Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Being the Church: Stringfellow Revisited

I have just recently re-read William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a book first published in 1973, another dangerous period in our nation's history. The headlines then were Watergate, Oil Crisis, Cold War, Vietnam. This is the socio-political context in which Stringfellow offers a critical reading of apocalyptic literature, particularly the Book of Revelation. Forty-four years later, he's worth another look, so I'm deeply grateful to several colleagues who have pointed me in his direction in the recent past.

A Harvard trained lawyer and Episcopal layperson, Stringfellow was not one to mince words. It is interesting to me that seven years before Ronald Reagan was comparing the United States to "a shining city on a hill" (as the Puritan settlers in New England had done before him) Stringfellow was insisting that this gets it wrong. The United States and all imperial powers are not new Jerusalems, according to Stringfellow; they are new manifestations of Babylon. "Babylon," Stringfellow writes, "represents the essential version of the demonic in triumph in a nation." He then goes on to write:
Two societies are prominent in the biblical witness. There is Babylon, and there is also Jerusalem. Babylon is a city of death, Jerusalem is the city of salvation; Babylon, the dominion of alienation, babel, slavery, war, Jerusalem the community of reconciliation, sanity, freedom, peace; Babylon, the harlot, Jerusalem, the bride of God; Babylon, the realm of demons and foul spirits, Jerusalem the dwelling place in which all creatures are fulfilled; Babylon an abomination to the Lord, Jerusalem, the holy nation; Babylon, doomed, Jerusalem, redeemed.
Our hope is not in making the nation into a shining city on the hill; it is in being the Church, an outward and visible sign of hope called to incarnate signs of the New Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon. As such, our work is let our light shine for all the world to see.

I find this hermeneutic extremely helpful. On Friday, the 45th President of the United States will be inaugurated. While I think this was a poor decision made in the Electoral College and that we are in dangerous territory as a nation, in truth I must also admit that it helps me to take steps toward clarity about what it means to be the Church. I don't want to be overly dramatic and I was (helpfully) reminded by a colleague this past week that the reaction of progressives in response to Trump's election looks an awful lot like the reaction of the religious right to the election of Obama eight years ago. Both reactions may well be rooted in fear, and lots of it.

So I'm trying not to go down that road, even though I have my own fears. I find Stringfellow helpful because while he is very clear in this same book that the Church is definitely called to be political and that the Bible cannot faithfully be read apart from the political context(s) in which it arose (including but not limited to refugees fleeing from Egypt and then entering into the Promised Land where people already resided; loss of the land to the Babylonian empire and political exile, followed by return under Cyrus of Persia and the political challenges faced during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah; the Roman domination of first-century Palestine and Jesus' birth on the edges of that empire because of a decree from the emperor and then his death on a cross, the Roman method of carrying out the death penalty, etc. and including the Book of Revelation, which is all about politics.)

Ultimately the Bible is about love, not fear, in the midst of all that empire. Perfect love that casts out fear and allows us to be faithful witnesses in the midst of Babylon.

The big seminary-educated word for this is "ecclesiology" - words about the ecclesia, "the gathered community that seeks to follow Jesus and names him as the Christ." To put this in plain English, I'm trying to wrap my head around what it means to be the Church in 2017 and Stringfellow is a very helpful guide. In the face of the serious challenges our nation faces, it is time for the Church (and the mosque and synagogue and other aliens in this strange land) to get clear about who we are and whose we are.

If the most recent election had gone the other way we would not be free and clear right now. While I might personally be feeling more optimistic and less afraid, I know that we would all still be facing many of the same issues and challenges.  Among them: we would be just as deeply divided as a nation; we'd just be on different sides. Fox News would be going crazy while MSNBC would be gloating. Gun violence and opioids would still be corrosively destroying our towns and cities from the inside out. Our schools would still be facing enormous challenges and so, too, would we be facing dangerous global threats.  While I strongly believe that the other candidate would have better addressed these challenges, she would still be trying to work with a Congress that has very different ideas and would be strategizing to stop her at every turn. So who can know for sure how successful she would have been.

The Church is called to be the Church, and that begins with clarity about what our vocation is. "Incarnational theology," Stringfellow writes, "regards this world in the fullness of its fallen estate as simultaneously disclosing the ecumenical, militant, triumphant presence of God." He insists the incarnation "sanctifies the world." And then how about these extraordinary words - words I'm pondering, turning over, praying with, hoping with into this weekend and beyond:
Jerusalem is visibly exemplified as an embassy among the principalities - sometimes secretly, sometimes openly - or as a pioneer community - sometimes latently, sometimes discretely, sometimes audaciously. And the life of Jerusalem, institutionalized in Christ's Church (which is never to be uncritically equated with ecclesiastical structures professing the name of the Church) is marvelously dynamic. Constantly changing in her appearances and forms, she is incessantly being rendered new, spontaneous, transcendent, paradoxical, improvised, radical, ecumenical, free.

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