“The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor.”
William Stringfellow (1928-1985)
In the November 19, 1964 issue of the Gospel Guardian, editor Yater Tant reviewed a (then new) book by lawyer and Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow titled My People Is the Enemy. The review is a fascinating glimpse into the way that social and cultural issues of the day were addressed in the Guardian, and is (if I may be allowed to say so) worthy for our consideration today.
I give you here the review in its entirety, taken from Gospel Guardian 16.28 (November 19, 1964): 4, 9. Wording in bold is so in the original.
“My People is the Enemy”
This is the name of a most challenging book published last summer by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. The author is William Stringfellow, one of the leading Episcopal laymen of the day, and a lawyer with an international reputation in his field. He articulates a question that is coming increasingly to trouble the minds of thoughtful denominational leaders—and which has most serious implications for the churches of Christ.
Mr. Stringfellow examines the whole idea of modern religion’s involvement in the ‘social’ questions that trouble our generation. The churches of our day, he opines, are engaged in everything from playgrounds to politics, and from rental housing to racial revolutions. But have they put their eggs in the wrong basket?
He thinks maybe they have.
This book clearly warns the churches against plunging into ‘all sorts of social work and social action’ and thereby neglecting their basic reason for existence, ‘the proclamation and celebration of the gospel.’ In their efforts to alleviate man’s physical distress, and to relieve his want and hunger, Stringfellow argues that the churches have so ‘watered down’ the gospel as to make it lose its power.
‘If the gospel is so fragile that it may not be welcomed by a man who, say, he’s hungry, unless he first be fed, then this is no Gospel with any saving power; this is no word of God which has authority over the power of death.
‘The Gospel, if it represents the power of God unto salvation, is a word which is exactly addressed to men in this world in their destitution and hunger and sickness and travail and perishing—addressed to them in a way which may be heard and embraced in any of these, or in any other, afflictions.’
Stringfellow, who left Harvard Law School several years ago to live and practice his profession in the Harlem ghetto of New York City is particularly critical of what he calls the ‘urban church concept’ of Christianity.
‘The premise of most urban church work,’ he declares, ‘is that in order for the church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor.’
‘The church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the gospel.’
A church rich and affluent can hardly do that; a church poor and humble can. The gospel of Christ, as it is, is adapted to man as he is—miserable, hungry, frustrated, lonely, overburdened with grief, anxiety, and a sense of futility.
The churches of Christ have traditionally understood this. There has been very
Fanning Yater Tant (1908-1997)
little of the ‘social gospel’ emphasis among them. Not until lately. But now we are witnessing a significant change. A strong undercurrent of ‘social gospelism’ is becoming quite evident. A tremendous proliferation of ‘orphan homes,’ just when the denominational churches and social welfare agencies were turning from them to other and more acceptable forms of child care was but the beginning, and was but a symptom of the real trouble. Vast sums have been spent and are being spent in a wide variety of ‘social project’ efforts among the churches of Christ. They range all the way from summer camps to homes for unwed mothers to rehabilitation farms for wayward boys and hobby shops for restless housewives. There is a subtle (and probably unrecognized) loss of faith in the power of the gospel. These social projects are not the spontaneous fruit coming from the hearts of dedicated Christians; they are supervised ‘organizational projects’ of congregations. And they are frankly being promoted as ‘bait’ to intrigue the interest and soften up the resistance of the non-Christians! The ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed are not going to be interested in the gospel; we must first see that they are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed!
Denominational churches have tried this approach. And now Stringfellow’s is only one thoughtful voice among many that are being raised to question the assumption. At the very time when our brethren are turning toward these social projects, the discerning ones in denominational circles are questioning the validity of this entire point of view. It is built on a false premise … or so Stringfellow contends.
We believe the conservative [i.e. non-institutional] congregations will not quickly adopt the ‘social gospel’ approach to win people to Christ. And it is quite possible that many even in the more liberal churches will question it. But for all of them, both conservative and liberal, this new book by William Stringfellow ought to be ‘required reading.’ It can be ordered from the Gospel Guardian. The price is $3.95.
Icon of Stringfellow, hanging in the chapel of Bates College (ME), his alma mater.
A few comments about this piece. First, if it seems confusing that FYT would be reviewing a book such as this, we should recall the very open editorial policy that he pursued for the Guardian during this period. Side-by-side comparison with the Advocate from the same period is instructive. Tant and his writing staff from time to time dealt with topics—in the form of discussions of race and other social issues, book reviews, etc.—that would never have appeared in print in B. C. Goodpasture’s Advocate. We might not always agree with their conclusions, but the fact that the discussions ran at all is significant.
A couple of observations should be made about the content of the review. First, Tant quotes Stringfellow thus: “The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the gospel.” Tant then observes: “A church rich and affluent can hardly do that; a church poor and humble can.”
In a single sentence, Tant gets at the crux of the enduring socioeconomic divide in American Protestantism. Those of us who are well off (and well educated) may genuinely want to help the poor, but we rarely want to give up what we have (“be poor”) in order to do that. We want to be able to help while still enjoying all of the advantages that come with our class status. Tant and other non-institutional thinkers in the churches of Christ in the 1950s and ’60s saw in that truth the genesis of so many parachurch/institutional projects.
Moreover, they saw that these projects were born out of a certain awkwardness. It was the awkwardness that came when a group of people who were busy crossing the tracks socioeconomically looked back at the place and people from whom they had so recently come. Many genuinely felt bad for those they had left behind and wanted to help. In their response they ended up mimicking the behavior of members of other middle-class Protestant denominations. Institutional projects such as Childhaven and countless others allowed the affluent (or recently middle-class) church member to help, while simultaneously keeping his distance. In so doing, they completely missed the way in which they constructed a divide between themselves and the poor.
A final word: I would be remiss not to note the at-first-glance odd pairing of Stringfellow and Tant. These days, Stringfellow is read admiringly among certain, but not all, progressives in the churches of Christ. I dare say that he is largely unknown among conservatives. That’s interesting, though, because Tant clearly saw an affinity between Stringfellow’s argument in My People Is the Enemy and the non-institutional argument that he and his writers were making in the Guardian in the ’60s, so much so that he could call it “required reading.” I have to wonder: how might one of our editors evaluate Stringfellow’s book today?