The Last Word: Berrigan's Eulogy for Stringfellow

"Billy Hathorn at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
While finishing this post, I learned that the eminent German theologian – and truly gracious human being – Jürgen Moltmann had died. Early in his career, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope helped launch a new genre of political theology that sought to retrieve the doctrine of the resurrection to foster projects of liberation and social transformation. William Stringfellow – sadly, to my mind, without real critical engagement – expressed suspicions of the early political theologies of the 1960s, particularly in their dependence upon Marxist theory, but I do find a congruence between him and Moltmann in their respective affirmations of the power of the resurrection to renew the churches and the world at large. In this spirit of gratitude, I offer the following reflections.

Like many modern Christian thinkers, William Stringfellow refused to speculate about the possibility of conscious personal existence after death. He worried that fixating on a putative afterlife distracted believers from embracing their vocation to live in faithful response to the Word of God in this life, in this world. Bill Wylie Kellermann’s superb anthology of Stringfellow’s writings (actually, the second anthology he edited) homes in on a succinct passage the Episcopal lawyer, activist, and theologian wrote in a moving memoir framed by his struggle to process the sudden death of his life partner, the poet Anthony Towne (See A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning, 1982). This passage epitomizes what Stringfellow writes on these matters throughout his work (though, as I suggested in this post a few years ago, there might be some suggestive ambiguities on this topic in his corpus.

William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, Ed. Bill Wylie-Kellerman (Orbis, 2013).

In this passage, Stringfellow sharply distinguishes the doctrine of resurrection from the classic notion, shared by ancient Greek philosophers and common expressions of Christian piety and doctrine to this day, of the immortality of the soul:

In my view, immortality, essentially, is no more than an elaborate synonym for remembrance of the dead, though there are attached to it multifarious notions of spiritual and/or material survival of death (p. 225).

In contrast, he sees the belief in resurrection as an affirmation of life in this world – an invitation to embrace one’s freedom to live humanly in the face of ubiquitous death.

Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death, and of the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life, and indeed, the fulfillment of life, before death (ibid.)

One possibility Stringfellow does not consider, it seems, would be to develop a conception of the resurrection of the body on New Testament grounds, independently of notions of immortality – a project N.T. Wright, in particular, has commended vigorously in recent years.

Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit poet and notorious peace activist and close friend of Stringfellow’s, offers a somewhat different take on what lies in store for the faithful after death. Berrigan’s 1985 eulogy for his companion and co-conspirator is the “Homiletic Afterward” on Stringfellow, appended to the end of Wylie-Kellermann’s anthology (pp. 231-234).

Berrigan lauds his friend as one who upheld the Word of God in his life and witness – a man who kept his word in times when betrayal and deceit ran rampant at all levels of public life – times very much like ours. Stringfellow was faithful to the poor and marginalized community in East Harlem where he worked as a young attorney; he was faithful, in spite of official opposition, to the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church; he was faithful to his neighbors on Block Island, where he enjoyed a brief and tumultuous career as an elected public official; he was faithful in calling out the deceptions of the Nixon administration and in resisting the United States’ illegal war in Southeast Asia; he was faithful to Berrigan himself, offering refuge to a friend hunted by the FBI for his notorious role in the ritualized burning of draft records in a protest action in Catonsville, Maryland.

Emaciated from a decades-long struggle with illness, Stringfellow succumbed to physical death in a Rhode Island hospital at age 56. Still, Berrigan is adamant that Stringfellow’s vocation did not end here. There is something more for him – new life that transcends what we might grasp this side of the grave. “This is the way with the Word, which we name Christ. The covenant keeps us who keep the covenant,” he writes (ibid.).

And if we are assured that He keeps even those who betray the covenant, that God is not bound even by our betrayals, does not cast us off, what shall we say of the reward of this good and faithful servant for whom the keeping of the Word was a simple definition of life itself? (ibid.)

The notion of “heaven” as a “reward” for good deeds has a long and ambiguous legacy in the history of Christian belief and practice, and it seems difficult to square with the claim that God’s grace in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation. Still, I suggest, one might understand reward not as a divine quid-pro-quo but, rather, as the extension of the process of redeeming and sanctifying human effort that the Holy Spirit begins in the life of each believer. It is in this spirit that I read the reflections of Berrigan, who believes his friend Stringfellow’s reward is “exceedingly great.” He continues:

The “small matters” (to which the Bible reduces in all sobriety the inflation and fury of this world) have yielded in death to something else. Stringfellow has entered into “great matters,” matters of great and pressing moment (ibid.).

I do not read Berrigan’s comments here as negating Stringfellow’s emphasis on the power of resurrection manifest in this life; rather, I think his allusive comments are reinforcing that claim while suggesting, perhaps, a broader perspective within which to frame them. Do we dare grasp onto such a hope, even in a world such as this one?


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