What follows represents Stringfellow's response to the keynote address at the First National Conference on Religion and Race (Chicago, January 1963) delivered by the great Rabbi Abraham
Heschel. The headlines next day were taken, however, by Stringfellow, particularly for his scandalous suggestion that the conference was "too little, too late, and too lily white." The other scandals included the references to Malcolm X, his representation of racism as a demon or principality, and his comments on baptism. When he published it in The Witness, it was represented as a transcript. However, this version is tightly edited, with omissions and even expansions.
I will try to be brief. In fact, I can say what I have to say to and about this conference in a single sentence. In saying it, I raise no particular questions about the nice intentions, good will, or benign disposition of anybody at the conference, but instead, I make a straightforward plea for realism, for facing and stating the truth about the racial crisis in this country in the South and in the North, in relation to the churches and synagogues of this country.O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The truth is-I fear-that this conference is too little, too late, and too lily white.
The truth is that this conference represents a mentality which still assumes that significant initiative in the racial crisis remains with the churches and synagogues of the land. Yet, in fact, the churches and synagogues are by and large and more often than not simply absent from the scenes of the racial crisis in both south and north. They are just, for the most part, not there.
Pronouncements of ecclesiastical authorities do not compensate for this absence or rationalize this absence, nor do they betray an immediate, intimate, firsthand familiarity with the scope, bitterness, complexity, pathology, and emergency of the racial crisis in this country.
Never mind the South, you cannot be very long in any of the Negro ghettoes of the Northern cities without hearing the acrid, mocking, redundant ridicule to which the name of the church is subjected. And then if one sees and reflects upon the extent and ingenuity of segregation and discrimination which still survives and thrives in the churches, there is little to refute the ridicule.
This conference purposes to issue a "Statement of Conscience" about race relations, but the situation in which we are is one in which the very idea of such a statement (such another statement) is obsolete and absurd.
The idea of such a statement - the notion that it amounts to anything at all - is made obsolete by the harsh realities which now emerge among American Negroes and which, now at last in the open, must be faced bluntly and truthfully and with some courage.
This conference, furthermore, represents a mentality which guile-fully thinks that the initiative in the racial crisis resides with white folks.
But the initiative has passed in the racial crisis in this country from white to black, and white people are in a position of waiting to respond to whatever initiative comes from the Negroes. While waiting, they might well spend their time thanking God that, as yet, there has not emerged, to lead the Negroes in either North or South, a black General Walker.
Meanwhile, even in the North, perhaps especially there, the estrangement between the races has become almost complete, and, it now becomes the case that almost any public association of Negroes and white becomes suspect - is thought to be a guilty association in which one or the other is somehow selling out to his race.
The spirit which moves and acts in the racial crisis now, especially in the Northern cities, is a spirit of radical hostility and of revenge.
This conference will be protected from this news. This conference will not hear the voices of Malcolm X or even James Baldwin. And the temptation is that by not in fact hearing them the conference will suppose they did not exist.
This conference, finally, represents a mentality which stupidly supposes that there is power and efficacy in individual action. From the point of view of either biblical religion, the monstrous American heresy is in thinking that the whole drama of history takes place between God and human beings. But the truth, biblically and theologically and empirically is quite otherwise: the drama of this history takes place amongst God and human beings and the principalities and powers, the great institutions and ideologies active in the world. It is the corruption and shallowness of humanism which beguiles Jew or Christian into believing that human beings are masters of institution or
Or, to put it a bit differently, racism is not an evil in human hearts or minds; racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative, image, and embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence over their lives. This is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame.
In other words, the issue here is not equality among humanity, but unity. The issue is not some common spiritual values, not natural law, nor middle axioms. The issue is baptism. The issue is the unity of all humankind wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all people in God.
It is known already, from the life and work of Christ, that the reconciliation which Christ works among us means, among other things, the crucifixion: the design, sequence, structure, drama, and fulfillment of reconciliation is focused upon crucifixion. There is no reason to expect that it will be otherwise in the reconciliation of the races now in such great conflict and estrangement in this country.
But, we were supposed now to be practical: to say what could be done in the American racial crisis. If you want to do something, the most practical thing I can tell you is: weep.
First of all, care enough to weep.
- The Witness, December 21, 1963