A Review of Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, Stanley Hauerwas

[1] “[T]he ethical cannot be detached from reality…,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics.

[2] It is questionable whether Stanley Huaerwas’s book, Performing The Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, a collection of essays, is primarily concerned with Bonhoeffer. Also, the link between Bonhoeffer and the practice on nonviolence is never made clear. There are two chapters specifically dealing with Bonhoeffer, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology” and “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics.” These two chapters comprise the first section, titled “Bonhoeffer on Politics and Truth.” The two other sections of the book, “Truthful Performances” and “Performing Nonviolence” do not mention Bonhoeffer’s actions or writings. So, the subtitle of this book is not really descriptive of its contents; certainly the contents do not justify having a photograph of Bonhoeffer on the cover. Readers expecting a detailed examination of Bonhoeffer’s positions on pacifism and how that might be reconciled with his life will be disappointed. The essays on Bonhoeffer, while welcome to anyone interested in Bonhoeffer are cursory and do not add anything to existing scholarship. By his own admission, Hauerwas is not a Bonhoeffer scholar.

[3] Why is Bonhoeffer claimed as a point of unity for these disjointed essays? Perhaps Hauerwas desires to enlist a universally admired thinker (and actor) in his cause of Christian nonviolence. Bonhoeffer is certainly an attractive figure. But as Hauerwas himself states, when referring to a different matter, “that dog won’t hunt” (gratefully, such attempts to be folksy are rare as hen’s teeth in this book).

[4] The Bonhoeffer essays are not bad, and Hauerwas resists the temptation to significantly distort Bonhoeffer to suit his purpose. Hauerwas admits that Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, though it does not seem to occur to Hauerwas that this involvement constitutes a violent act. Even if Bonhoeffer did not place the satchel of explosives next to Hitler, he certainly would have consented to Hitler’s death, and he participated in the conspiracy that found fruition in the unsuccessful attempt. Of greater interest, given that Hauerwas focuses on Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on truth, is that Bonhoeffer was a spy, in fact a double agent. The Nazis thought he was spying on their behalf, but in fact he was spying to further the anti-Nazi conspiracy. This involvement with what on the surface must be deemed as untruths or lies should present a tempting target of discussion regarding how it was possible, if at all, for Bonhoeffer to square his ideas on truth with his actions. Unfortunately, Hauerwas does not explore this subject in any detail.

[5] Hauerwas spends some time in the second chapter reviewing Bonhoeffer’s essay on truth, “What is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth’?” found in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. He summarizes Bonhoeffer’s point that a child’s response to a teacher’s embarrassing question about his father may be untrue in a conventional sense, but should not be considered a lie due to the improper nature of the question. The child’s statement contains more truth because he did not betray the loyalty of the family. As Bonhoeffer stated, it “was more in accordance with reality” than was a response that would have betrayed his father. Bonhoeffer’s original essay went on to give other examples of the necessity of weighing words when deciding what to say, examples that are very illustrative of the problems Bonhoeffer faced in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer recognized that concealment or a lie may be necessary during war, but that need not be an ethical failing

[6] “If it is now asserted that a lie is a deliberate deception of another man to his detriment then this would also include, for example, the necessary deception of the enemy in war or in similar situations.” Ethics, page 363. This section echoes Aquinas’s allowance of ambushes in his treatment of just war. Hauerwas of course refuses the entire concept of just war, and far from understanding the reality that deception during war may be necessary and allowable from a Christian perspective, insists that all wars and violence are not Christian. The hallmark of Bonhoeffer’s ethics is realism. Yes, a realism firmly rooted in the resurrected Lord and the forgiveness of sins, but not a realism that would be foreign to everyday reason. Indeed, there is something comforting and familiar about the examples Bonhoeffer employed. Much like Our Lord’s parables, everyone can understand them at some level. Bonhoeffer’s test for speaking the truth corresponds with the activities he undertook against the Nazis.

