An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 2, Where is Jerusalem?

Chapter 2 of William Stringfellow's book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land is entitled "The Empirical Integrity of the Biblical Witness."

The "empirical integrity of the biblical witness" from the title of Chapter 2 continues to highlight Stringfellow's contention that the focus of the bible is this world at this time. Stringfellow describes this as an "incarnational theology" that produces a "sacramental ethics." In places Stringfellow is very aggressive about the this-worldly focus of the bible:
In [the biblical] story, there is no other place actually known to human beings, except this world as it is--the place where life is at once being lived; there are no other places for which to search or yearn or hope--no utopia, no paradise, no otherworldly afterlife; and no limbo either.

In this history, in this time, Eden and the Fall, Jerusalem and Babylon, Eschaton and Apocalypse converge here and now.
His take home point:
[T]he Bible deals with the sanctification of the actual history of nations and of human beings in his world as it is while that history is being lived.
For Stringfellow, biblical life is life wrestling with history as it happening right here and right now. Any other temporal focus, according to Stringfellow, is un-biblical.

And what we are wrestling with in history, as Stringfellow continues to use the imagery of Revelation, is the antagonism between Babylon and Jerusalem.

Again, according to Stringfellow, Babylon names empirical political realities in history:
Babylon in Revelation is a disclosure and description of an estate or condition which corresponds to the empirical reality of each and every city--of all societies--in history. The Babylon of Revelation is archetypical of all nations...This Babylon is allegorical of the condition of death reigning in each and every nation or similar principality.
In contrast to Babylon is Jerusalem. Stringfellow describes both as "events" rather than as physical locations:
What Babylon means theologically and, hence, existentially for all nations or other principalities in the dimensions of fallenness, doom, and death, Jerusalem means to each nation or power in the terms of holiness, redemption, and life. Babylon describes the apocalyptic while Jerusalem embodies the eschatological as these two realities become recognizable in the present, common history of the world.
This contrast--the experience of Babylon versus Jerusalem in present history--is central to Stringfellow's thinking. At root, Babylon is the location where death currently reigns and Jerusalem is the location where life and resurrection is experienced.

We become enslaved to death, according to Stringfellow, when be buy into the idolatry of Babylon. The great sin of Babylon isn't hedonic excess or lasciviousness. The great sin of Babylon is idolatry, and our use of the principality and power as a means for moral justification and life significance:
The awful ambiguity of Babylon's fallenness is expressed consummately in Babylon's delusion that she is, or is becoming, Jerusalem. This is the same moral confusion which all principalities suffer in one way or another...This is the vanity of every principality--and notably for a nation--that the principality is sovereign in history; which is to say, that it presumes it is the power in relation to which the moral significance of everything and everyone is determined...Babylon's fall is not particularly a punishment for her greed or vice or aggrandizement, despite what some preachers allege. Babylon's futility is her idolatry--her boast of justifying significance or moral ultimacy in her destiny, her reputation, her capabilities, her authority, her glory as a nation. The moral pretenses of Imperial Rome, the millennial claims of Nazism, the arrogance of Marxist dogma, the anxious insistence that America be "number one" among nations are all versions of Babylon's idolatry. All share in this grandiose view of the nation by which the principality assumes the image of God.
The connection of this idolatry with death will be the subject of the next two chapters in the book.

Having described the idolatry of death that characterizes Babylon, Stringfellow goes on to describe Jerusalem as living "within and outside the nations, alongside and over against the nations, coincident with but set apart from the nations." Jerusalem is in the "peculiar posture of simultaneous involvement and disassociation" with the principalities and powers. Jerusalem is an eschatological "pioneer community" existing in the midst of the Fall.

And where is Jerusalem located? Again, for Stringfellow, Jerusalem is more of an event than a location. Consequently, Jerusalem--the experience of a reconciled humanity--is fragile and transitory in nature. Jerusalem exists in time rather than in space:
Jerusalem means the emancipation of human life in society from the rule of death and breaks through time, transcends time, anticipates within time the abolition of time. Thus the integrity or authenticity of the Jerusalem event in common history is always beheld as if it were a singular or momentary or unique happening. To be more concrete about it, if a congregation somewhere comes to life as Jerusalem at some hour, that carries no necessary implications for either the past or the future of that congregation. The Jerusalem occurrence is sufficient unto itself. There is--then and there--a transfiguration in which the momentary coincides with the eternal, the innocuous becomes momentous and the great is recognized as trivial, the end of history is revealed as the fulfillment of life here and now, and the whole of creation is beheld as sanctified.

