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

[1] A Word about the Book’s Author Dr. Hauerwas is a widely respected theologian-ethicist in ecumenical circles today. He occupies the chair of Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, and is well known as a most influential teacher, with “disciples” (if that is not an overly dramatic term) in nearly all the main line denominations and in many of the sectarian bodies of the Christian community in this country. His impact upon future generations of Christian ministers alone makes him a formidable force to be taken seriously within the broad Christian scene.

[2] A Word about the Scope of the Book I will leave it to other reviewers to assess the various chapters in this interesting and challenging collection of essays. Suffice it to say that it is difficult to grasp any over-arching theme, unless one considers as thematic the notion of marshalling a host of disparate and sometimes arcane arguments, all of which could be interpreted as tending to defend pacifism as a morally persuasive Christian stance. The over-all impression of the book is of an on-going intramural debate between Hauerwas and several of his critics.

[3] One thing this book is not is a thorough presentation or analysis of the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Indeed, anyone who purchases this monograph because of its subtitle is going to be greatly disappointed. There is no extended treatment of the seminal Lutheran thinker of the World War II period. Sadly, for those of us who would appreciate an honest and fair treatment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in relation to pacifist thought, there is nothing here that will satisfy in the least. Bonhoeffer’s ideas about the Christian, the Church and the political realm are given a cursory glance at best, and that brief treatment is presented through the distorting lens of the radical pacifism of John Howard Yoder. Those of us hoping to understand how the great hero of Lutheran resistance to Nazism integrated his active participation in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler with his profound grasp of Nicene Christianity are left profoundly disappointed. Here was an incredible opportunity passed by. (Unless, that is, Dr. Hauerwas has been victimized by his own publisher in the development of the title of the book. In which case Dr. Hauerwas should have insisted upon a title more in line with his purpose.)

[4] Locating the Political Context of This Book The two polar opposites in foreign policy debate within this country are occupied by the far Left and the political Right. (I use these designations not as terms of disparagement, but as locators on an ideological spectrum.)

[5] The far Left position is represented by Noam Chomskey (his latest book, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,) who sees America as the world’s leading terrorist state – a hungry hegemon that acts against the interests of world peace and internationalism, and on the side of the global capitalist system. To the disciples of Chomskey the goal of foreign policy is to neutralize the selfish aims of nation-states by subjugating national interests to an international or universal state. Only then can permanent progress in human affairs be achieved. George Soros is the most vocal and committed spokesman for this point of view, to the extent of putting millions of dollars behind the Kerry candidacy, in the conviction that the “Wolfowitz-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” ought to have been defeated in this year’s election.

[6] The posture of the Right is represented by the classicist Leo Strauss and such neo-conservatives as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot. They are advocates of an American “benevolent hegemony” that serves the national interest of American security while also extending the uniquely American “program of liberty” abroad. The key to their position is in the Straussian conviction that “no bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint.1” Although Strauss and the neo-cons differ on many points, they are united in the conviction that force is sometimes necessary to defend the national interest and that the universal human passion to dominate others must be opposed – by force, if need be.

[7] While there are numerous shades of liberal and conservative in American society, indeed, to some extent within both political parties in the U.S., this schema will serve as a frame of reference for identifying the political locus of the pacifism of Stanley Hauerwas and his followers.

[8] Locating Hauerwas along any ideological spectrum is a bit of a problem. One of this ethicist’s main preoccupations seems to be that of maintaining a reputation as a maverick in public theology. He does not shy from, but exults in the posture of a philosophical-political “one-of-a-kind,” a sort of anti-traditional eclectic and eccentric thinker who uses traditional sources of political theory in his own unique way, and also to affirm that he is happily non-traditional in his understanding of the Christian faith. In his world-view, being a ‘non-conformist’ or ‘radically reformed’ Christian thinker is truly a matter of faith. The practical result is that his thought is more elusive than most. He seems to delight in having others critique his ideas as absurd and out of the mainstream, only to squirm out of their criticisms by employing language and concepts in a most “unorthodox” way.

[9] An example of this emphasis upon ‘the virtue of nonconformity’ in Hauerwas’s thought can be seen in the position he takes with regard to the above-mentioned dichotomy in American foreign policy debate. He steadfastly refuses to admit that he can be located on a spot along the broad band of liberal and conservative world-views. Instead, he would like to present himself as inhabiting a theological-philosophical point which transcends the ideologically cramped and religiously unworthy positions of either camp.

