Book Review: Stanley Hauerwas’s Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence

[1] “Christians are called to nonviolence not because we think nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war; but rather in a world of war, as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent” (236).

[2] From the outset, Hauerwas makes it clear in Performing the Faith that he intends to think through Christian non-violence on its own terms, not on any terms set by the world. As Hauerwas’ central claim weaves its way through this diverse collection of essays, the reader is enticed and drawn in to what feels like a wide-ranging, fresh and generous conversation occurring in the moment. Hauerwas engages an astonishingly broad collection of interlocutors, including students and teachers, ancients, contemporary colleagues, critics and admirers, to demonstrate by way of his own literary performance his ongoing practice of theological ethics, a communally-based, narrative-driven invitation into encounter. Part I focuses on Bonhoeffer’s life, theology and ethics; Part II on performance and narrative; and Part III picks up themes from the two earlier sections to focus on Hauerwas’ key point, the importance of the church’s nonviolent performance in a world driven by “necessary” violence and deafened by false narratives.

[3] What should one make of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism in his theological ethic, given his decision to participate in a plot to kill Hitler? How to describe the “space” the church claims in the world, not only in the face of the Nazis, but when time seems “normal”? Beneath any questions about relative justice and practices of nonviolence reside those perennial, thorny ethical dilemmas regarding the relationship of the church (not to mention the individual Christian) to the political order. Hauerwas understands that to delve into the thick of these relationships requires a theological exploration of the nature of the church itself. Drawing from the Trinitarian theology of John Milbank, he describes a church that “. . . embodies a peaceable Trinitarian harmony that reincorporates all differences into itself nonviolently” (106). Through the proclamation of the gospel and the practices of forgiveness, truthfulness and nonviolence the church offers a very specific “gift” to politics. We would be wrong to think that something akin to friendship can exist between the church and the world; “sanctification through the seal of the Holy Spirit always places the church in the midst of struggle” (45).

[4] Thus, “performing the faith” may be defined as the Christian community’s truthful speaking to one another through the work of forgiveness, “the peaceable rhetoric of God’s church” (Chapter 3). Whether by way of the analogy of music, or theatre, for Hauerwas Christian ethics is “. . . not choosing or deciding what is the right thing to do, but being educated in the art of rightly accepting gifts” so that the Christian community is equipped to “out-narrate” the world (92).

[5] As a reader and reviewer of this book, I confess that I am equally drawn to and troubled by Hauerwas’s argument. His writing evocatively describes that vision of the life of faith centered in the community of the church, emboldened and sustained by the power of the Christian narrative. I agree with Hauerwas’s claim regarding the primary responsibilities of the church with regard to the state: the church speaks truth to power through its witness to the world by being clearly and unapologetically itself. The possibility of the church is to be that community of grace and penance (defined as the search for the skills through which to avoid the false stories justifying past violence), converted by God’s time and performing the good news of God’s redeeming love (19). All of this is so beautifully and powerfully articulated by Hauerwas as a counter-cultural way of life with power to challenge the status quo of distrust and hatred of difference. I think Hauerwas is right when he claims that “all good stories defy summary” (137).

[6] At the same time, however, it seems as though the initial conundrum Hauerwas highlighted in Bonhoeffer’s life failed to make a difference in this theological ethic. For utterly and deeply committed to the Christian communal life, and forgiveness of sins as the sole ground of all peace, Bonhoeffer also participated in political acts to attempt assassination of Hitler. The question has to do with how and to what end we connect Bonhoeffer’s Christian practice with the political role he felt compelled to play. In perhaps much less dramatic fashion, Bonhoeffer’s life is mirrored by countless other Christians’ experiences of multivalence and ambiguity, wrestling to discern what it means “to be in but not of the world.” It is precisely at this point that one would wish for more from Hauerwas. What do Christian identity, formation and communal participation mean with relation to life in the world? In a revealing footnote late in the book, Hauerwas notes his confusion at Jeffrey Stout’s surprise regarding his participation in a panel about the impending war with Iraq (239). I can understand Stout’s surprise that Hauerwas would speak at an overtly “political” event, given that he says so little about such acts in this book. If anything, Hauerwas seems worried that too much worldly participation will only have disastrous consequences, and will prevent the church from fully engaging its true responsibilities. “The church should not try to develop a detailed plan for postwar reconstruction. Rather the church should remind the nations of the reality that the commandments entail if the new order is to be a `true order'” (68). Hauerwas notes in response to Stout, “I have never thought my theological commitments required me not to be `public'” (239). Certainly speaking the truth he knows as part of a panel on politics is firmly in line with the ethic Hauerwas espouses. But the problem remains that he never takes up in any depth the following question: How does the peaceable rhetoric performed in the Christian community translate into language that can guide very specific tasks, responsibilities and dilemmas we face as citizens?

