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Public Theology: An Ethics of Resistance to the Blasphemy of American Exceptionalism
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An Ethics of Resistance to the Blasphemy of American Exceptionalism
Republished books by William Stringfellow provide the church of today with important resources for the public witness of the church in very troubled times.

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Editor's Note: The idea of "American Exceptionalism" has become a defining partisan issue in current political debates. One side, informed by the movement called the religious right, claims that God is on the side of the United States in world history, that this country is divinely sanctioned, the constitution is divinely inspired (Glenn Beck), that Americans continue to be called to engage in holy wars against godless Communism and false religions. The mainline Protestant churches have been declining in this culture because they witness to God as understood from Reformation faith, a God not associated with one nation, a God of all nations and of all creation. At this website we consider the idea of "American Exceptionalism" to be nothing less than blasphemy, a betrayal of the true God as understood in the bible and orthodox faith, a false public theology.

One of the lay theologians whose writings have influenced leaders and pastors of Protestant churches is William Stringfellow. His writings can be a resource for understanding ethics and the mission of the church today. The 2005 article below reviews three books by Stringfellow republished in 2004 available online:
  • An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004)
  • Conscience and Obedience (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004)
  • Instead of Death (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004)
The publication of these volumes, first in a reviving series of William Stringfellow's remarkable corpus, couldn't come at a more welcome moment. This, not only because the appearance roughly marks the twenty-year anniversary of his death, March 2, 1985, but because their clear-eyed prescience will serve Christians and others in the current historical moment. These were important books when they were written, and may actually prove even the moreso now. As Karl Barth, the great German theologian, once quipped to an audience regarding Stringfellow, "You should listen to this man!" It is not too late to heed him. What remains so striking is that his uttered vision in that moment and from that vantage should peer so deeply and precisely into our own. These books fall open as to the present, unsealing the signs of our own times. Of his 16 books, these three, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Conscience and Obedience, and Instead of Death, comprise something of an ethics trilogy. Stringfellow himself regarded the first two in such a relationship (anticipating another unfinished at his death) and the latter serves well to suggest a sequence. In their present form these books were published within a term of four years (1973-77), a tumultuous period in U.S. politics covering the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Nixon presidency under the weight of Watergate, the elaborate mythic ritualization of the Bicentennial celebration, and the emergence of what Stringfellow termed "technocratic totalitarianism."

Because his ethics are sacramental and incarnational, advocating discernment of the Word within the contestations of history, mentioning those events is not incidental. What remains so striking is that his uttered vision in that moment and from that vantage should peer so deeply and precisely into our own. These books fall open as to the present, unsealing the signs of our own times. Technocratic totalitarianism indeed.

Because he urges a biblical ethic which is rooted in vocation -- thus implicating our lives, our biographies, and our identities in the Word of God -- is it equally apropos to mention his own involvements in this period. Stringfellow was then living with his partner, Anthony Towne, on Block Island off the Atlantic coast where he kept something of a monastic regimen, and was active in town politics. Having recently survived life-threatening illness, he remained a permanent, if vigorous, invalid -- managing throughout to travel, speak, and write with great authority. He was certainly the subject of government surveillance in these years, having recently been indicted for "harboring a fugitive," namely his friend, the anti-war priest and poet Daniel Berrigan. In this same period, moreover, he himself had called for the impeachment of President Nixon, prior to Watergate and on the basis of war crimes. Meanwhile, on the churchly front, he served as canonical counselor and defender of the first Episcopal women priests "irregularly" ordained.

Years prior, he'd been an international leader in the postwar ecumenical student movement, and in that connection first heard tell of the "principalities and powers" in the sober witness of those emerging from the confessional resistance movements of Europe. That theological insight was verified by his own experience in New York's East Harlem ghetto where, after graduation from Harvard Law School in 1956, he took up residence to practice and improvise street law. His neighbors spoke openly of the police, the mafia, the welfare bureaucracy, even the utility companies as though they represented the power of death, predatory creatures arrayed against the community. Stringfellow took the clue biblically. He ran with the book.

No theologian in the United States did more, though generally uncredited, to bring the biblical view of the "powers" back onto the map of hermeneutics and theological ethics. Each of these volumes, in different ways, reflects that effort. This includes naming the power of death as a living moral reality and recognizing it, in the era of the fall, as the very power behind the powers.

Each of them also variously bespeaks Stringfellow's concern for the Constantinian captivity of the church -- and with it, side by side, the moral justification of the nation as divinely sanctioned. He beheld the theological elaborations of "America" as the justified, elected, and righteous empire to be a form of blasphemy. Yet if anything, in our own moment, empire has been more openly embraced than ever as a divinely authorized vocation, a presumption of historical sovereignty, a Manichean mission in the world of both global terror and corporate globalization. If for none but that reason alone, these pages light up our own moral landscape.

