Conservative Radical? William Stringfellow on Law and Justice

Pekka Järveläinen, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
In a recent post, I explored William Stringfellow’s ambivalence about the legal profession and, more specifically, toward ideological frameworks (e.g., natural law theory) that obscure the ways law is actually practiced. To reiterate briefly: The legal guild (like all institutions) is a fallen principality subsisting within a complex web of systems; like all the powers that be, the legal profession is enthralled to the power of death and fails in its vocation of promoting human flourishing. Moreover, rather than clarifying this situation, abstract theories (such as natural law theory) tend to mythologize the workings of law in concrete circumstances.

All that said, though, there remains another side of Stringfellow’s perspective on the legal profession – a viewpoint more positive and potentially constructive, even if the compliment is delivered rather backhandedly. Some background might be helpful: Stringfellow does not understand principalities and powers, such as the legal establishment, to be the products of subjective, intentional human agency; rather, they exhibit a quasi-autonomous life of their own apart from human efforts to control them. In an odd way, this brings his thought somewhat into line with much contemporary social thinking in philosophy and the social sciences – except that he further claims that the powers are, in some mysterious way, directly created by God. As creatures, the principalities and powers are meant to serve human life, not oppress it. (Stringfellow offers a concise treatment of his theology of the powers in his groundbreaking Free in Obedience, New York: Seabury Press, 1964, chap. 3.)

A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning, By William Stringfellow (1982).

Despite his penchant for troublemaking, Stringfellow was no anarchist. On the contrary, he affirmed the need for law as a tool to protect the vulnerable and push back against the ravaging of human beings by warring economic, social, and political interests. In his late memoir, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (pp. 125-131), Stringfellow reflects back on his disillusionment at Harvard Law School in the 1950s as he met widespread indifference to the issue he believed should be the profession’s central focus – namely, promoting justice. What he found, instead, was subservience of the law and its institutions to proprietary corporate interests, though he observes some progress in subsequent years, as law programs began paying more attention to the role of law in advocacy for the dispossessed.

At the height of the Civil Rights struggle, Stringfellow was approached by a representative of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who reportedly had read and admired his book, My People is the Enemy (1964), which recounts Stringfellow’s experiences practicing street law in East Harlem. The AG’s office wanted to consult – clandestinely! – with Stringfellow about an upcoming conference on fighting poverty. The young lawyer was told he was too “radical” to have a public role in the event. What’s so “radical,” bristles Stringfellow, about the notion of due process and equal protection of the law? Aren’t the rights of minorities enshrined in the structure of the Constitution? This commitment animated Stringfellow's own passion, in his legal practice, to advocate for African Americans and Latinos, women and children, the poor and oppressed, and sexual minorities and others marginalized by churches. He writes:

In East Harlem, on Block Island, in ecclesiastical courts as well as secular venues, as in the law school, I simply do not share in the feigned professional sophistication that sponsors and inculcates the indifference of lawyers to the constitutional priorities, particularly the Bill of Rights, or that rationalizes a preference for laissez-faire interests of commerce as opposed to the freedom, safety, and welfare of human beings, or that asserts a so-called sanctity of property that devalues and demeans human life (ibid., p. 130).

Moreover, he assets, the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights era and the antiwar protests in the late 1960s and early 70s – movements with which Stringfellow had committed, if often fraught, personal involvement – were, by and large, not anarchistic in character but were aimed at the redemption of the constitutional system, not its abolition. Notably, Stringfellow was a trenchant critic of the illegalities and deceptions deployed by the U.S. government in wartime – especially in the Nixon era. Note, again, the issue is redeeming the Constitutional system, not repristinating it: Any document, to cite a notorious example that recent antiracist writers have emphasized, that claims enslaved individuals should count legally as three-fifths human might be due for some reconstruction.

Stringfellow eschewed labels, which he found constraining. The issue is not in towing some sort of party line but, rather, struggling day to day to “live humanly,” and to help others do the same. Even with this caveat, might I suggest he was something of a “conservative radical” (something quite different from a “radical conservative”) – radical in the sense of grappling with the deep structures and forces that beset human existence, and in the sense of challenging each and every incumbent regime, "liberal" ones included -- but conservative in the sense of fighting to preserve the authentic vocation, even of such fallen principalities as the rule of law?

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