[7] The book’s next section is titled “Truthful Performances.” Some interesting ideas are discussed, albeit in excruciating academic detail. The relevance of many of these ideas to Christianity is not clear to me. I am left wondering just what Christian performance is and why this density of detail is necessary. Too much incomprehensible jargon such as “outnarrate” and “overacceptance” runs throughout. Hauerwas hints that Christian performance is worship; it could be said much more simply and directly. Instead, far too much time is spent reciting fashionable theories of performance art and music. I have the impression of an aging hipster desperately trying to prove he is still with it.

[8] The chapter, “Connections Created and Contingent” does not seem relevant to Bonhoeffer, performances or nonviolence. Instead the philosophy of word construction and usage, primarily through the philosophy of Wittgenstein, is examined.

[9] Some sound points are made in the chapter “The Narrative Turn.” Hauerwas is rightly skeptical of the use of any narrative for Christian purposes that is not firmly rooted in biblical concepts, and he is also correct that placing a qualifier such as “narrative” before theology for purposes that cannot be described as Christian, compromises theology. This chapter contains the startling conclusion that “Christianity is in decline.” Such a conclusion may be true of Western Europe, but gives no account of the growth Christianity is experiencing in the Global South.

[10] The last chapter in this section, “Suffering Beauty,” returns to the principle that Christian performance consists of worship and especially prayer, a concept that Bonhoeffer would endorse, though Hauerwas never makes that connection. Hauerwas suggests that he accepts the proposition of Keats that beauty equals truth. A scriptural argument may be made that Christians should worship in the beauty of holiness, but this is not to say that beauty is holy in and of itself. In Hauerwas’s hands, however, Godly worship seems overly concerned with avoiding tackiness. This is a dangerous proposition–Christian worship should not be reduced to mere snobbery.

[11] Worldly fashions change rapidly, while we believe Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. His comments seem to flatter the Roman Catholic audience that originally received this essay. One wonders if Hauerwas has entered a Roman Catholic church built in the 1960s or seen the bodies of the saints displayed in glass cases under bright fluorescent lights in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

[12] In the last section of the book, “Performing Nonviolence,” Hauerwas unsurprisingly reiterates his support for nonviolence and criticism of just war theory. Indeed, he goes so far as to state that “as faithful followers of Christ we cannot be anything other than nonviolent” (page 181). Such a statement reduces the number of faithful Christians to near nonexistence. It is questionable whether Hauerwas’s commitment to nonviolence is as absolute as he states. In the chapter, “Punishing Christians,” he recognizes that punishment is a type of violence and it is necessary. Hauerwas, however, would allow punishment only for the purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation, not necessarily for the safety of the community. A justification of the death penalty that Hauerwas does not consider is that its very finality ensures that the perpetrator will never kill again. His emphasis on using methods of church discipline as excommunication and banning may have some application for minor offenses. For example, some judges have imposed creative sentences involving the convict wearing signs. It is extremely unlikely that any sense of shame or loss of participation in the community will have any effect on hardcore felons. Again, I find Hauerwas lacks a sense of reality.

[13] His position is clearest in two chapters concerning the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Hauerwas starts by admitting his confusion about what his reaction should be. This is understandable, particularly for a pacifist. The attacks, however, do not lead him to question his pacifism. Rather, they lead to anger and hatred, not against the perpetrators of this act of war, but rather against the leaders of the United States. Prayer might be a response, but Hauerwas considers that to pray for peace would be mere sentimentality and it does not occur to him to pray for enemies or the victims. Violent self-defense is clearly not an option for him. In three separate places he invokes “shopping” as all American leaders had to offer in response to the attacks, by which he means the fact that some American leaders urged that Americans should show they were not afraid by getting out and shopping in the wake of the attacks. One would think he would applaud this nonviolent activity (although on occasion Christmas sales can be a bit bruising), but Hauerwas’s point is really quite telling. First, “shopping” enables him to trivialize the War on Terror and remove it from the realm of a real war. Second, it elevates him above sordid commercial types. “Shopping” as a suggested response to terror may have been clumsy and easy to parody, but at least it was an attempt to mitigate the economic damage the terror attacks inflicted. It is too easy for someone in his position to sneer at admonitions to shop, but many small shopkeepers with families and employees dependent on them and facing a precarious economic future were doubtless grateful. Hauerwas might not be so quick to condemn America as a nation of shopkeepers if he kept a shop himself.

