter 1

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9 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Prelude, "To Understand America Biblically"”

  1. Very much looking forward to this, Richard. You've blogged about the principalities in the past and clearly taken the approach of Stringfellow's. It's changed the way I think about many institutions in the world - particularly in America. In some ways, it's almost terrifying.

    I'm disappointed that I can find none of Stringfellow's works available as e-books, so I may be forced to go back and buy an actual book.

  2. It's particularly fascinating to think about this in light of the life of Martin Luther King Jr today.

  3. The Essential Stringfelllow: Living Humanly in an Age of Empire (Orbis 2013) is available on kindle. Is that the same thing. Ethic is strongly featured.

  4. America is his prototype and focus, but he states throughout the book that the dynamics he's discussing apply to every sort of principality and power--any nation, organization, institution or ideology.

  5. Richard, I just noticed that W&S has reprinted a collection of essays on Stringfellow:

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