Stringfellow's Critique of Marxist Theologies

William Stringfellow, the feisty and often trenchant Episcopal lawyer-theologian, was no ordinary biblicist. He reproached evangelical conservatives for their literalist hermeneutics (perhaps sometimes to the point of caricature) and eschewed efforts to harmonize apparently conflicting biblical testimonies within a univocal and overarching doctrinal framework.
In this regard, he was heir to the dialectical theology movement. Still, also like other dialectical theologians, Stringfellow stressed the importance of immersion in Scripture for individuals and communities and he sought to confront socio-political realities with the light of the biblical gospel.

Raised in a working-class New England family, Stringfellow began his early political involvements in church and society through leadership in the Student Christian Movement, in a vein we might nowadays call left-liberal; various engagements -- especially post-war meetings with European Nazi resisters, urban ministry in Harlem and anti-war activists in the Vietnam era -- pushed him in an increasingly radical position politically and theologically. (This reading of Stringfellow's vocation as becoming progressively more radical I owe to Anthony Dancer's book An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). Despite such commitments, he nonetheless was a staunch opponent of what he considered to be ideologically controlled biblical hermeneutics and theologies. This commitment put him at loggerheads with the new political and liberation theologies that began emerging in the late 1960s and early 70s; in his view, such projects were ideologically tainted and even courted idolatry (if that seems unduly harsh, bear in mind that idolatry was a category he applied to a rather wide range of phenomena).

Part of his critique is aimed at Marxist theory itself, which he concedes offers useful tools for socio-economic analysis in the Latin American context of his day; he was no academic theorist, but he did study for a year at the London School of Economics and was an avid student and critic of socio-political issues. One problem with adopting Marxism as a worldview, he argues, is that it was forged amid the Industrial Revolution and is not supple enough to grapple with the complexities of a late 20th century technological society. (Not having investigated the matter in depth for myself, I wonder whether his views in this area were influenced by his friend and correspondent, Jacques Ellul). I would suspect contemporary Marxist theorists have resources for answering this criticism.

Of course, in considering Stringfellow's critique of the liberationists, one would need to keep some questions in mind: Are his criticisms really fair, and do they come from a close familiarity with the texts and movements and movements of liberation theology? (For context, recall that the early works of Moltmann, Metz and Gutierrez began were puplished in the late 1960s). In what ways might Stringfellow's own views be closer to those of other political theologians than he might care to admit? How have later liberation theologians taken this kind of critique -- e.g., that they reduce Christian theology to Marxism -- to heart and sought to address it in more critically nuanced proposals? Bill Wylie-Kellermann, in his expert commentary, suggests these comments in part stemmed from Stringfellow's own ideological blindspots -- perhaps a certain proclivity not to acknowledge how his own theology, all theology, is a construction from a particular, inherently limited perspective.

I find it helpful to read Stringfellow within the spectrum of dialectical theology, remembering, for example, Karl Barth's complex and somewhat fraught relationships with Swiss and German religious socialists of the 1910s-20s. As a confessing Christian, Stringfellow like Barth was committed to disclosure of the Word of God in the Bible as normative for believers. The message of the Bible, in his view, is dynamic and subversive, thus resisting all efforts to encapsulate it in a systematic theory. He writes, "My esteem for the biblical witness and my approach to the Bible should be enough to disclose my skepticism about current efforts to construct political theology according to some ideological model" (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, ed. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, New York, Orbis, 2014, p. 47). So what exactly is the problem here? He continues:

[E]ven in sectors of the Third World where Marxism may remain analytically cogent, the attempt to theologize, in biblical terms, ideology is untenable. Even that most venerable identification and advocacy of the biblical witness for the dispossessed and oppressed of this age does not render the biblical people ideologically captivated. The effort to distinguish a biblical apologetic for Marxism is no different from those which have sought to theologize capitalism, colonialism, war, and profligate consumption (ibid.).

Such attempts, he claims, "trivialize the Bible." Are these various realities really so equivalent as this list suggests? I wonder. But I think his distinction between the Gospel and ideology is always a point worth pondering. He writes:

In other words, biblical politics never implies a particular, elaborated political theology, whether it be one echoing the status quo or one which aspires to overthrow and displace the status quo. The Gospel is not ideology and, categorically, the Gospel cannot be ideologized (ibid).

Nonetheless, the position advocated here is not quietist resignation in the face of social injustice. Stringfellow was, after all, a strident critic of conservative and reactionary politics. Rather, what is in view here is a vision of the Christian gospel as inherently disruptive and revolutionary.

Biblical politics always has a posture in tension and opposition to the prevalent system, and to and opposition to the present system, and to any prospective or incipient status quo, and to the ideologies of either regime or revolution. Biblical politics are alienated [Could this be an intentional jab at Marxism?] from the politics of this age (ibid).

Unpacking the import of Stringfellow's anti-institutionalism would require an exposition of his theology of the principalities and powers; the powers, as he sees them, are not really quasi-independent realities not under intentional human control within the parameters of fallen existence. I think there could some interesting lines of conversation between such a theology of the powers and a liberationist perspective on the social and political structures that oppress and hamper human freedom. Suffice it to say for now, if I'm reading Stringfellow correctly, he is not opposing liberation theologies because their Marxism is too radical. Rather, I think, he is saying that in some respects they are not radical enough.



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