About William Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (Bates College Class of 1949) was a man whose life and work are of inestimable significance to the movements for justice and peace in this country and throughout the world.
His several books and countless addresses have together formed a significant chapter in the unofficial canon of the American peace movement, informing and guiding such people as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Thomas Gumbleton, Dorothy Day, and many others. In the icon of Stringfellow, commissioned by his friend and brother prophet, Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., he is depicted with the Bible opened in his heart to Deuteronomy 30:14: “The word is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it.” Surely, he was a man who “did” the Word of God, enacting its prophetic charge through his commitment to those who are marginalized in this world and through his opposition to all social structures that contribute to their oppression. Stringfellow insisted that the maintenance of institutions and systems that perpetuate violence of any kind is idolatry, a worship of the “Power of Death” instead of the ultimate power of God.
In his April 7, 1999 Founders’ Day Convocation address at Bates College, President Donald W. Harward offered this summary of William Stringfellow’s achievements:
“A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bates, William Stringfellow was president of the Representative Assembly [Student Council], a debater, and orator, and a delegate to the Second World Conference of Christian Youth in Norway. He then studied at the London School of Economics and the Episcopal Theological School before enrolling in the Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1956.
“Combining his sense of social obligation, his religious witness, and his professional competence, he began a long practice as a street-corner lawyer in East Harlem. A gay, white lawyer, he lived and practiced law in Harlem a decade before the ‘war on poverty.’ His experience there deepened both his legal and religious thought, shaped the message of his widely influential books, pleading the sustaining relevance of a universal ethic of human rights.
“He urgently called Americans to attend to the social evils most visibly affecting the urban poor. As a Guggenheim Fellow, his scholarship centered on moral theology; his actions were directed through the law firm he founded. And he served the disenfranchised … in the largest city in the U.S.
“He offered his service to the frightened, the defeated, angry, the ‘have nots,’ in a society of comparative plenty. Considered one of America’s most gifted theologically-grounded social activists, Stringfellow saw the need to be guided by principles … but he also understood the necessity to act.”
That career of activism can be traced to his junior year at Bates when he organized a sit-in at a local Maine restaurant that refused to serve people of color. It was his first foray into social activism, and he never looked back. Just a few short years later, Stringfellow gained a reputation as a formidable critic of the social, military and economic policies of our country and as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. That justice, he insisted, could be realized only if it were pursued spiritually. As a Christian, he firmly believed that he had been committed in baptism to a life-long struggle against the “Powers and Principalities,” as systemic evil is sometimes called in the New Testament, or the “Power of Death.” While other Christian theologians have expressed this truth in countless ways, Stringfellow declared it most prophetically through his very life. He boldly proclaimed that being a faithful follower of Jesus means to declare oneself free from all forces of death and destruction and to submit oneself single-heartedly to the power of life. Stringfellow is especially well known for his thorough-going theological and political analysis of the “Powers and Principalities” which interfere with that radical commitment to life, an analysis that cleared the way for later theologians and peace activists like Walter Wink to extend and deepen his important work.