An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land is perhaps Stringfellow's most significant book. It is certainly the fullest articulation of his theological take on the powers, detailing their estate as fallen creatures before the judgment of God and naming their contemporary strategies for dominating human life. Though some may find his style at first difficult, he actually writes with great care and precision, for the very reason that these strategies are so largely verbal and involve an assault on the capacities of language itself. The ethic of living humanly entails listening for the Word and speaking clearly amidst this very "babel." Situating Christians within a location of exile, this is necessarily an ethic of resistance -- and this book which once became literally a theological tract for a biblically literate movement of nonviolent resistance, may yet become so again. One does hope. It also commends a charismatic ethic as it were. Stringfellow later wished he'd expanded further the brief section on the political character of the charismatic gifts. For that reason those pages were the seed of his original intention toward the third volume of the "ethics trilogy."

Conscience and Obedience treats ethics and eschatology as a single matter. It does so by setting side by side two New Testament texts notably in tension: Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In the process the biblical sparks fly upward illuminating the present moment. There is no New Testament passage more consistently abused than the 13th chapter of Romans. It is seized upon by ruling authorities near and far to claim divine sanction for their own regime. To do so they separate it from the nonviolent resistance invited and provoked in chapter 12. And yet by treating the "powers that be" apart from his customary eschatological expectation which anticipates the dethroning, or destruction, or devastation of all political authority in the reign of Christ, Paul did indeed set down a passage which, read in isolation, is vulnerable to imperial hermeneutics. By reading it in the light of apocalypse, against the terrain walked by the raging Beast of Revelation 13, Stringfellow restores the eschatological alienation which marks Christian political ethics. This does not thereby resolve the tension reducing ethics to some contrarian principle. The Lordship of Christ, in which that dethroning is named, is not a divine title in Stringfellow's reading, but a human one. It identifies the restoration of dominion over the powers in the new humanity.

In a moment when empire is so fully embraced and thought to be divinely sanctioned -- and, not incidentally, in which a virtual publishing industry has sprung up in the business of twisting the apocalyptic parables into a series of novels serving the present regime, this book couldn't be more timely read. Add only the notice that it's sober closing meditation, "A Homily on the Defeat of the Saints" is worth reading again and again.

Instead of Death was the only book of Stringfellow's republished in his lifetime. Since, as in the present edition, it was expanded to include additional material, it is something of a remarkable hybrid, being written in two distinctive moments of his life and, in a certain sense, with two different audiences in mind. I read the original 1962 edition as an adolescent in the mid-sixties, part of the audience for which the high school study pamphlet version was first intended. That material deals with issues like loneliness, sexuality, identity, and work -- all concerns of adolescents -- but written without condescension, without masking the work of the powers hid therein, and without sacrificing the rigors of his radically paradoxical theological method. In consequence, that reading marked for me the first time I "thought theologically." His treatment may be so straightforward, in part, because these were also issues of immediate concern in his own biography. In 1961, for example, he was in fact deeply lonely. So he knows the grace and freedom to which he testifies.

The expanded material includes a remarkable preface, an essay worth the price of the book, in which he reflects on the earlier edition from a standpoint 25 years subsequent. This calls up, among other things, thoughts on what it means to live biblically, on the idolatry of ethical consistency, and the false distinction between the personal and the political. It is here that he credits the East Harlem residents of putting him onto the principalities and so enabling him in the freedom of the resurrection to transcend prolonged and debilitating illness in his own life. The additional chapters move seamlessly from the original meditation on work, to a critique of the commercial principalities in consumer culture and finally into his most concise and devastating analysis of our totalitarian technocracy, regnant today. The resistance ethic commended, is that implicit in the original title: an ethic of resurrection.

It is to be expected that some will find these volumes somber, dark, and theologically gloomy. So be it. Such times are our own. They remain, nevertheless, the most hopeful books I have ever read. They name the militant activity of the Word of God, present and efficacious, in the darkest of historical circumstance. Stringfellow had the gift to look the beast in the eye and, in faith, neither flinch nor fail. The realism of his gaze is inseparable from true Christian hope. So much else is denial, wishdream, and hope gone cheap. May the reappearance of these volumes summon us simultaneously to the truth of our times and living of that hope.

The Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann is program director for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) in Chicago, Ill. He is also on the steering committee of Word and World: A People's School. Bill lives in Detroit, Mich., and may be reached by email at This article appeared in The Witness.

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Date Added: 6/14/2010 Date Revised: 6/14/2010 1:17:19 PM

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