Friday, December 09, 2016

This Shall Be a Sign: Stringfellow on the Politics of Advent

Some time ago, I reviewed a superb anthology of writings by Willian Stringfellow, the Episcopal lawyer-activst and lay theologian, in the Anglican Theological Review (Summer 2015; unfortunately, it's not avaiable online). The book, edited by a close friend and mentee of Stringfellow's, offers a incomparable entree into the life and work of an enigmatic, yet original voice figure in theology and ethics who, it seems to me, is still not not widely enough read and understood (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, ed. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, New York, Orbis, 2014).
The Last Judgment, by Micheangelo
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let's do something to help remedy that situation, shall we? A great place to begin is with Wylie-Kellerman's section of texts that explore Stringfellow's unconventional perspectives on Jesus. Today, apropos of the season of Advent, I want to look at a short passage excerped from a 1977 work of political theology (pp. 50-53), that explores the politically pointed, if hidden, aspects of the Gospel infancy narratives.

In my reading, Stringfellow overall is not overly preoccupied with historical-critical questions. So too in this exceprt. For example, he asks: Did a star really appear over a creche in Bethlehem? He isn't really sure, but he doesn't suppose the answer matters that much. Still, the elements of wonder in the narratives bespeak the mystery of salvation in a manner worthy of the subject matter -- Christ's rule over creation. What is not self-evident, though, is how scandalous these stories actually are. The beginnings of the Jesus story foreshadow the Savior's confrontation with the fallen principalities and powers of the world. Stringfellow writes:

The biblical treatment of both advents, the narratives attending Christ's birth and the testimonies about the Second Coming of Christ, is manifestly political. Yet, curiously, people have come to hear the story of the birth as both apolitical and even antipolitical while, I venture, most listen to news of Christ coming again triumphantly with vague unneasiness or even outright embarrassment (p. 50).

Stringfellow is a trenchant critic of sentimentality -- especially religious sentimentality -- and of the privatization of faith.

What with the star and the sheep and the stable, it has been possible to acculturate the birth, to render it some sort of pastoral idyll. But the scenic wonders, the astonishing visions, the spectacular imagery associated with the next advent have confounded the ordinary processes of secularization and thus the subject of the Second Coming has been either omitted or skimmed in the more conventional churches or else exploited variously by sectarians, charlatans, fanatics, or huckster evangelists (ibid.)

What is common to both the mysterious infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and to the cryptic visions of the Apocalypse -- the bookends of the New Testament, as it were -- is the emphasis on Jesus' universal sovereignty over the principalities and powers. Whereas this theme is manifest in Revelation, it is more implicit in the birth stories.

Ahead of his time in the field of political hermeneutics, Stringfellow offers several astute observations about the infancy narratives, which, on a close reading, are anything but the innocuous stuff of a Hallmark holiday special. For example, the tax registration that, in Luke's account, impels the holy family to Bethehem is not merely a source of revenue for the occupying imperial regime; it also serves as an insidious "means of political surveillance of potentially dissident people" (p. 52). Moreover, Herod's agitation at the threat of the Christ child prompts him to try to enlist the Magi as coconspirators in eradicating a potential rival claimant to the throne.

For Stringfellow, the birth narratives are just as eschatological as the scenes of the Christus Victor in the Apocalypse. The angel's proclammation of "peace on earth" to the shepherds foreshadows the restoration of all things at the end of the age. He writes:

[T]he manger scene itself is a political portrait of the whole of creation restored in the dominion of Jesus Christ in which every creature, every tongue and tribe, every rule and authority, every nation and principality is reconciled in a homage to the Word of God incarnate (ibid.)

Such is the literature produced and shared by people on the periphary of empire -- that is to say, the early Christians.

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