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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Dissenter in a Great Society by William Stringfellow

Alright y’all, so this is a book of the month that I have wrestled with a little bit. I have very much gone back and forth on her, trying to decide if I even had the energy to put towards it. But I have decided, and honestly God and the universe kind of decided for me, that it must be done. And there is literally no better week to do this.

So, welcome to our November 2020, election week, book of the month episode. We are going to be discussing William Stringfellow’s Dissenter in a Great Society: an Indictment of Christian Complacency in American Life.

I actually found this on my dad’s bookshelves in his office when I was cleaning some stuff out of it, and it made me chuckle. My father would be easy to throw into a stereotypical mold if you just looked at him- bald, fit, probably wearing some shade of desert tan, has his 100th division lapel pin proudly displayed at any semi formal events. He’s a soldier through and through, but he’s a scholar. And he always has been. So when i found this, he and i had been having some disagreements, and perhaps I had been making some assumptions about him- and he had been making some about me too- but this reminded me of who he really is.

So, the book. Let me first read you one of the comments on the back of the book: “Recommended to every intelligent reader who may have begun to suspect that morality has given way to expediency, truth to propaganda, and idealism to self-aggrandizement, in our ‘Great Society’.” - Virginia Kirkus’ Service

Damn. Super timely.

So I gave her a quick once over, right? I gleaned a handful of things from this book, and in this episode I’m going to highlight the biggest takeaways from each chapter.

Chapter 1: Poverty, Property, and People

Poverty in the United States is a moral shortcoming of its affluent- it is evidence of greed, of apathy, and of a lack of individual maturity.

Interestingly, this book was written during the infancy of the War on Poverty- a movement that i know, as a hereditary Appalachian, put systems in place that in the long term would further cripple an underserved people. The inequities of education and employment were never solved, and in fact have been further exacerbated as time passed and it became more profitable to move jobs overseas. Further, the author accurately supposes that the meager funds designated to the project would not address the root causes- only the symptoms, thus not creating long time change. These systems do not solve the issue. They create remedial change, solving some problems in the short term and opening no exits from poverty.

He also speaks to the idolatry of money- the embracing of money as a sign of rationality and moral significance. The worth of a man is judged in terms of the amount of money he is in possession or control of- a person’s virtue essentially correlates to his acquisition of money. Importantly, the author notes that this idea is “empirically absurd” for the oversimplification of the relationship between the wealthy and the poor, as the wealthy depend upon the poor for their wealth. “The affluence of the few” is “related to, and supported by, the poverty of the many”.

“I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality.” II CORINTHIANS 8:13-14

Chapter 2:The Political Crisis

Political ideologies seem to be acquired often not out of actual ideological consideration- but by what our parents have taught us or what our local circumstances dictate.

Further, the Stringfellow writes that the confrontations between those with opposing views are “marred by distortion, defamation, and hysterics”- which honestly, I completely agree with. So many TODAY are so unaware of the policies of a candidate, so many are purposefully ignorant of the TRANSGRESSIONS of the candidates against others and against the people as a whole (from the post we elected them to), and we allow this to continue. We choose to be pushed and pulled by the media, by one another- when will it end?

He continues on that the entrapment of the poor, and particularly the minority, allows for the continued affluence of the few. And this is perhaps one of the most perverse weaponizations of Christianity into politics- that too many pulpits and pastors have continued to echo the idolatry of money and the idea that God rewards us monetarily when we are righteous and takes away from those who are not. I don’t think that is what Jesus, who washed the feet of the poor and the ill, would think, now do you?

Stringfellow writes “In matters such as these- in the Buddhist and, now, the American immolations- the truth of what has happened will not be fully acquainted to men until the Last Day of the world, to the embarrassment and consternation, no doubt, of every single man and, also without doubt, to that subtle amusement with which God practices forgiveness.”

"It has happened to them according to the true proverb, the dog turns back to his own vomit." II Peter 2:22

Chapter 3: The Warfare Between the Races

This chapter is titled “on warfare between races”. Lord, y’all. The absolute sass that this chapter begins with. So he’s talking about violence at this point, right? Let me just give you this one little excerpt here: “white Gentile Protestants, as usual, have the most options, since they are eligible for the American Nazi Party, the Minutemen, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society.” I AM SCREAMING.

