Just when I think I recognize the earthly powers and principalities for what they are, Chrysler runs an ad with George Washington in one of their cars. It is silly. But, I find the patriotic imagery and music combined with a powerful looking retro-vehicle drawing me in and making me smile. Recognizing where we are is one thing. Making it to the border is another. Bring again the invasion by the real and present kingdom! peace
I scheduled the following some time ago to post on crookedshore today. I’d forgotten all about it until I read it again this lunchtime. I thought it would be better posted here.
Working, as I do, in inner city Belfast it is sometimes hard to see the impinging force of the resurrection in the day to day. Yet there are moments when its light leaks through the cracks. I remember on a Thursday in November, after the clocks had turned and it got dark at 5pm, watching three builders from our construction site, wearing their hi-viz jackets, pushing the stalled car of a woman which was holding up rush-hour traffic. Was that resurrection light resisting the darkness and death of the world? A glorious grace-filled act?
I watch people trying to live dignified lives in the midst of poverty. Hiding their illiteracy. Trying to feed their kids a healthy diet on a low income. Extending the warmth of hospitality to someone normally considered an enemy.
I sometimes think that inner city people wear their lives on their sleeves in ways that would appall us polite suburbanites. We, after all, have large gardens and driveways which separate us from our neighbours and from life on the streets. But do these hard-won, apparent benefits of the successful life also rob us of resurrection moments?
And do they also deny us the capability of encountering incarnation on Christmas Day, with anything like the wonder of the shepherds or of meeting resurrection on Easter Sunday without anything approaching the wonder and power of the disciples and the women?
And does my lack of noticing them they also mean that I lack the spiritual resources to survive in this bullying world?
I doubt that I could have had the capability to lately survive radical disease, unremitting pain, and the shadow of death had I not spent those earlier years in the Harlem ghetto, discerned there something of the moral power of death, and learned, from neighbours, clients, and Harlem inhabitants at large, something of the triumph of life that human beings can enter and celebrate despite death’s ubiquity and vitality. Harlem is the scene in which I first comprehended the veracity of the resurrection—and that prepared me, more than any other single thing, for devastating illness and pain. Had I known only what I heard about the resurrection in Sunday School or from pulpits or from within the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethos, I believe that I would have surely died…resurrection is verified where rebellion against the demonic thrives.
I do not ignore or gainsay the ambiguity of the witness to the resurrection in revolution. I am, however, affirming that in the black ghetto there is a resistance to death as social purpose, a perseverance in living as human beings, a transcendence of the demonic which is at least an image of resurrection which exposes and challenges the reign of death in this society and which thus, benefits all human beings.
Harlem, Rebellion and Resurrection, Christian Century, 1970
So the life-giving question: where, this Advent, can I encounter rebellion against the demonic?
“In order…to be a person in Harlem, in order that my life and work there should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there. To be accepted by others, I must first of all know myself and accept myself and be myself wherever I happen to be. In that way, others are also freed to be themselves” (Stringfellow, “A Keeper of the Word,” 38.)
A few days ago, a person reflected to me that today’s society is spiraling downhill; all great nations and civilizations have fallen because of the loss of morality. On the most basic level, I disagree. (If Napoleon had not foolishly invaded Russia, we would have had a Beethoven symphony dedicated to him.) But focusing more on the first part of that statement, isn’t that just a nostalgic way of viewing the past? Ultimately, have the needs of “today’s society” changed that much in the past 2,000 years?
We could take hours to list all of the advances of the past 10, 50, 200, or even 500 years that define today. (My mother would argue that at the top of the list should be Gutenberg’s printing press.) But despite our radically different possessions, our ‘enlightened’ way of thinking, and even being much taller than our ancestors, the phrase “people, are people, are people” still comes to mind.
During the Advent season, our vocabulary is filled with wonderful words like “peace” and “love” and “justice.” These words that are central to the prophets’ messages about the coming of Christ translate into today’s world just as much as they did 2,000 years ago.
People, are people, are people who are in need of peace, in need of love, and in need of justice. Huge concepts that are constantly addressed during Jesus’ ministry. This season of preparation is not about buying gifts, decorating trees, or creepy Santa light up statues. It’s the time for us to realize that what is holding us back from peace, love, and justice to be present in this world is so often ourselves. People for centuries have defined the “right” way to dress, the “right” sexual orientation, the “right” skin colour, the “right” way to worship God. People have striven to bring about peace through violence, love through domination, and justice through tyranny. But we have the wonderful opportunity of living in the 21st century to realize that people regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation are all fearfully and wonderfully created and are all in need of Christ-like peace, love, and justice.
