The Vulnerability that Makes Peace Possible: An Interview with Stanley Hauerwas

I was privileged enough to chat with Stanley Hauerwas on how our theology impacts our perception of the Other, our political allegiances, and our desired response to our enemies.
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I was privileged enough to chat with Stanley Hauerwas on how our theology impacts our perception of the Other, our political allegiances, and our desired response to our enemies. Nearly every article on Hauerwas mentions that TIME magazine designated him "America's Best Theologian" in 2001, so I guess I'll do the same here. He was also interviewed by Oprah. As the author of a veritable library and known as one of the world's foremost postliberal theologians, he was educated at Yale in a time when George Lindbeck and H. Richard Niebuhr graced its halls. Now the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, Hauerwas is proud of his heritage as a bricklayer's son and frequently makes correlations between his upbringing in the trades and the theological craft. He hates pretention and dislikes when Christians act nice as a way of flaunting their ostensible superiority. But Hauerwas is probably best known for his outspoken pacifism and censure of American Evangelical Christianity's individualism, emphasis on rationalism or "right belief" -- by both fundamentalist and liberal theologians -- and uncritical subsumption of neoliberal impulses and militaristic state priorities.

Hauerwas had a major influence on my theological development. Along with the writings of John Howard Yoder -- Hauerwas' colleague and close friend from their days together at Notre Dame -- I devoured anything he wrote especially during my later undergraduate years, Resident Aliens begin the most formative for me. His works gave me something in the theological realm to be excited about for the first time. I owe a lot to Hauerwas for this major shift and my trajectory since.

In our interview, we discussed the intersection of theology and practical nonviolence, or how our theological commitments can inspire love of enemies and confer dignity on the Other. We also explored his insights into why the default maneuver of the majority of Christians in the affluent West (and especially the United States) is to individualistically tailor their theologies -- deliberately or unwittingly -- to conform to their political allegiances, the false promises of empire, the allure of patriotic nationalism, and the violence and militarism that support these loyalties.

Within this framework, however, we focused on Hauerwas' theological response specifically to the unfolding events and violence in the Middle East and the reaction of Christians in the West.

Klager: The Middle East is becoming more of a mess as the weeks go by and is hemorrhaging in places such as Syria, northern Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and in many respects still also in Egypt. So, how does your theology -- your theological reflections, or the way you do theology -- guide your reaction to the complex mix of religious, political, and economic reasons for this instability? Or, more simply, what does your theology say about how we should respond to the chaos and violence in the Middle East?

Hauerwas: Who's the "we"? -- I'm not going to do United States foreign policy, so the "we," I take it to be "we" Christians who find ourselves with very unhappy alternatives, which means we need to make all the friends we can get. And that, I think, would be extremely important for Christians to simply be present in these contexts in a way that we can have some idea of what in the hell is going on, because I think that to really know what's going on is very hard to discern. And that means -- I mean, I'm really attracted to the work that Christian Peacemaker Teams do, who go to Hebron and get between Palestinians and Israelis and say, "can we fix you guys a meal?" I mean, that's at least starting to help people discover one another's humanity, and if you don't do that, I think that any kind of long-term solution is quite hopeless.

Klager: For better of worse, there are a variety of initiatives that could be implemented to address the violence in pockets of the Middle East -- including military action, political negotiation and diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and grassroots conflict transformation and peacebuilding. What are a few of the key theological considerations that you'd underscore to others in an attempt to convince them to support nonviolence and a just peace rather than violent, dehumanizing approaches?

Hauerwas: Well, I think that fundamental is the presumption that as followers of Christ we do not assume that we are going to rule the world. Rather, we assume that God has given us time in a world with deep injustice to do the kinds of things that are necessary for the recognition of the dignity of the enemy, and how that recognition can lead to reconciliation. And it takes time; ... God became time with Christ, which means that we have all the time in the world to do what's necessary.

Klager: What are some of the most toxic theological ideas that you see as especially encouraging the support of violence and imperialism in reaction to the instability in the Middle East, for which healthier theological alternatives should be posed instead?

Hauerwas: That if we don't do something, things will go to hell in a handbasket -- and where the "we," to assumed meaning the American "we" -- and that is often underwritten by certain kinds of Evangelical theology that assumes that Israel, as a modern state, really is still the promised people. Now, I believe that Jews are the promised people, but I don't believe that that necessarily finds expression in the state of Israel, and I find some of that kind of rhetoric extremely toxic.

Klager: What do you say to -- or what have you found causes the most positive cognitive dissonance when said to -- those Christians who promote a militaristic "solution" to the many conflicts in the Middle East?

Hauerwas: How attention to the cross helps us see that God would rather suffer our violence than to do violence, and that in the cross, therefore, we find what it means to be a follower of Christ to the extent that we don't reproduce the violence that killed him.

Klager: Loving one's enemies is hard. As you've famously admitted before, "I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch."

Hauerwas: Well, nonviolence is a declaration of the need for the help of others, and therefore nonviolence is not a heroic individualistic ethic. It is a way of saying, "I am violent, and that's the reason why -- by creating expectations in you about the necessity of peace -- I have some hope that you will keep me faithful to what I know is true but that I have no faith in my ability to live. So it creates that kind of vulnerability that makes peace possible.

Klager: So, what do you suggest Christians do to become authentic peacemakers and people who intuitively love their enemies rather than people who simply "try really hard" to follow a nonviolent ideology in a contrived way without it coming naturally from within?

Hauerwas: Listen to the liturgy that's called the Eucharist and participate in it; that's all you need.

Klager: On a somewhat separate but related topic, what advice can you give to parents trying to teach their children to follow the gospel of peace amidst the societal pressures to embrace nationalism and militarism?

Hauerwas: I think the most important thing that we can do for kids in that regard is just to teach them the stories of Christ, and how those stories shape [the way they] play and how they relate to their brothers and sisters.

Klager: How should Christians react to Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day here in Canada) or nationalistic holidays like the Fourth of July or Canada Day?

Hauerwas: Well, we ought to be respectfully on the sideline, and that means we don't want to disrespect those that have conscientiously participated [in past and ongoing wars]. But at the same time, we need to make clear the sacrifices of those who did not conscientiously participate and to remember both and hope for reconciliation.

Klager: As I'm an Eastern Orthodox Christian who is still greatly informed by and even teaches on Anabaptism and the Mennonite imagination, how do you maintain your peace convictions within a so-called 'high church' tradition in the Episcopal church, whose past and present often support imperialism, nationalism, church-state fusion, and militarism?

Hauerwas: I can't imagine doing it without the high church tradition. I mean, the worship life is absolutely necessary for sustaining the position as far as I'm concerned. [And, in terms of the legacy of church-state fusion, etc.] Well, that's the way it is, and you've got to learn to live without it.

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