Skip to content

The Ethics of Witness

In his Free in Obedience, William Stringfellow takes up an absolutely vital point regarding the nature of Christian political ethics, what he terms “the ethic of witness”. The ethics of witness “means that the essential and consistent task of Christians is to expose the transience of death’s power in the world.” Herein lies the fundamental vocation of Christian political thought and action: to bear witness to the defeat of death itself through the cross and resurrection of Christ. The point of Christian politics is to point to the defeat of death through resurrection.

What this means, however, is that the Christian can never be satisfied with the political accomplishments of the principalities and powers. Since our purpose is to bear witness to the defeat of death and its power, “the Christian in secular society is always in the position of a radical…in the sense that noting which is achieved in secular life can satisfy the insight which the Christian is given as to what the true consummation of life in society is.” From the stand point of Christian theopolitics, we can never find ourselves fully, or even largely committed to the political accomplishments and movements of our time, given the reliance of the principalities on the power of death.

Thus, “the Christian always complains of the status quo, whatever that happens to be; he always seeks more than that which satisfies even the best ideals of other men.” This is precisely why Christian politics are not, or should not be “useful” to the principalities and powers. The Christian is always seeking to bear witness to the resurrection and the defeat of the powers of death. All the principalities of our world fundamentally operate on the basis of the power of death in order to secure and exercise their authority. Given that the Christian denies the legitimacy of the power of death to order and facilitate human life, the principalities should find no allies among Christians in their pursuits.

To again quote Stringfellow, “Or, to put it differently, the Christian knows that no change, reform, or accomplishment of secular society can modify, threaten, or diminsh the active reign of death in the world. Only Christ can doe that, and now his reign is acknowledged and enjoyed in the society which bears his name and has the task of proclamation in all the world for the sake of that part of the world still consigned to the power of death.”

This puts the Christian in the extremely unpopular position of remaining a critic of all forms of earthly political sovereignty, even (especially?) when they seem to be becoming more morally appealing and worthy. Because the whole logic of the principalities is based on the power of death to order and control human life, no amount of institutional maintenance, reform, or fine-tuning can satisfy the Christian ethic of witness, the call of Christ to live a life free from the powers of death itself, the invitation of resurrection life. What is important to note here is that the inherent antipathy of Christianity towards secular politics is not a negative reaction determined by that which it is against. It is rather the overflow of the abundant gift of life that is wrought by Christ in the resurrection. The issue is not that the world is so evil that Christians must be anti-world. Rather, it is that the resurrection of Christ has actualized the reality of true authentic humanity so utterly that we cannot settle for supporting anything less.


  1. CTN wrote:

    The question then becomes: do we point to or cooperate with the overflow of the resurrection life that breaks in through those people, institutions, and powers which God makes use of as secular parables of the truth? At the very least, the Christian is free to celebrate with gratitude the events in our history that are made instruments (like the church) of our true history in Jesus Christ, and we do so through the power of the Spirit of Christ. We are thus always mindful that this instrument is not the Kingdom come.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, Stringfellow would definitely agree with this, especially given his life of political and urban involvement. But, the point would be that even in these acts of cooperation or celebration the Christian always remains a critic.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  3. parishioner wrote:


    Very nice. I don’t care what Tom says about you.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  4. CTN wrote:

    Indeed, it is fascinating reading in McCormack’s book how the early Barth treads the line between critique and cooperation in his relationship to Kütter and Ragaz. I haven’t quite gotten to how his mature thought deals with politics yet. Is he in line with Stringfellow do you think?

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Karl Barth respected Stringfellow and believed that he got a lot of things right. This is quite a compliment. He has been ignored by evangelicals and the middle class because his is a powerful critique against the therapeutic approach to Christianity.
    That is, feeling loved by God is simply an inadequate form of faith and perhaps even heresy. The Christian is to confront the powers of this world and repudiate them in the name of Jesus, who gives true life.
    thankyou for the reminder of WS great work.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  6. vassilip wrote:

    it is a great point.
    and it shows how great is the blasphemy of a “christianism” supporting this dying world, this worldly political (dis)order
    the blasphemy of burgeois christianity.

    Friday, February 20, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  7. wellis68 wrote:

    I guess I need to go read Stringfellow. I’ve often said that the Kingdom of God is “not of this world” insofar as it is not going to spring up from within but invade from without. We’re not going to one day say “wow, we did capitalism just right and look! it’s the kingdom of God” or “we did communism so well that, look! it’s the kingdom of God.” No, the Kingdom of God is indeed something that penetrates our world from outside. but, at the same time, it is indeed here and within us. The resurrection calls the whole of our reality to shift. The resurrection and the incarnation bring the kingdom of God into our reality in such a way that we can no longer settle for less. In fact, we can no longer recognize the principalities and the “pattern of this world” as truth. All of this becomes somehow mystically untrue and the resurrection becomes the new truth, the kingdom of God becomes the new standard against which we measure the powers and principalities and find them lacking.

    As you said, “…the resurrection of Christ has actualized the reality of true authentic humanity so utterly that we cannot settle for supporting anything less.”

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  8. myles wrote:

    ah, stringfellow. his greatest strength is his weakness, I’d argue: his radicality. The statement that “the Christian must remain in secular society in the position of radical” tends, unfortunately, for him to be equally skeptical of the ecclesial world, grouping them under ‘the powers’ as well, at times. For him, even the institutions of the church are complicit with the machinations of power, leading me to wonder where (or if) he is able to locate a normative kind of ecclesiality.

    I say this with the desire to be charitable toward him–he’s a third of my dissertation, and I think there’s a lot of promise in him, but some deep methodological questions, too.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site