So far as the human beings who are participants and witnesses in any manifestation of the Jerusalem reality of the Church are concerned, nothing similar may have happened before and nothing similar may happen again. But that does not detract from the event; it only emphasizes that the crux of the matter is the transcendence of time....

[H]ere and there and now and then--Jerusalem is apparent.
Jerusalem is experienced in those elusive, fleeting but very real moments when we experience the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven." Think back over your life when you've thought, "Right here and right now, I wish the whole world could be just like this." That's the experience of Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon.

And finally, before leaving this chapter, how are we to characterize the "sacramental ethic" of living in Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon?

Stringfellow says something very interesting about "sacramental ethics" in this chapter. First, because ethical action is always "incarnational," bound to a particular time and place, the "sacramental ethics" of the Christian cannot aspire to eternal and unchanging standards. Ethical action isn't about discerning a timeless "right versus wrong." Consequently, the human assessment of God's judgments concerning "right versus wrong" cannot be the guide for Christian ethical action. Human ethical action--being bound to time and place--will always be provisional and situational. As Stringfellow succinctly puts it, Christian ethical action has to do with "becoming and being human and not with guessing or imitating God's will."

He summarizes:
The ethics of biblical politics offer no basis for divining specific, unambiguous, narrow, or ordained solutions for any social issue. Biblical theology does not deduce "the will of God" for political involvement or social action. The Bible--if it is esteemed for its own genius--does not yield "right" or "good" or "true" or "ultimate" answers. The Bible does not do that in seemingly private or personal matters; even less can it be said to do so in politics or institutional life.
Biblical ethics do not pretend the social or political will of God; biblical politics do not implement "right" or "ultimate" answers. In this world, the judgment of God remains God's own secret. No creatures are privy to it, and the task of social ethics is not to second guess the judgment of God.
In fact, Stringfellow goes on to argue that when we do try to "play God" with ethics we end up dehumanizing each other:
It is the inherent and redundant frustration of any pietistic social ethics that the ethical question is presented as a conundrum about the judgment of God in given circumstances. Human beings attempting to cope with that ethical question are certain to become dehumanized.
I think we've all seen this happen. Christians assume that the ethical task is to sort out God's timeless and eternal judgment on any particular issue and then to use that as a weapon to dehumanize others. But as Stringfellow notes, the claim to know God's judgments is inherently idolatrous.

We are human beings. None of us knows what God thinks. Adjudicating right versus wrong in any ultimate sense is idolatrous.

So what is at the heart of a "sacramental ethic"? Stringfellow:
[B]iblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics--and the elementary topic of politics--is how to live humanly during the Fall. Any viable human ethic--which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope--is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall.
In the Bible, the ethical issue becomes simply: how can a person act humanly now?
That's the question at the heart of the Christian moral vision. How can I act humanly now? How can I act humanly in the midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, and decadence of the Fall?

This question also guides the community of faith. The experience of Jerusalem is the cultivation, experience and protection of humanity in the midst of the Fall:
[T]he ethical question juxtaposes the witness of the holy nation--Jerusalem--to the other principalities, institutions and the other nations--as to which Babylon is the parable. It asks: how can the Church of Jesus Christ celebrate human life in society now?
Link to Chapter 3

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18 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 2, Where is Jerusalem?”

  1. I'm curious how many of these claims have biblical references attached. Some of his sweeping claims here I find completely false to the tenor of the biblical message. How can he insist that the biblical story knows nothing about an 'otherworldly afterlife' when Jesus can promise the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise, when Paul's greatest desire is sometimes to 'depart and be with the Lord', and Samuel can be conjured up from the dead? Or when the consummation of the entire biblical story is a transformed earth; earth, to be sure, but one in which so many of the oppressive realities that plague us in this life shall be 'no more' (repeated over and over throughout the prophets and Revelation). I don't know how he gets from sweeping, final statements like that to reducing Jerusalem to a few fleeing moments in which time seems to be transcended. I grant that during the already/not yet that we live in that is how the Kingdom of God is experienced, but we shouldn't lose sight of the anticipated fullness of that experience at some point in the future.