Anyway, Stringfellow says all of this to say that violence cannot be classified as more common now than in the past, because of the fact that we are more aware of things going on now thanks to the news, and in modern day (not at the time of his writing of course) social media and the internet. He does, however make a statement that now would be considered false- that facts of violence cannot be ignored, suppressed or distorted, because of the fact that we often have the ability to see the whole thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case- BECAUSE of the number of people with access to the information, it is constantly being distorted and suppressed. But I digress a smidge.

He continues on to philosophize on the different types of violence, and that not all violence is the same. For example, Stringfellow writes that there are differences between deliberate and tactical violence, and spontaneous sporadic violence. Riots, for example, are often not premeditated and have no end goal other than destruction; however their association with (largely by outside focus) different movements will completely undermine the whole of the movement. We see this happening today, we saw it in the 60s in the US, we have seen it all around the world in so many different incarnations. Stringfellow calls this violence of “despair”.

Then- this is met by obstinate apathy from the unaffected, which makes it all so much worse. I highly recommend you read this chapter, if nothing else- Stringfellow ends on the note that the attitude and judgment, the forsaking of the violence without taking the perspective to consideration- all of this is done in forsaking of the Cross and of Christ and Christianity. We are called to love, undaunted by fear or betrayal or hatred or violence. We are called to love even the one with the knife to our neck. Where have we lost our way?

“Lest you be wise in your own conceits, i want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” Romans 11:25

Chapter 4: The Orthodoxy of Radical Involvement

Stringfellow writes that so many fear the involvement of the church in worldly matters, in political matters, as sullying the church’s good name. He writes that those who feel the church should not take a stance on racial discrimination, on affluence among persistent poverty, on whatever conflicts separate men in their secular lives- people say let the church be the place where man can devote their thoughts to spiritual things, away from the conflict and dissension of the world.

To that, James would say this: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained in the world.” James 1:27

That is to say this- that God asks us to not let the sins of the world stain our souls, but to still yet involve ourselves in the world. To care for the unwanted, to bring in the outcasts, to love our enemy, to remain free of the secular ethics of success and the idolatry of money and fame, to remain free from the social constructions of class and race- to remain free of all of these things that would stain our soul while still being involved in the world and providing it with the Godly influence that Christian involvement in (and not of) the world should have.

We are not to be Pharisees, who claim the self-assured orthodoxy of the Kingdom of God- who in their self-righteousness and fear of revolution tried and condemned Christ himself to death. German Christians focused on the orthodoxy of theology so tightly that they allowed themselves to become apathetic to the rise of Nazism, for example.

To be Christian, and to be Christlike, we must love all the world unconditionally- but we also have the public and political role of “RECONCILIATION” to play, wherein we must commit ourselves to change to create a better world for all. Reconciliation, in the way that Christ is reconciled in God, means that we must accept and love, even if we do not approve. It means that we should be committed to equal rights, but we can still love the humanity that opposes that because that is what Christ does- he loves even those who oppose him.

Stringfellow concludes in saying that despite man’s assault against other men, we are called to love the essence of humanity. That we must change the world we live in by being the example.

“His purpose in dying for all was that men, while still in life, should cease to live for themselves, and should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life. With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer. When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world; the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun.”

II Corinthians 5:15-17

Now, this episode wasn’t meant to be a sermon. I highlighted some of the main points from each of the four chapters of this book- and, like the author, I chose this topic as an indictment of modern Christian complacency in our current America. So often I feel Christians are quickly up in arms to preserve “our way of life”- friends what if that’s not the best way? And why do you not care if YOUR way of life suppresses others from living their best lives? Sometimes from living their lives in any consequential way at all, really.

I want y’all to think about the things I’ve said, the things I’ve quoted to you today. I want y’all to consider why you make the choices you make and how Jesus would behave- the man who dined in the home of a sinner, the man whose right hand WOMAN was a “prostitute”, who forgave and loved the man who stabbed him in the side with a spear after nailing him to a cross. And even if you aren’t religious, consider these things anyway in the context of your own spiritual or moral guides- consider the ethical and moral consequences of your actions, or lack thereof.

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