In this season of preparation, Christ is calling us to be comfortable in our own skins. To love your neighbor, you must first love yourself. Kudos, Stringfellow, for realizing this as part of your daily life. Peace, love, and justice will hopefully be realized for all people of this world.
But if you believe our society is in rapid decline and lacking in hope this Christmas season, may the words of Isaiah provide you hope that out of nothing, through Christ, God can grow much.
Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious
Christmas this year, perhaps more than ever in recent times, will be laced with uncertainty for many at what lies ahead for themselves and their families in the new year. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s opening “biography as theology” chapter I immediately thought of the song “On to Bethlehem” by the singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee (ex-Vigilantes of Love) who marries his own personal experience to the Christmas story.
“So I’m at this wheel it’s three am
waiting for the caffeine to come around
and life rears it’s ugly head again
they say your radio’s cool and retail’s way down.
And I’d like to say I’m faithful
to the task at hand;
speaking gospel to a handful
and others with their list of demands.
It’s cold this year and I’m late on my dues
It’s cold in here ah but that’s nothing new.
My heart’s electric with your love again
so it’s on to Bethlehem.
You might surmise that I ran there
But I really only crept.
Lead me to the place where love runs wild
and then it dogs your every step.
You know how fickle my heart is
prone to wonder my Lord.
Yeah we talk but it’s at arms length
always got one eye on the door.
God wraps Himself up in human skin
for those who want to touch;
and God let them drive the nails in
for those of us who know way too much.
You come bearing all our burdens
and take Your lovers for a ride;
but we stay holed up in our cages
fashioned by our own design.”
So tell me what is your secret
what’s on your blister soul;
what is that one little secret
you know the one that has taken its toll?
‘Cause daddy’s banging on your gate again
yeah he won’t leave you alone;
got a whole lot of dry warm rooms
and the finest of homes.
You can listen to the song here:
The insecurity of his personal and professional future, and the need to keep pressing on in the midst of it all – on to Bethlehem (a Yeats reference, I’m sure). We don’t hear enough advent-themed music that dares to hitch our personal struggles onto the same wagon.
Something that I have been thinking about a lot is from pages 2-5 that … the power and purpose of death are incarnated in institutions and structures, procedures and regiemes…hospital systems…these principalities are identified as demonic powers because of the ruthless dehumanization they cause. I had never really thought of organisations etc in this way but can totally see how evil can work through anything that dehumanizes, working in the hospital ‘system’ I experienced first hand how this happens. When those in charge of making decisions are detached from those they affect, the door is opened for various sources of motivation to be used and the influence and power of budgets, profit, statistics, control etc to thrive and grow. However, I guess this can happen on a personal level as well by judging, criticising, stereotyping, shifting responsibility, not seeing people through God’s eyes, with God’s heart. In this season of advent I am reminded of how personal God is with us, that the King of the universe knows each of us intimately and loves us completely and that His kingdom is here but working through loving relationships, his sons and daughters in the earth remaining with Him whilst touching others.
I was looking for something completely different when names of radicals from the day drew me into this section:
All these snares and devices of the principalities represent the reality of babel, and babel is that species of violence most militant in the present American circumstances.
Babel means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy. And in all of this, babel means violence….The language and liturgies of emperor worship in imperial Rome…the Nazis…by the 1970’s in America…babel had become the means of ruling the nation, the principal form of coercion employed by the governing authorities against human beings.
An alternative is meaningful, personal communication born from silence. Time for me to turn off many forms of noise and wait for the coming of the Word. Silence, peace, and grace to all gathered here.
Pereginatio’s post on Stringfellow’s writing about Powers and Principalities has me thinking today. In my church experience, we usually name the beliefs and institutions of the “other” as powers or principalities. Stringfellow pointing out that the term should/does apply to our own institutions and systems as well could be seen as accusatory. I believe it is liberating.
I am part of so many religious conversations that become and remain focused on names. ‘Oh, you seem to be quoting from _____’ ‘I didn’t know you were part of the _____.’ ‘You are speaking like a ______.’
When we focus on the names of our groups and influences, it so often becomes part of the division and brokeness. Or, we focus on what name the ‘other’ uses for God. So often we have fallen back on, labeling others based on their calling God — Allah or Jehovah, Tao or Great Spirit, Shiva (different I know but fits the point) or Krishna, Unknowable or NonExistant. If all of the ones that identify us as _______s are grouped with the rest of the earthly powers, it frees me to ask different kinds of questions.
What name is God calling out to me? In this season of waiting, what name will God call when running down the road to welcome you? Those are holy names. peace