    Further, Revelation is crystal clear (and that's saying something!) that Babylon's destruction DOES come about as a result of her 'immoral passion', 'sexual immorality', 'immorality', 'exalting herself' and 'living in sensual luxury'. These terms are repeated over and over in Revelation 17-18, sometimes even twice in the same verse!

    This was what turned me off to Stringfellow. He says such good and important things about living under the slavery of death and the idolatry of nationalism, but his understanding of the Bible seems more attuned to the need to present a message completely stripped of the supernatural to the modern world, which supposedly can't even conceive of such things.

  2. It is always exciting when I read a piece and think, "Ah, that's what I've been wanting to say. I just wasn't sure how." The writings that have helped me in the past in this regard are those by Meister Eckhart, in his emphasis on the Now, on the word and God being born NOW. It certainly makes "Thy Kingdom come" actually mean something. It also reminds me of one of the first books that helped me back in the seventies step out of my traditional thinking, TO BE HUMAN NOW by David O. Woodyard, published by Westminster Press. Some might say it is somewhat dated, but while the events in which he sees the kingdom may be of a day gone by, the message is still the same...NOW.

  3. As a liberal theologian Stringfellow's theology does privilege immanence over transcendence. Which many Christians of a certain bent will find refreshing and necessary, for a variety of reasons. Still, liberal theologies, as you point out, will have some exegetical and hermeneutical work to do.

  4. I think he'd agree that Jesus's words are authoritative, but authoritative in pointing out how to become a human being. What Stringfellow is saying is that many if not most of the sticky ethical issues that we face, and which Christians divide over, can't be adjudicated in any final way. All we can do is embody the humanity and make the best choices we can.

    For my part, I tend to think that choosing the "humane path" in any given ethical situation is the best rule of thumb. Which is why when I'm faced with a choice between, say, inclusion or exclusion, I tend to go with inclusion as it seems to me the more humane choice. The sort of thing Jesus would do. But am I right in this? I have no idea. That's Stringfellow's point. The best we can hope for is being humane. Not being "right."

  5. I see. Really more about avoiding dogmatism than ignoring truth. Pursue truth at all cost but avoid being "right" and dogmatically clinging to an opinion to the point of causing hurt or fighting.

  6. After reading this post and the excellent commentary so far I would like to add this in hopes of broadening our understanding of this moment with Stringfellow.

    I am in my own work, arguing that we in the 21st century can see more into the Christ-Event than our 1st century siblings. Not because we're more advanced as human people but because we have a vantage point which is impossible for them to have had. The two different vantage points make for two different frame works in which we can interpret the Christ-Event.

    Stringfellow makes use of this shift of vantage point without being explicit when he cites the "being and becoming" characteristic of life- especially human life. Still, however, he maintains the language of fallen-ness as if there was once a state of perfection that we should aspire to. Here, he's mixing the vantage point of the ancients- namely Plato's notion of the ideal, with our ability to see that creation is in the throes of Becoming: which in other frameworks, goes by the name of evolution. 1st century people drawn to Jesus, had no other way to conceive of the Christ-Event, yet even so, their interpretation was truly elegant in their own world.

    I think to be responsible to god and our world, we need to exchange Becoming for Fallen-ness. Simply put, Sin and Idolatry take on a different shapes of forces in this exchange: In the Fall, solving for them returns us to God; in Becoming, solving for them returns us to being fully human. Our estrangement then, is not from god (who is always present to us from his perspective) but from the fullness of being and the fullness of being truly human.

  7. Richard
    So glad a friend put me onto you work on Ethic, which I do count as Stringfellow's most important work, though Simplicity of Faith is his most beautifully written. I wanted to get in that I've recently edited The Essential Stringfelllow: Living Humanly in an Age of Empire (Orbis 2013) in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series. It has a substantial introduction that I'm pretty happy with, and a Strinfellonian lexicon! Anyway commending it to you and your followers. It's even kindled.

  8. And here's the link to purchase it:

  9. "Our estrangement then, is not from god (who is always present to us from
    his perspective) but from the fullness of being and the fullness of
    being truly human."

