Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bill Stringfellow, Jesus & the hookers

William Stringfellow

Two things juxtaposed in the night a while ago --- seeing again Louise Walker’s 2001 documentary “Inside Boystown” and happening upon this William Stringfellow quote from “My People is the Enemy” (1966: Anchor Books):

"To be concerned with the outcast is an echo, of course, of the Gospel itself. Characteristically, the Christian is to be found in his work and witness in the world among those for whom no one else cares --- the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the misfits, the homeless, the orphans and beggars. The presence of the Christian among the outcasts is the way in which the Christian represents, concretely, the ubiquity and universality of the intercession of Christ for all men."

Viewed from 40-plus years later, the word “characteristically” seems too optimistic, but that doesn’t detract from the general thrust of the thought.

Boystown, in the documentary, is a block-long area of Vancouver where, in 2001, young male prostitutes sold their bodies and their sexual services to a stream of eager buyers, driving by. There is nothing exploitive or sensational in the film --- just six young men telling their just stories with occasional commentary from others who work with them --- a counselor, a street nurse.

Most of the hustlers had ended up on the street as kids with no skills to exchange for food and shelter and so they began to sell themselves, became entangled with expensive drug habits and probably were doomed. Despite that, they were articulate, endearing and hopeful. But among the untouchables in the context of a contemporary culturally Christian society.

Stringfellow (1928-1985), activist for racial justice and peace and a lay theologian, was one of those guys talked about occasionally when I was at university, involved in a course or two about religion.

He was an Episcopalian, gay (“almost but not quite out” --- these were the 1960s and 1970s, remember) and, surprisingly, a Biblical literalist, although not in the sense we think of Biblical literalists now. His literalism, and he could thump the Bible with the best, would have turned the world upside down, chewed up conventional Christianity of that day and most likely of this day, too, and spat it out.

Although he wrote prolifically, he left behind no comprehensive guide to the Way as he viewed it and he was an activist rather than a scholar in the conventional sense. That, combined with his sexual orientation, has caused his thinking to be marginalized among those who think theologically.

Which doesn't diminish his relevance.

Those of us who still go to church, shielded from the world by stained glass or hunkered down Sundays in more contemporary megachurch bunkers, like to think in terms of Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three (hopefully more) are gathered together in my name ….”

But I wonder. Jesus, it seems possible and Stringfellow might argue, would be walking the streets of Boystown with the hustlers instead.

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