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Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School.  (Photo Credit: Mennonite Mission Network)

Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. (Photo Credit: Mennonite Mission Network)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

Duke Divinity School theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas promoted his somewhat distinctive, Anabaptistic worldview at Wheaton’s annual theology conference earlier this month. This year’s conference theme was “Christian Political Witness.”

The passionate pacifist stressed that Christians must live radically different lives from those around them, in a way that would be “unintelligible if the God we say we believe in does not exist.”  In the face of the reality that people never get the children they want and always “marry the wrong person,” Christians are to follow ethics of welcoming children and of maintaining lifelong, monogamous marriage. This contrasts sharply with American culture’s solutions of abortion along with divorce and remarriage. (On the latter point, the United-Methodist-turned-Episcopalian self-deprecatingly made fun of his own divorce and remarriage.) The church “must resist the domestication of our faith” which is promoted “in the interest of social peace.” He traced social pressures to tame Christianity to Rousseau, “who realized the modern state could not risk having religion that challenges its authority.”

But unfortunately, “[w]e have failed to develop a church culture for developing people as Christians.” Hauerwas mocked liberal Protestantism for its efforts to construct “bland theological statements” seeking “to show how what Christians believe is not that different than what non-Christians believe.” For the sake of our identity as citizens of our nation who are civil to our neighbors, “we have lost the ability to articulate what we believe.” “The politics of modernity has been so successful in defining Christianity as just another one of many lifestyle options” in the cafeteria of secular culture, “rather than the Truth,” that it has become difficult to understand why first-century Christians thought the faith was worth dying for or why the militant “new atheists” are threatened by it. Hauerwas noted that today much more care and moral concern is invested in medical education than in divinity school, because “[n]o one believes an inadequately trained priest can hurt their salvation.”

For Hauerwas, Christians are people who “believe in history,” recognizing that “[t]ime has a narrative logic.” And it appears that at this point in history, “Christendom is coming to an end,” setting the church free “to embrace its body politic.” Once Christians realize that they are no longer in charge of their surrounding society, Hauerwas advised that they can enjoy the same social freedom to talk about Jesus that Jews have to talk about the Torah and Muslims have to talk about the Koran.

In admitted departure from most of evangelicalism, Hauerwas said that he “avoid[s] using language of belief to define what makes Christians Christians.” For the Duke professor, the “greatest challenge to Christianity is not in belief, but in politics.” Particularly, he framed Christians’ loyalty to God as being in opposition to embracing the identity of loyal citizens of a modern nation-state. He extensively cited Karl Barth, under whom Hauerwas’s own mentor, John Howard Yoder, studied. Hauerwas shared that he “often enjoy[s] making liberal friends, especially American liberal friends, nervous by saying that I am a theocrat.”

After declaring the fact, not mere “personal opinion,” that Jesus is Lord, Hauerwas was quick to add that “the way this works is not through any sort of coercion or violence” as in the 1600 years of “Constantinian dominance of world.” Rather, “[i]t is a politics of persuasion all the way down” in which “God gives us all the time we need.”

For Hauerwas, this means not only absolutist opposition to war (especially the U.S. military), but also rather broad denunciation of violence and coercion. He argued that “Christians are not called to non-violence because we think that that will rid the world of war, but it means that in a world of war, we cannot imagine ourselves being anything else.” In an apparent attempt to be provocative, he asserted that Reinhold Niebuhr was “the secret theologian for evangelicals” (of whom he repeatedly spoke in the third person), since “when it comes to foreign affairs, they just can’t wait to kill someone!” (He glossed over the major departures of Niebuhr’s theology from evangelicalism and of his ethics of Christian Realism from the Just War tradition.) According to Hauerwas, “[w]ar is the great liturgical alternative to the Eucharist,” and soldiers’ main sacrifice “is not their sacrifice of life, but of their normal unwillingness to kill.” On the world wars, he asked why they were not called “World Slaughter I” and “World Slaughter II.”

In light of the great evil forcefully advanced by the Axis powers, a questioner asked “[w]hat should we have done in World War II” and if just passively “watch[ing] that happen” would have been the best response.

After challenging his questioner by asking, “Who is the ‘we’?” Hauerwas replied, “I want to be as responsive as I can.” But he admitted that Christian non-violence “may mean we will have to watch the innocents suffer for our convictions.” He then immediately claimed that this was “no less true for Just War,” but did not offer any argument for this strong assertion beyond, somewhat bizarrely, referring to the atomic bombings of Japan (whose satisfaction of Just-War criteria is hardly uncontested).

Also during the question-and-answer time, I questioned his absolutist repudiation of “coercion,” asking about such cases as parents coercively preventing children from running across the street or the sort of church discipline seen in 1 Corinthians 5.

Hauerwas agreed that Christians are to be “people who live out Matthew 18,” which “feels like a very coercive interaction,” but serves “to save us from the violence that’s in us.”  He continued that “of course you are going to use methods that seem coercive at the time, but they are always under negotiation.”

Stanley Hauerwas is certainly right to stress the urgent need for culturally accommodated Christians to re-awaken to their divine calling to live radically different lives than what the surrounding culture expects of us. And it is worth noting that, in principle, his call for the church to challenge “imperial ambitions of the state” could be applied not only to foreign military actions, but also to government’s playing an increasingly important role in a growing number of aspects of citizens’ lives.

But agreeing that Christians need to be different than non-Christians hardly necessitates accepting the whole package of Hauerwasianism. Any social ethic falls short of the basic Christian test of neighbor-love if it makes a choice to abandon millions to suffer such unchecked evils as naked aggression or genocide. And the apparent idolization of opposing coercion easily leads to a lack of full intellectual honesty (about good actions that actually are coercive, rather than just seemingly coercive) and also, potentially, a rather distorted, unbiblical view of God that leaves little room for what the Old and New Testaments teach us about His wrath, judgment, and, yes, coercion in His relationship with us subservient creatures.

Hauerwas’s Wheaton address, along with the question-and-answer session, thus highlighted much of why many Christians find his ethics appealing, as well as some of its biggest shortcomings.