Letting Forgiveness Occupy Violence

Social activist and lay theologian William Stringfellow offers hard-hitting insight on war and peace in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. After insisting on the collective guilt of all humanity in perpetuating violence and the power of death (with a particularly harsh critique of the United States), Stringfellow calls Christians to resist war and violence at all costs. However, the details of such resistance are not clean-cut and can often remain a conundrum. Although Stringfellow seems to stumble in articulating how Christians resist war and violence, he points to the Cross and the power of the Resurrection as a source of renewal and transformation.

The Prophetic Pessimism of William Stringfellow

After lambasting American churches for being “degraded vassals of the power of death” and condemning the American government for perpetuating “the ethos of Nazim,” [1] Stringfellow boldly asserts that “there are no glorious wars—no wars which humanize, no wars of salvation, no just wars.”[2] The only victor in any war, according to Stringfellow, is death.[3] Informed and inspired by the Bible or “biblical politics,”[4] Stringfellow understands violence as “normative” in our fallen world and holds all of humanity responsible: “No violence is private…the violence of the Fall is so political, so penetrating, and so pervasive that even the victims of violence are not innocent and even those who advocate nonviolence are not absolved. No human being is guiltless of any violence.”[5] He sees this universal human guilt asserted in the teachings of Jesus when he equates anger with murder (Matt 5:21-22). Moreover, Stringfellow sees this guilt portrayed in the crucifixion of Christ, when Judas betrays him and the other disciples, who stand “as surrogates for the rest of humanity,” desert him.[6] He combats an ancient source of Christian anti-semitism when he explains that the Jews in the biblical context “always act as emissaries of all mankind…so to declare that the Jews are guilty in the Crucifixion is simply to confess that all humans share in that guilt.”[7] The crucifixion of Christ (“the most notorious political event in all history”[8]) represents the war and violence that permeate all human relationships. Just as Christ’s death was humanity’s fault so is war and violence the fault of all human beings, regardless of the victim or perpetrator: “Human beings remain responsible to one another both as perpetrators of violence and as victims of violence…a person killed is a victim, but the killer is so dehumanized in the action that he is a victim too.”[9] In Stringfellow’s scheme, the categories of perpetrator and victim blur and eventually collapse. All are guilty of violence and all are victims of violence, all at once. Violence is ubiquitous and appears to be dominant. Stringfellow’s sharp prophetic edge holds the US and all of us responsible for war and violence while his pessimistic bent paints the world in large brushstrokes of war and violence, everywhere.


An Unclear Call to Resist

             With this ominous worldview, it makes sense that Stringfellow would talk about “resistance” as the “only human way to live.”[10]  For him, resistance is a sign of sanity, humanity, gratitude and commitment to the Bible, while acquiescence means profound ingratitude and the death of sanity.[11] As a conclusion, he writes, “I suggest Christians do not, thereby, engage in violence casually or without aforethought or as a first resort rather than last.”[12] However, he remains unclear and appears to be torn when it comes to effective ways of actually resisting war and violence. He describes what he calls the “Bonhoeffer Dilemma” in which Christians self-confidently assert their knowledge of God’s will by resisting violence in ways they see most fit (which may even involve using violence to prevent violence). Stringfellow sees this traditional pacifism as deficient and sharing the same lethal self-righteousness displayed by Christian advocates of war and violence. He reveals the complexity around Christian resistance, saying,

The issue of Christian participation in violence is inherently misleading and in error because an inappropriate and, indeed, impossible question is being asked. It is a query which seeks assurance beforehand of how God will judge a decision or an act. It is a true conundrum which only betrays an unseemly anxiety for justification quite out of step with a biblical life-style that dares in each and every event to trust the grace of God…Of the specifics of the historicity of God’s judgment, Christians, in common with all other creatures, know nothing.[13]

So if Christians cannot know God’s judgment or will, how can they properly and effectively resist violence? Stringfellow describes a war-torn world inhabited by violent humans and offers no clear way out, even though trying to get out remains the only way to be sane.

Let Forgiveness Occupy the Violence

“Of the specifics of the historicity of God’s judgment, Christians, in common with all other creatures, know nothing.” The Bible does not lay out an entirely clear roadmap on how God has judged and will continue to judge the complex and nuanced powers and principalities of our violent and political world. However, Stringfellow offers an important reminder of what the Bible does lay out when he says, “But of the character of [God’s] judgment—that is, that his mercy and forgiveness are coincident in judgment—much is known.[14]

Stringfellow points to God’s mercy and forgiveness as an answer to the world’s wars and violence.  He writes,  “On the Cross, as ancient creeds declare, Christ assumes the burden of the sin of the whole world. In just that way, on the Cross, are all men, together with all principalities, guiltily implicated in the Crucifixion of Christ.”[15] Stringfellow reminds us all of our guilt and responsibility in Christ’s death. However, in one of his other writings called Free in Obedience, Stringfellow elaborates on the divine mercy and forgiveness that he mentions in An Ethic. He explains the transforming power of God’s forgiveness by describing the Resurrection:

Christ’s resurrection is for human beings and for the whole of creation, including the principalities of this world. Through the encounters between Christ and the principalities and between Christ and death, the power of death is exhausted. The reign of death and, within that, the pretensions to sovereignty over history of the principalities, is brought to an end in Christ’s resurrection. He bears the fullness of their hostility toward him; he submits to their condemnation; he accepts their committal of himself to death, and in his resurrection he ends their power and the power they represent.[16]

Although we are all responsible for Christ’s death due to our inherent and corporate participation in war and violence, Christ responds by accepting our violence to the point of death and then forgives us in his resurrection.[17] By this forgiveness he ends the power of death and transforms the world of war and violence by transforming us. The difficult complexities and conundrums of effective Christian non-violent resistance lead us to fall back on God’s forgiveness as revealed in Christ’s resurrection. By letting God’s forgiveness occupy our hearts more than our ideologies and agendas, we can gradually learn to act and actively resist from that center, thereby letting God’s forgiveness occupy the violent and war-torn world with His peace.

[1] William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco TX: Word, 1973), 121.

[2] Ibid, 126.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The biblical topic,” Stringfellow asserts, “is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption…the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ.” William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, ed. Bill Wyile Kellerman (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994), 176.

[5] An Ethic, 127-128.

[6] Ibid,129.

[7] Ibid,130.

[8] Ibid,128.

[9] Ibid,131.

[10] Ibid,119.

[11] Ibid. It is fascinating how often Stringfellow couples and almost equates resistance with the “biblical style of life.” More interaction and interpretation of particular biblical passages in his writings would have shed light on his prophetic and non-violent method of exegesis.

[12] Ibid,133.

[13] Ibid,132.

[14] 133.

[15] 130.

[16] A Keeper of the Word, 203.

[17] Theologian James Alison asserts, “The resurrection is forgiveness” in Knowing Jesus (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1994), 16.


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