[10] He sees himself as an “anti-liberal” who has scorn for liberals because they are both too mild in their critique of American society and American foreign policy, and because they – like most people of all political stripes – fail to grasp the radical nature of the call to be Christian. Liberals, he says, are guilty of reductionism in their accommodation of the faith to the culture, and they are far too conventional in their “prophetic stance” against the underlying values of the American regime. In the process of trying to prove the relevance of the faith in the face of the presuppositions of the culture, they lose Christianity’s essential content. They end by failing to see the radical call of the gospel to non-violence, regardless of the pragmatic consequences.

[11] His criticism of the Right, however, carries much more conviction and scathing judgment. Not only are traditionalists blind to Christianity’s most salient doctrine, nonviolent living and thinking, neo-orthodox Christians are far too ready to buy into a politics of revenge in response to 9/11. For them – and they represent all Americans who accepted the idea of defending American soil from further attack by taking the battlefield to where the enemy lives – war is the “normal” recourse to having been attacked. They miss completely the real wisdom of a politics of truth and nonviolence, which alone is worthy of truly spiritual Christians.

[12] The root of the human recourse to violence rests in the base fact that it “makes us feel safe.” Such a feeling has become the besetting sin of Americans who do not take time to reflect, because they are far too preoccupied with a consumerist way of life: “The way to go on in the face of September 11, 2001, is to find someone to kill.2” He seems convinced that, if his ideological opponents only had moral courage the size of a mustard seed, they would be compelled by conscience to admit that the gospel does not permit killing others – even “others” who are identified as “the enemy” in response to the murder of our citizens and the violation of our national security.

[13] Here is Hauerwas’s chief point of contention with the neo-orthodox representatives of Christianity. From his perspective (which I identify as ‘perfectionistic’), they lack the depth of commitment required by his rendering of the Christian faith. A person of belief must have “profound moral commitments,” running deeply enough that she would be able to stare death in the face (even the deaths of innocents who are our neighbors), and not react by willing violence in return. To do any less is to be held captive by a bourgeois ethos, where the love of shopping replaces the worship of Christ, and where death is central to the culture.

[14] Hauerwas does not conceal his disdain for temporizers in the realm of faith. In a revealing argument with Jean Bethke Elshtain, he accuses his neo-orthodox opponents of “ideology masquerading as dispassionate analysis.3” In other words, not only are conservative public theologians either willingly or blindly complicit with the reigning political ideology of the Right, but what is far worse, they fail to comprehend the truly extreme scope of the Christian calling itself.

[15] My conclusion is that one finds in Hauerwas the same far-left critique of democratic capitalist society that has dominated the American academy at least since the Vietnam War. It expresses an alienation from American culture based upon the assumption that any self-governed society that thrives under a “free” market economy, and that has achieved unparalleled power and international dominance, ineluctably will be dominated by greed, competitiveness, fear of death, reliance upon coercion and force, and the love of war. That is why America poses the greatest threat to international peace. And she must be opposed – especially by those who truly “love” her and what she stands for.

[16] Therefore, it is impossible to be an American patriot, in the traditional sense. Hauerwas refuses to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” either in private or public gatherings as a way of maintaining some “distance” from the temptation to idolatry of nation.

[17] Does this mean that Hauerwas and his followers are less loyal to the U.S.A.? Absolutely not, in his view. They are convinced that they adhere to the very “highest American ideals.” But, wait. Even here Hauerwas is ever the renegade. “Most critics of Vietnam (just as many that now criticize the war in Afghanistan) based their dissent on their adherence to American ideals, which they felt the war was betraying. That but indicates why I feel so isolated even among the critics of the war in Afghanistan. I do not even share their allegiance to American ideals, particularly when such ‘ideals’ are nothing more than ideological abstractions.”4

[18] Thus, we see clearly the political locus of Hauerwas’s “anarchical anabaptist” public theology. Whatever he might say in theory, his version of the Christian’s role in society rejects the judgment of Leo Strauss and the neo-conservatives, (and of Paul, Luther, and Augustine!), that “no change in society can eradicate the evil in man.” Or, at the very least, his prescription of nonviolence has no responsible answer to confronting evil.

[19] This Christian ethicist’s response to those who ask his alternative to the American attack upon Al Qaeda terrorist encampments in Afghanistan is, “…I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better – a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill.” He admits that means sometimes having to witness your friends and neighbors dying because you stood by and did nothing. Oh well, c’est la vie!

[20] Where is there anything of civic responsibility in this? Where is plain old public virtue? Where is common decency? Not to mention love of neighbor, the love of a Good Samaritan?

[21] A responsible Christian ethic must have a credible answer to the questions: “Who is my neighbor?” and “What do I owe her?” And that is the rub. Hauerwas’s form of pacifism reveals fundamental differences from traditional Christianity in the interpretation and application of moral norms, and in the understanding of human nature, and the relation of Church to society.

An Issue of Orthodoxy.

