And a dose of Stringfellow - for July 4th

by Kim on June 30, 2010

“My concern is to understand America biblically…

“The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics - to understand America biblically - not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly. There has been too much of the latter in this country’s public life and religious ethos. There still is. I expect such indulgences to multiply, to reach larger absurdities, to become more scandalous, to increase blasphemously as America’s crisis as a nation distends. To interpret the Bible for the convenience of America, as apropos as that may seem to be to many Americans, represents radical violence to both the character and content of the biblical message. It fosters a fatal vanity that America is a divinely favored nation and makes of it the credo of a civic religion that is directly threatened by and, hence, that is anxious and hostile toward the biblical Word. It arrogantly misappropriates political images from the Bible and applies them to America, so that America is conceived of as Zion: as the righteous nation, as a people of superior political morality, as a country and society chosen and especially esteemed by God. In archetypal form in this [the twentieth] century, material abundance, redundant productivity, technological facility, and military predominance are publicly cited to verify the alleged divine preference and prove the supposed national virtue. It is just this kind of Sadducean sophistry, distorting the truth for American purposes, that, in truth, occasions the moral turmoil that the nation so manifestly suffers today and that, I believe, renders us a people as unhappy as we are hopeless. It is profane, as well as grandiose, to manipulate the Bible in order to apologize for America….

“Despite the habitual malpractice of translating biblical politics as the American story, there is also the odd and contradictory custom among many Americans to denounce the truth that the Bible is political. Frequently, if incongruously, these two convictions are held concurrently by the same person, or by the same sect or church or social faction. American experience as a nation - as well as biblical scholarship - discredits any attempted Americanization of biblical politics and confounds the notion that the Bible is apolitical…

“Well, I do not amplify the matter here, apart from noticing that the view that the Bible is politically neutral or innocuous - coupled, as it may be, with an American misuse of biblical politics - maintain a wide currency in this nation. And this view sorely inhibits a biblical comprehension of America as a nation.”

William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1973]), pp. 13-15.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }


Paul Martin 07.01.10 at 2:25 pm

For just a moment I wondered why on earth Kim is writing about Peter Stringfellow. turned out to be much more interesting.


Earl 07.02.10 at 2:04 pm

There is ever the tendency to read into Scripture that meaning one would prefer. Time after time it found expression in the old world. There is no reason to be surprised that it found expression in the New World. In the American experience that led to a sense of place and destiny that has shaped a new world order. Ideal? Not at all. But a vast improvement beyond what existed. In that respect, for all of its multiple failings, America owes no apology to anyone.

Inequity is not uniquely American. To use and misuse images and themes of Scripture for less than eternal purposes is not the unique failing of triumphalist, American or otherwise. But where that misuse has been made, the owe an apology to the world. This applies to America. And without exception this applies to any and all others who would pass judgment on America.

The American experience is unevenly shaped by the Bible and its place, or lack thereof, in the life of the nation. That experience is in America uneven for the exact same reason that at no time in history has any nation embodied to perfection the teachings and witness of Scripture as found in Christ Jesus. It is not to much to say that at least in its inception, if not its complete subsequent development, no nation has ever made a greater effort. For this America need offer no apology.


Kim 07.02.10 at 4:01 pm

You’re right, Earl, that a sense of divine chosenness is not unique to the people of the US. Indeed, the American version is an English offshoot (and there is a Welsh version too). But the English haven’t “done God” for a long time now, at least since the post WW II collapse of empire. Not so in the US (which has become more imperial). The founding myth of American exceptionalism remains strong and intrinsic to American national character and identity, replete with religious justification, particularly regarding a sense of global mission, and a biblically symbolic discourse. And then there is the fact that the US is now the lone regnant super power - the sheriff - in the world today - that makes the myth especially dangerous. That’s why the theological bullshit that sustains this myth of special election must be mercilessly deconstructed. And why I’m trying to do my my bit here at Connexions for July 4th, particularly as it falls on a Sunday this year. Actually, I think it’s a kairos time for the churches in the US to proclaim a National Day of Repentance. But I don’t suppose you’ll agree.


dh 07.02.10 at 6:03 pm

Earl, I really liked your response.

I will say we mustn’t overstate or understate the fact that America was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic. You all might find it surprising that I agree that no nation has had a perfect embodiment of the terachings and witness of Scripture or of Christ. However, the failing the founding of the nation on strong moral principles should neither be diminished or triumphantized (if that is a word).