[14] Hauerwas does not present any real alternative to the use of military force. I doubt Al-Qaeda will be deterred from further violence by those “raising lemurs” (page 182) instead of defending themselves. Death or surrender, perhaps involving conversion to Islam, are the only alternatives to self-defense in this case.

[15] When Hauerwas discusses history, his interpretations of historical events is certainly unusual. He condemns World War I, with some justification, but fails to relate that the way the war ended necessitated that the Second World War be fought on the basis of unconditional surrender. The complete discrediting of German (and Japanese) militarism was the happy result. He condemns American resistance to the Soviet Union, but incredibly concludes that the US victory in the cold war left Americans in a “dangerous funk” during the 1990s. The 1990s may have had many things wrong with it, but this is the first time I have heard it was a period of funk. Nevertheless, these arguments set up Hauerwas’s point that the War on Terrorism was basically concocted to distract Americans and give them a purpose.

[16] War is necessary as self-defense, and it should be inarguable that good can result from war, the removal of the Nazi regime being the most obvious example. US independence and the abolition of slavery are two other examples. Hauerwas maintains that the War on Terrorism will leave the US unable to address problems such as genocide, but I fail to grasp how genocide can be stopped without force. We are confronted again by Hauerwas’s lack of realism.

[17] This was made clearest to me in Hauerwas’ statement that “on just war grounds the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were clearly murder” (page 206). Hauerwas may claim that he was only making a point against those who advocate just war. He has, however, leveled this murder charge on more than one occasion. It deserves some examination. Presumably, Hauerwas is considering the jus in bello portion of just war theory, and more specifically, the discrimination requirement, that non-combatants should not be deliberately targeted. The nature of warfare in World War II was such that whole cities had become targets. Industrial cities, as means of production of weapons and support, perhaps should not have had the status of non-combatants. Hauerwas, however, ignores another requirement of jus in bello, that of proportionality. It is unquestionable that many lives were saved because of the use of the atomic bomb. The lives were not only those of US soldiers, but also lives of Japanese soldiers and civilians.

[18] I will here insert a personal narrative to illustrate a greater truth. My father, after surviving a campaign in Europe during the winter of 1944/45, was slated to participate in the invasion of Japan. Given what had occurred in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, massive casualties were expected in the invasion. If atomic bombs had not been used, my father probably would have died in the invasion. I have spoken to others whose fathers would have been part of the invasion. We owe our very existence to the use of the atomic bombs. We Americans and many Japanese are in the opposite position of World War I’s lost generation. We are the found generation because the war ended quickly and cheaply. This is reality. The alternative is death. Hauerwas has no problem condemning to death in support of his principles. He is welcome to die as he chooses, but I find it chilling that he is willing for so many others to die, even calling on parents to sacrifice the lives of their children to be true to what he conceives is required by Christianity.

[19] Hauerwas contrasts the heroism of the terrorists with America’s preoccupation with safety. He is right that one can never be truly safe, though I question whether murderers of thousands of civilians during peacetime are heroic. Death will ultimately claim all. There is an obligation, however, for us to preserve the ability to pray, worship, and yes, perform as Christians. When Nehemiah rebuilt the Temple, he first had to rebuild the walls and keep Jerusalem safe. God’s people require both a trowel and a spear.

Performing the Faith by Stanley Hauerwas is available online from Brazos Press (www.brazospress.com).