[7] Though he lays heavy emphasis on moral development through liturgical practice, Hauerwas nonetheless arrives at the conclusion that “. . . the best that can be said is that liturgy is the necessary but not sufficient condition for the virtuous formation of our lives as Christians” (160). What else then is important for virtuous formation? Hauerwas picks up the theme of “practical wisdom,” defined as “. . . the continuing analogical testing of the descriptions of our actions in light of the virtues so we rightly understand the connection” (159). The key is to find those “worthwhile activities” that teach us goodness as we practice them. But at least here Hauerwas offers little by way of an ethic that can help us discern the relative worth of the activities to which we may commit ourselves.

[8] Other questions remain as well. How does one reconcile the contradiction between the vision of the church that can harmoniously absorb all difference with the social reality of the church as one of, if not the most, segregated and socially exclusive social groupings in our time? Surely more needs to be said than to acknowledge that the church has fallen short of its calling and no doubt always will. Hauerwas likewise seems assured that anyone deeply immersed in the Christian narrative must come to the conclusion that non-violence is the only possible Christian practice in response to a world of conflict. But clearly other Christians have understood the narrative very differently. In fact, perhaps the most troubling aspect of Performing the Faith is Hauerwas’s disinclination to apply hard thinking to the Christian narrative itself. As he puts it, the “appeal to narrative is a primary expression of a theological metaphysics, an unembarrassed claim about the way things are” (146). I for one would like to see much additional interrogation applied to the diverse atonement images that abound in this book. For instance, when making the claim about the nature of the church as all-inclusive, he says, “For only in the perfect saving of this one man from the destruction of death do we witness God’s refusal to accept the loss of any difference” (99). And later, speaking of the liturgy: “By suffering such a beauty (as we find in the cross), a beauty that hides not its suffering, we are possessed and thus saved from the ugliness of our sin” (163). Lastly, with respect to Yoder’s theology, “Yoder convinced me that if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than have the world to be redeemed by violence (203).”

[9] These three images of atonement might be described in order as examples of theosis, imputation and satisfaction. However, in his sermon following Sept. 11, Hauerwas claims, “We often think we must find some way to explain the meaning of his death. We call such efforts ‘atonement theories.’ But the Scripture makes clear to us that we do not get to vindicate Christ. We do not need to avenge his death. His ascension to the Father is the only vindication needed (212).”

[10] How exactly does the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, ministry, crucifixion, death and ascension figure in the formation of the Christian church as a community that loves and practices peace? It is clear that atonement narrative is indeed central for Hauerwas’ argument, yet he never really tells us why, or how. Simply hearing the story aright should be enough.

[11] I write this review the same weekend that Ron Suskind’s article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” was printed in the New York Times Magazine (10/17/04). Suskind explores the dynamics of the deep and emotional support of the evangelical Christian community for the leader and policies of the current administration of the U.S. Yet the Christian story embedded in this relationship between the evangelical community and the administration looks nothing like that in Hauerwas’ ethic, and against the grain of Hauerwas’s warning, is a narrative only too easily conflated with a specific political program.

[12] The life of the nation and the life of Bush effortlessly merge – his fortitude, even in the face of doubters, is that of the nation; his ordinariness, like theirs, is heroic; his resolve, to whatever end, will turn the wheel of history. . . “I believe he’s an instrument of God,” says Hardy Billington (who worked together with a Christian Fundamentalist preacher, David Hahn, to rally a petition drive against same-sex marriage and in support of the Iraq war). “God gave us this President to be the man to protect the nation at this time” (Times Magazine, 102).

[13] If the Christian narrative can be absorbed to such diametrically opposed purposes in the world as those put forward by Hauerwas and Hardy Billington, is it not imperative that we use everything at our disposal to examine with honesty, clarity and persistence the narrative itself? –Not to mention the endless variety of ways it becomes enfleshed in communities across history. Hauerwas believes that the primary problem is with the way the world’s false narratives compete with the Christian one. Though he criticizes the church for “accommodation” to the world, a helpful and important further step would be more deeply to examine competing versions of the Christian narrative itself, and the ways they spark emotional fuel that helps to enflame any number of political pursuits to wildly different ends.

[14] Suskind concludes his article with the words of Jim Wallis, founder and leader of Sojourners. “Real faith,” says Wallis, “leads us to deeper reflection and not – not ever – to the thing we as humans so very much want.” “And what is that?” asks Suskind. “Easy certainty” (Times, 106). Not only analogical testing of our actions is necessary for the development of the virtues Hauerwas hopes we may develop as a church, forgiveness, truthfulness, peace, friendship. Our truthful performance equally requires testing of the Christian narratives (note the plural) themselves, stripping away any easy certainty, availing ourselves of all the best intellectual and spiritual resources we can muster, to over and over again re-examine sacred text, history, memory, proclamation, and interpretation in the service not only of right and faithful following as a church, but thoughtful and moral lives as citizens of the world.

Performing the Faith by Stanley Hauerwas is available online from Brazos Press. (