Kim, while I totally agree that America needs a “National Day of Repentence”. Why focus solely on the USA and their so-called problems? Why is America singled out when other nations are even more hostile to the things of God? That is not to say that America is a “Godly nation” because it isn’t with Planned Parenthood, Hollywood, etc., etc. You seem to go way overboard on the US and don’t focus on all of the many other places in the world that are worse. You are quick to criticize the US but don’t focus at all on Islamofascism, Al Quada, etc. That is just one example.


Earl 07.02.10 at 8:51 pm

Sometimes it is not fun to be right. Sometimes one does wish that the way things are was not the way things are. Regrettably the way things are is not the way things ought to be. That is as true of America as it is of any other nation state.

The failure of empires and the subsequent rise of the progressivism of the American century does in this post-Cold War ear leave a sense of what’s next. Many possible answers offer only cold comfort. Absent the stabilizing presence of American aid and arms, many unstable places in the world would have now already fallen apart. Such assumptions of can no longer be taken for granted. It looks like in the coming years America will be less involved in riding to the rescue ala sheriff. This will satisfy the interest of those who are best served by a weak or non-existent American presence. Perhaps the international community will find its voice and develop the backbone to fill that vacuum. If the past effectiveness is any indicator, the u.n. will not be up to the task.

As far as theology is concerned, much of the criticism that is directed at America reflects anger, frustration, envy, etc. The judgments expressed from such a perspective are worth about as much or little as the very thought that is so decried. On July 4th all the world will go about its own business. But America will celebrate. America will rightfully the birth of freedom and independence. America will celebrate its inception as a nation born uniquely free in an era where such freedom could scarcely be imagined. Many in America will find July 4th to be an fitting moment to give thanks to God for the way he has acted in the life of our nation. At the same time it will be an opportune moment to celebrate the good and lament the bad that together comprises the American experience. And it will be especially a time to look forward. That is the part I like the best. I like the idea of looking forward. That’s where life is found… in the future. I like the idea of a nation that embraces the future rather than dwelling in the past. For the opportunity that is affirmed on July 4th is in the future.


dh 07.02.10 at 9:52 pm

Another perfect response Earl. I wish I was eloquint as you. Many kudos to your wonderful responses.


Richard 07.02.10 at 10:53 pm

>> “As far as theology is concerned, much of the criticism that is directed at America reflects anger, frustration, envy, etc.”



PamBG 07.03.10 at 2:58 am

I thank God for many things every day. US Manifest Destiny is certainly not one of those things. I love and do not hate my country. But I am certainly capable of seeing that it is a society engaged in exactly the sort of system that the prophets ranted against. And, as with ancient Judah and Israel, God is leaving us to the consequences of our actions which will bring condemnation on us.


Tim Chesterton 07.03.10 at 3:34 am

1 Peter 2:9: ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’.

I guess the fundamental question we have to answer is ‘Who is Peter speaking to here?’ And when we understand that he is not speaking to any identifiable nation state - the Roman Empire or Israel, or Britain or the USA or Canada or any other country, but the people of Jesus, then we understand that our fundamental identity is not that we are American or Canadian or whatever, but that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. I think that’s the ecclesiology that lies behind Stringfellow’s words.


Pam 07.03.10 at 5:24 am

I agree with Tim’s point that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. But citizens who cannot seem to agree, citizens who talk endlessly about virtues they don’t practice, citizens who belittle, discriminate and let other people down. Any agnostic/atheist reading this blog over the last week or so would come to that conclusion.


dh 07.04.10 at 12:09 am

Pam, it sounds like you are pointing out people who belittle and let other Americans down. Thank God that by my Faith in God I try really hard to practice what I preach. Thank you so much for not directing your comments toward me.

PamBG, I would say that why single out America when the problems of atheism and agnosticsm and a lack of care about Christianity is so much stronger there? I really get tired of the singling out of America when many other nations are way more worse or at least as worse? I’m not diminishing in any way the problems in America. When we have a promotion of so many sins then yes America is bad. I really get tired of only America mentions when it comes to nations being bad.


PamBG 07.04.10 at 10:38 pm

PamBG, I would say that why single out America when the problems of atheism and agnosticsm and a lack of care about Christianity is so much stronger there?

The short answer is because the US has a very large percentage of Christians who have traded in belief in Christ for belief in a perverted idea of US nationalism. And then they purport to be the truly faithful Christians. Because those Christians give the world a false example of what it means to be a Christian and may very well be responsible for the spread of atheism and agnosticism.


Kim 07.04.10 at 11:03 pm

And also because, as Bonhoeffer put it, “Confession of guilt happens without a sidelong glance at others who are also guilty… When one still calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face to face with the figure of Christ.” Thus the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, who thanks God that he’s not as bad as that bastard of a tax collector over there.

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