Fere libenter homines quod volunt credunt. (People willingly believe what they wish.) Julius Caesar5

[22] The revisionist history of the unorthodox notwithstanding, Christian orthodoxy has always been a hard-won achievement. The popular misconception is that ‘apostolic faith’ is no more than ‘the belief of those with the big battalions.’ Heresy, in this view, is simply that opinion of the minority which the majority despises. That attitude is often held by those who profess themselves to be ‘anti-Constantinian’ in their view of the Church’s relation to society.

[23] What this rather offhand view of heresy forgets is that orthodoxy has nearly always been in the minority, has suffered greatly for its beliefs, and has emerged victorious only after enduring persecution and bitter struggle (usually perpetrated by those who consider themselves “the misunderstood dissenters.”)

[24] Also neglected by those who dismiss the normative role of orthodoxy is that truth can be a matter of life and death. False ideas about God’s relationship to the world, or the nature and destiny of man, have lethal consequences. A corollary to the truth that the human heart is a “veritable factory of idols” is that error in belief fosters poisonous behavior: “Each heresy in its own way encourages some flaw in our human nature.”6

[25] Which brings us to the key problem I have with the work of Stanley Hauerwas, at least as I understand it. There is no question of his quickness of mind, or of the breadth of his scholarly vision, or of his prodigious achievements as a teacher and author. The problem I have lies in the theological presuppositions which form the basis for his thought.

[26] Hauerwas’s foundational outlook is at odds with classical Christian thought about the dilemma of human sin. Classical Christianity asserts that man remains problematic for himself, even after Baptism and coming to faith in Christ. The doctrine of original sin (at least seen through the magisterial Reformation) declares that humankind is simul justus et peccator. That is to say, man’s propensity to evil is not socially induced, nor an issue of educational deficiency, but native to the species, and it is not “fixable” by finding the right formula for improving human nature.

[27] Hauerwas’s “enthusiasm” for the church’s lordly superiority to culture denies all of this. He envisions a church where Jesus’ counsels to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount are actually lived in the rough and tumble social existence – or at least the Christian gives them the ‘old college try’ – regardless of the consequences!

[28] This should not surprise us. Hauerwas has proudly adopted the theological position of the extreme left-wing of the Protestant reformation. If “sectarian” designates not one removed from the public square, but those whose views brook no compromise with “the world”, demand a perfectionist ethic of members, and seek to be centers of prophetic revolution, then Hauerwas is a sectarian. His is a radically pure perspective which denies classical Christianity’s “paradoxical vision.”7

[29] Paradox teaches that this life is not perfect, nor perfectible, at least not on this side of the parousia. For anyone who shares Hauerwas’s embrace of utopianism this is bad news indeed: “The paradoxical vision allows no total victories within the confines of public existence.”8 That means the Christian must put up with imperfection not only within himself, but within his church and his world. Not only is the believer at the same moment justified and sinful, therefore never in a position to rule with unequivocal justice over others; but neither is the church ever to be equated with the gospel in its behavior (outside of the altar rail); nor is the world ever the stage where one acts with 100% clean hands.

[30] Thus, to take an absolutist’s stance on nonviolence is heresy. And it is destructive of society. It ignores God’s double-rule of the world through Law and Gospel: that is, through the magistrate the evil of man’s libido dominandi can be restrained, allowing the social peace required for the preaching of the gospel. Making pacifism the article by which the church stands or falls ignores the reality that sinful man lives in tension between two aeons: he has one foot in the “already” of faith, and the other in the “not yet” of the promised future kingdom. There is the source of the insight of Christian humility that the church should not try to be the state, and vice versa.

[31] Traditional Christianity teaches that the gospel impels believers to work for a greater approximation of justice for our neighbor, while preventing her from going overboard in trying to attain utopian fantasies of a perfect world. Orthodox belief should temper the enthusiast view of pacifism as an unmitigated good. It might be one response to war in some circumstances. It cannot claim legitimacy as an inviolable principle. Here the church might learn from the world that “the best is the enemy of the good.”

[32] This volume on “Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence” should be of great concern for those Lutherans and others who value the “Magisterial Tradition” of the Reformation. Stanley Hauerwas and his arguments are not going to go away any time soon. It would be wise to become acquainted with them.

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

End Notes

1 From The City of Man, quoted in Claremont Review of Books, p.13.

2 Performing the Faith, p.202.

3 See “War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain: An Exchange” in First Things, October, 2003, No. 136, p.42.

4 Performing the Faith, p.204f. (The bold italics are mine.)

5 Quoted by C. FitzSimons Allison, in The Cruelty of Heresy, p.49.

6 Ibid., p. 23.

7 See: The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century, by Robert Benne. (Fortress Press, 1995.)

8 Ibid., p.68

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.