Stringfellow Contra Natural Law Theory

Sang Hyun Cho, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

William Stringfellow – Episcopal lay theologian, activist, and gadfly – was, by profession, an attorney – credentialed by the Harvard Law School, no less, though (I suspect) no bust or image of him bedecks any walls within its 19 campus buildings. Though he was a member of the legal profession by trade, nonetheless, he categorically refused to consider this work to be his “career.” In fact, he deemed dying to career as integral to his ongoing Christian conversion and vocation.

Radical Christian and Exemplary Lawyer: Honoring William Stringfellow, Edited by Andrew W. McThenia, Jr. (1995, 2007).

Still, Stringfellow’s toil as a lawyer – from advocating for addicted, dispossessed, and oppressed clients in East Harlem to representing the first women ordained “irregularly” to the presbyterate in the Episcopal Church --offered fertile grist for forming his distinctive theological and ethical vision. Stringfellow’s relationship with the law as principality and practice was a guiding theme of the first monograph published about him (there have not been many), edited by Andrew W. McThenia, Jr., (now) Emeritus Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, and reprinted a few years ago by Wipf and Stock. The volume includes striking essays and remembrances from Stringfellow’s friends familiar to the Christian left: The pieces by Walter Wink, Elizabeth McAlister, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Jim Wallis, and Daniel Berrigan are especially compelling. Several law professors, including McThenia, offer reflections on the impact of his work.

McThenia’s concluding essay (“An Uneasy Relationship with the Law”) is especially enlightening in its overview and analysis of Stringfellow’s fraught views of his chosen profession. Stringfellow eschews any idealistic or “aspirational” interpretation of the law and, instead, opts for a more functional view. His concern vis-a-vis the law is concrete -- to show how might this fallen principality might be commandeered to serve actual human beings in distress. Though he affirmed the quest for equal protection of the law as means for protecting the oppressed and disenfranchised, he harbored no progressivist illusions that passing better laws and applying them more even-handedly would ever provide more than a stop-gap against injustice in a riven and complex society.

Stringfellow was suspicious of abstract theories that cloak the embedded, concrete, and contingent character of legal practice. The preeminent case among such dubious constructs, in his view, was natural law theory. As McThenia explains, academics in the wake of World War II were at pains to articulate a legal theory that would serve to bolster “traditional American values” and ward off the kinds of demonic distortions of law and order perpetrated by the National Socialists. Many thinkers in Stringfellow’s day, as so in ours, deemed natural law theory as the framework best suited for such ends, as it posits a universal moral code, discernable by rightly ordered reason, to which all people and societies are subject – a “Christian theory of law,” broadly understood, albeit with import potentially extending across secular discourse. But Stringfellow emphatically rejected the propriety of positing any abstract Christian legal theory. McThenia writes:
[Stringfellow] argued that natural law offered no basis for real ethical judgment; instead it opened the way for an oppressive ideology by pretending that what is contingent, provisional, and merely human is really natural, as part of the divinely sanctioned nature of creation. He denied that Christianity provided any ethical norms by which to judge human action. He asserted that the gospel stands in opposition to all human law, not just to bad law. Law is a fallen principality and is always in tension with grace (p. 172).
His objections to natural law theory – and, really, to all systematic ethical and political systems that risk reifying human experience in fixed categories – are theologically and biblically rooted. According to Stringfellow, discipleship (even for Christian attorneys, law enforcement officials, and policy makers) is a matter of discerning the Word of God, concretely, in the here and now. Such discerment is grounded in communities of worship, united in baptism and prayer. Such Christian particulism is not easily translated into generic secular categories. (Stringfellow was no follower of the likes of Rawls or Dewey, either.) Stringfellow accepts and embraces the cognitive and spiritual dissonance of living within -- not above! -- the dialectic between law, a necessary evil in a world characterized by the fall, and liberating grace. Human reason is not the arbiter of justice; only God is.

To be sure, such a dialectical and tensive understanding of the law exposes his position to worries about relativism and antinomianism: How can any society attempt to foster and preserve justice without any signposts or fixed principles, no matter how complex and contextualized any application of such principles might inevitably be? At any rate, I suspect, we are going to be hearing more about natural law theory in years to come, maybe even from some of the preeminent jurists in the land. For believers especially, Stringfellow’s critique should serve as a salutary warning, in our own era, against taking any legal decision as self-evidently instantiating the will of God.


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Jason Goroncy said…
Thanks for this timely post, Scott. Good stuff.
Thanks for reading, Jason! (Please do tag or PM me if you happen to write something on WS again.)

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