Tuesday, July 14, 2009

William Stringfellow on the Prophetic Piety of the Poor

"From my own vantage point and experience on that issue, the Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as men know it and touch it and smell it and live and work in it. That is why, incidentally, all the well-meant talk of 'making the gospel relevant' to the life of the world is false and vulgar. It secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumphs and issues and efforts. The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to men, to all men, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them, which constitute our existence in this world. That is the theology of the Incarnation.

"The Word of God is present among the poor as well as among all others, and what I have called earlier the piety of the poor conceals the Word of God. The piety of the poor is prophetic: In a funny, distorted, ambiguous way it anticipates the Gospel. This is confirmed every day in East Harlem. There is a boy in the neighborhood, for instance, who is addicted to narcotics and whom I have defended in some of his troubles with the law. He used to stop in often on Saturday mornings to shave and wash up, after having spent most of the week on the streets. He has been addicted for a long time. His father threw him out about three years ago, when he was first arrested. He has contrived so many stories to induce clergy and social workers to give him money to support his habit that he is no longer believed when he asks for help. His addiction is heavy enough and has been prolonged enough so that he now shows symptoms of other trouble—his health is broken by years of undernourishment and insufficient sleep. He is dirty, ignorant, arrogant, dishonest, unemployable, broken, unreliable, ugly, rejected, alone. And he knows it. He knows at last that he has nothing to commend himself to another human being. He has nothing to offer. There is nothing about him that permits the love of another person for him. He is unlovable. Yet it is exactly in his own confession that he does not deserve the love of another that he represents all the rest of us. For none of us is different from him in this regard. We are all unlovable. More than that, the action of this boy's life points beyond itself, it points to the Gospel, to God who loves us though we hate Him, who loves us though we do not satisfy His love, who loves us though we do not please Him, who loves us not for our sake but for His own sake, who loves us freely, who accepts us though we have nothing acceptable to offer Him. Hidden in the obnoxious existence of this boy is the scandalous secret of the Word of God.

"It is, after all, in Hell—in that estate where the presence of death is militant and pervasive—that the triumph of God over death in Jesus Christ is decisive and manifest."

—William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), pp. 97-98


  1. Let us never loose the poor, that the salvation of the lord might continue to come to us by living example. They will always be among us, we might as well join them.

  2. The presence of the poor amongst us is a daily reminder, or ought to be, of daily struggle against death, against which the rest of us feel a false sense of completely misplaced security. A quote from the Indian epic the Mahabharatha, wherein a famous and wise king named Yudhisthira is asked what he thinks is the most amazing thing in the world. He responds: "The most amazing thing in the world is that all the people know that they are mortal, yet act as if they will live forever".