    I like that a lot, Mike.

  10. I did lean towards a more immanent understanding of theology during a crisis of faith, but only because I was convinced that there were no other options in a scientific context. I don't see what could be so refreshing about realizing that death does have the final word, however much we may experience fleeting moments where it seems like it doesn't. I can't remember if he had already addressed this in the previous books you've blogged about in this series, but the way he describes the hold death has over us, it would seem that only a radical, supernatural breaking in from 'outside' could defeat its sting.

  11. What started out as my Advent goal/project and became my 2014 project is more or less this: avoiding overblown arguments about politics and political issues. I'm not backing away from my views/ethical positions, but rather I'm refusing to engage (on Facebook, for example) in :"amped-up" discussions that quickly descend in sort of self-righteousness.

    "The best we can hope for is being humane. Not being "right.'" kind of sums up what I'm after. I'm trying to live humanely in 2014.

  12. Richard, I think it is misleading to describe Stringfellow as a "liberal" theologian, any more than one would describe Barth, or Hauerwas, or Rowan Williams - three of Stringfellow's great fans - as "liberal" theologians. Stringfellow certainly does not collapse transcendence into immanence; rather his ethics is a protest against a false, contrastive transcendence; against an eschatology which is ahistorical, world-denying, and escapist; against a gospel which reaches its nadir in American fire-insurance evangelism (which goes hand-in-hand with conservative, imperial politics). Hence the relentless polemical tone and force in his statement's in chapter 2: for "This otherworldliness is, paradoxically, the most worldly way; this otherworldliness or antiworldliness is actually conformity to the world with a vengeance. And, for professed Christians, it is the most ignominious possible apostasy" (pp. 44-45).

    And even amidst this relentless assault on a Babylonian faith, Heyzeus14, Stringfellow, in fact, does not "insist that the biblical story knows nothing about an 'otherworldly afterlife'." Rather, in a fiercely polemical context (as Richard pointedly observes) - and, I would add, with a kairotically necessary realised eschatology - Stringfellow states that 'In [the biblical] story, there is no other place actually known [my italics] to human
    beings, except this world as it is - the place where life is at once
    being lived; there are no other places [again, my italics] for which to search or yearn or
    hope - no utopia, no paradise, no otherworldly afterlife; and no limbo
    either.'" To make the thrust of this polemic even clearer, Stringfellow has already said: "In any sanctuaries - I fear there are many of them - where the preaching and teaching is about a fancied 'afterlife' instead of this life; about some indefinite 'hereafter' instead of the here and now; about immortality (which is actually an elaborate synonym for memory) instead of resurrection (which means living in emancipation from the power of death); about 'heaven' - as if the name designates a destination in outer space - instead of participation in a moral estate or condition; or about 'eternal life' as a negation of this life - instead of the temporal fulfillment of life: where these or similar doctrines prevail, there is a patent distortion of what the author of Hebrews calls 'the elementary doctrines of Christ' (Heb. 6:1-2)" (p. 43). Bonhoeffer (again, no "liberal"), I suggest, couldn't have put it any better.

    Finally, on Richard's "Not being 'right'" - yes indeed: see the James Alison's wonderful book title The Joy of Being Wrong (1998). And "being "humane" - being human, truly human, as only Jesus was truly human, i.e., a proper human being - is that not the telos of Christian faith, without which all the rest - the theology, the worship, the prayer - amounts to zilch? Or to put it negatively, Stringfellow's ethics is a diatribe against and exorcism of that Principality and Power, all too regnant in the church itself, known as Jerkism.

  13. Sorry about the crap typing/typos - I was just heading off to bed (it's midnight here)!

  14. There is a connection here with something that Robert Capon said about "good and evil" which relates to the idea of "ethics";

    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD
    do all these.

    Is. 45:7 KJV

    “In God’s world good and evil are an ecology. The whole world is an ecology of opposites dancing with each other. And God loves their dance. The real sin at the tree of knowledge of good and evil was man trying to manage good and evil as God does not manage them. God lets evil be. Given the actions of people God is not, except in very rare circumstances, in the business of preventing their consequences.”

    There exist an essential disconnect between "Christian Ethics" and living humanely. I suspect that for a Christian "ethics" is the re-ingestion of the fruit of the wrong tree.

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