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Thinking Out Loud

The Fallen

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2017

Editor's note: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Stringfellow was a thinker singled out by the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth as "the most conscientious and thoughtful" mind he encountered when visiting the United States almost fifty years ago. Today's blog represents the first to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

The Fallen"Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics - and the elementary topic of politics - is how to live humanly during the Fall. Any viable ethic - which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope - is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall." [William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Press, 1973), p. 55.]

Among the many insights of the late William Stringfellow, arguably the most important for our moment in American history is this: Contemporary Christians do not take seriously the significance, pervasiveness and extent of the Fall.

One might equally argue, of course, that contemporary Christians do not take seriously enough the significance, pervasiveness and extent of God's original grace either. Thinking theologically is just not a regular practice for many Christians these days. We often hear the common refrain from pastors and church members alike that they have a very difficult time connecting the biblical and theological ideas and concepts they learn in seminary and church with their everyday lives and the events going on in the world. This is precisely where William Stringfellow helps us most.

Like C.S. Lewis before him, Stringfellow was a "lay theologian." He was not a minister, pastor or professional theologian. He was an attorney and an Episcopal lay person. And, perhaps because of this, he was especially good at breathing new life into tired theological concepts, such as the Fall.

Specifically, Stringfellow helps us to see more clearly that we live in an age in which it is not unusual at all to undervalue the deep theological significance of the manner in which God's good creation is so compromised by and implicated in the Fall that almost every attempt to speak of sin conveys also a trivialization both of sin and divine mercy. He understood (and helps us to understand) the Fall as a present theological reality and not merely as a quasi-historical or mythological notion.

When we think of sin, we tend to think first of the things we do or leave undone as individuals. Almost everyone has their favorite list of such sins, mostly acts that other people tend to do. In the pietistic tradition in which I was reared the typical sins were drinking, smoking and dancing. Sometimes we think of sins as the things that we all do which reveal lapses in judgment or expressions of selfishness. Probably the first sins we tend to think of when the topic comes up are sexual in nature, although one might argue that economic and social sins are really more popular in our culture.

Christians historically have come up with lists of "cardinal Sins" in contrast to the "cardinal Virtues." And there is no doubt that individual acts of wickedness merit repentance, restitution and reconciliation. However, as Stringfellow observed:

"Human wickedness in this sense is so peripheral in the biblical version of the Fall that the pietistic interpretation that it represents the heart of the matter must be accounted gravely misleading. The biblical description of the Fall concerns the alienation of the whole of Creation from God, and, thus, the rupture and profound disorientation of all relationships within the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 76.)

To put this idea in slightly different terms, the Fall points toward the pervasive condition of Sin affecting, tainting and undercutting God's creative and gracious purposes throughout creation in distinction from those acts we call sins. To speak of the Fall is to speak of the fundamental out-of-jointedness, the essential distortion of reality and illusory nature of existence that stands in opposition to God. From a biblical perspective, as Stringfellow himself puts it, the Fall signifies "the brokenness of relationships among human beings and the other creatures, and the rest of Creation, and the spoiled or confused identity of each human being within herself or himself and each principality within itself." Certainly we can speak of individual acts of wickedness "within the scope of the Fall, but only as an incidental matter within the time or history or era which the Fall designates, in which death apparently holds and exercises moral dominion over the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, pp. 76-77.)

Stringfellow's principal insight into the nature of the Fall goes beyond even his appreciation for the corporate nature of sin. He also recognizes the inclusion of what the Bible calls "principalities and powers" in the Fall, understanding that all such institutions and ideologies are themselves "creatures"; that is, "principalities and powers" are aspects of God's good Creation. But as fallen creatures, along with all other fallen creatures, "principalities and powers" share in the moral confusion and the dominion of death from which all Creation yearns for deliverance.

All of this may feel rather abstract or theoretical, so let's bring the ideas home. The Fall so perverts our understanding that we live our lives as though brutality and naked force, the threat of suffering and death, and the cursedness of existence seem stronger than the love, the power of mercy and kindness and simple goodness, and the truth and beauty of holiness revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

The Fall is manifest in that illusion that gives rise to what we might call "practical cynicism," the sort of cynicism which claims that while Christianity teaches fine moral ideals, it lacks the power to deal with so-called political realities. Such cynicism is illusory because it fails to perceive that Jesus was crucified in the real world by a coalition of political, military, moral and religious powers and principalities, and that it was God alone who raised him from the dead.

According to the Gospels, the cross is the most likely if not inevitable end for those who follow Jesus in the era of the Fall. But those who live leaning into the cross, live toward life instead of death, as Stringfellow claims in another of his books. [Stringfellow, Instead of Death: New and Expanded Edition (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976).]

If it is true that survival and reproduction are the driving forces of all life, from a biological perspective, it is also true, from a political perspective, that survival and the extension of influence (the political equivalent of reproduction) are the driving forces of institutions and ideologies. Even as a creature may sacrifice kindness for the sake of survival, a principality can subvert almost any virtue and utilize the threat of death to insure its continuance and success. And the power of a principality, the ideologies that serve it, the institutions that embody its values, the efficiency and effectiveness with which it promulgates and instills in others its interests seek to intimidate and overwhelm resistance based upon what are often (and mistakenly) termed the "softer values" of love and mercy.

The fallen principalities and powers masquerade their ruthless self-interest under the guise of higher ideals. Thus a tribe's self-serving drive to survive, including the most vicious brutality toward those outside the tribe, can be transmuted into a seemingly higher value by masking mere tribalism as patriotism. This is, at least in part, why jingoistic Nationalism and Imperialism remain so durable while religious faith has proven so easily co-opted.

And yet ... And yet ... in the midst of the Fall, there are glimmers of transcendent grace breaking through, moments of eternal significance revealed here and now, when God raises up people convinced that love and mercy, goodness, humility and justice are more powerful than the threat of suffering and the dominion of death.

•    Mohandas Gandhi stands against an imperial power, although he is armed only with a stubborn peace that will not participate in institutional racism and hatred, nor will he retaliate.

•    Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands against the fascism, the idolatry of racial purity, and the military force of Nazism (in his own nation and among his own people), although he is armed only with a tenacious discipleship that transcends national boundaries and demands love for strangers and enemies.

•    Martin Luther King, Jr. marches against the powers that demoralize men, women and children and segregate them on the basis of racial and ethnic biases, the forces that impoverish the many for the enrichment of the few, that mislead the population into believing that violence can ever produce lasting peace.

These three persons, and many more, have understood what Stingfellow knew: "There comes a moment when words must either become incarnated or the words, even if literally true, are rendered false." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 21.)

Whatever we will do we must do in the shadow of the Fall.

Our moral vision will never be whole.

Our intentions and motives inevitably will be mixed.

Our complicity in Sin cannot be erased.

We can, however, entrust ourselves to the God whose vision and will are true, and whose mercy is everlasting.

Fallen we are, but also forgiven. And forgiven, we shall act to embody God's love in the face of the Fall and for the sake of Creation. However dismal and dismayed we may be at any particular moment, we need to remember that joy and hope are theological virtues, gifts of God.

Gandhi once observed that while evil may seem for a moment to dominate, the long trajectory of history is toward the good. And, if we may return to a specifically Christian theological perspective, the perspective articulated so eloquently by William Stringfellow, while we must live in a fallen Creation, we may nonetheless live with the confidence that all that is belongs to God and all that ever shall be serves God's redemptive ends.

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