Printer Friendly

"I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch." A profile of Stanley Hauerwas.

As a theological ethicist, Duke University Divinity School professor, and as a writer cruising through his forties and fifties, Stanley Hauerwas enjoyed the twin blessings of personal achievement and professional obscurity. Then, in 2001, the assessors of talent at Time magazine declared him "America's best theologian." Oprah Winfrey gave him air time. Invitations to talk, exhort, and entertain poured in.

Hauerwas, a Texan who speaks in the twangy cadences of Jim Hightower and is as adept with the barbs and jibes, guffaws when recalling the praise from Time: "Best is not a theological category! Faithful or unfaithful are the right categories. The last thing in the world I'd want to be is the best."

By the measure of fidelity to his Christ-centered beliefs, Hauerwas is steadfast, whether as an intellectual trading in the nuanced language of theology, or as a member of his local Durham, North Carolina, parish that comes together for the succor of liturgy, community, and prayer.

"I am a Christian pacifist," he says. "Being Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me. I would not be a pacifist if I were not a Christian, and I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist."

That puts Hauerwas in a distinct minority. When countless Christian leaders--from popes, cardinals, and Jesuits to assorted divines stretching from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to Jesse Jackson--say that wars can be just, if not just dandy, and when pacifists are denounced as cowards and misfits on the nation's airwaves and op-eds, Hauerwas's voice seems to come out of an increasingly vast wilderness.

It doesn't bother him, as it never bothered Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, Emily Balch, the Berrigans, David Dellinger, Arthur Laffin, and a long list of others for whom pacifism--active pacifism, which has nothing to do with passivity or appeasement--was both a spiritual creed and a political philosophy.

"I say I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch. I'm a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I've got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it's too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what I know is true but that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all. That's part of what nonviolence is--the attempt to make our lives vulnerable to others in a way that we need one another. To be against war--which is clearly violent--is a good place to start. But you never know where the violence is in your own life. To say you're nonviolent is not some position of self-righteousness--you kill and I don't. It's rather to make your life available to others in a way that they can help you discover ways you're implicated in violence that you hadn't even noticed."

Hauerwas, sixty-two, is a hand under six feet and the owner of a pair of knees half blown out from too many years of running.

After studying at Yale Divinity School and earning a doctorate from the same university, Hauerwas, the son of a Texas bricklayer, has articulated the case for Christian pacifism for more than three decades now. He taught at Notre Dame from 1970 to 1984, and he's been at Duke ever since. He speaks at public forums ranging from the Air Force Academy to a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Silk Hope, North Carolina.

He is part of the minority Christian community operating under the consistent life ethic that calls for alternatives to the violence of war and militarism, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These, and other issues involving public morality and personal ethics, have been at the core of Hauerwas's writing and teaching. Much of his prose has been in low-circulation theological journals and books from small publishers. In 2001, Duke University Press published The Hauerwas Reader, a 729-page volume of literate and often feisty arguments drawn from such books as The Peaceable Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), Truthfulness and Tragedy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), Character and the Christian Life (Trinity University Press, 1975) and Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989).

In mid-February, Hauerwas spent the day in dialogue with an audience of 200 at the Servant Leadership School in Washington, a group that has ties to the Church of the Savior. It is a longstanding ecumenical congregation located about a mile from the White House that practices works of mercy and rescue in programs ranging from low-income housing to literacy tutoring. Few parishes in Washington take the Christian gospel as seriously.

An hour before his morning talk, I had some time with Hauerwas. He began with a wisecrack, a benign one about George W. Bush being a Methodist "who was raised an Episcopalian, which is that form of Christianity that the upper middle class uses in America not to take Jesus seriously. I say that as someone who is now going to an Episcopal church!" On Bush's frequent references to religion and faith, Hauerwas said that the President's "personal relationship with Jesus doesn't seem to have anything to do with Jesus's teaching."

In his talk to the Servant Leadership audience, Hauerwas recalled that Bush, after urging Americans to go shopping, immediately proclaimed, "We are at war." Hauerwas explained that peculiar juxtaposition this way: "We are frightened, and ironically war makes us feel safe. The way to go on in the face of 9/11 is to find someone to kill. Americans are, moreover, good at killing. We often fail to acknowledge how accomplished we are in the art of killing. We now conduct war in a manner that only the enemy has to die."

In his lecture, he also took on just war theory. Later, he expounds on his critique.

"As far as just war is concerned, I think it's a terrific theory," he tells me. "Unfortunately, it has no purchase in reality. For example, I note that the reason people think the theory can be used in Iraq is because we have the capacity (and the `we' means the United States) to fight a war in Iraq. Did `we' get that capacity on just war grounds? No, the United States got that capacity on the grounds of political realism shaped by the Cold War. So, just warriors need to get serious and tell us what would a just war foreign policy, shaped by an equally just war Pentagon, look like."

As with many who are committed to nonviolence, Hauerwas has found himself asked what are his alternatives to bombing Afghanistan and Iraq. "Such questions," he replies, "assume that pacifists must have an alternative foreign policy. My only response is I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better--a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill."

Except it's a small church, one that is well apart from the large denominations--Catholicism, Methodism, the Baptists, Lutherans, and their frequent complicity with Caesar and the Pharaohs. In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas writes: "The functional character of contemporary religious convictions is perhaps nowhere better revealed than in the upsurge of religious conservatism. While appearing to be a resurgence of `traditional' religious conviction, some of these movements in fact give evidence of the loss of religious substance in our culture and in ourselves. Christianity is defended not so much because it is true, but because it reinforces the `American way of life.' Such movements are thus unable to contemplate that there might be irresolvable tensions between being Christian and being `a good American.'"

To understand Hauerwas the theologian and his emphasis on the church as a community--a people with a common unity--a knowledge of the early pre-Augustine, pre-Constantine church is helpful. It was a band of mostly dissidents who organized around a troublemaking rabbi. The Acts of the Apostles portrays the early Christians as people who pooled what little wealth they had, risked their lives to the point of martyrdom, resisted violence, and realized that on this Earth they would never really be home. Phillips Brooks, a Protestant pastor in the late nineteenth century, wrote: "In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical. ... His religion has so long been identified with conservatism ... that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him."

Hauerwas consistently draws large numbers of students to his classes. Earthy, gregarious, and often light-hearted, he is devoted to his students, returning their papers quickly, mentoring them into pastorates around the country, and relishing the melee of theological debate. Something of a cusser, he told Newsweek: "God is killing the church, and we goddamn well deserve it." According to a friend, Hauerwas defended this low-grade blasphemy by saying, "At least I mention God's name twice."

Days before Hauerwas visited Washington, politicians, lobbyists, generals, and assorted court reverends convened for the annual national prayer breakfast in the ballroom of a local hotel. Head-bowing Presidents and Vice Presidents rarely miss showing up. Unsurprisingly, Hauerwas has an opinion on these events. Like Amos, the Hebrew prophet who thought little of the rich Israelites who were publicly pious while privately greedy, Hauerwas says: "The God that's prayed to [at the breakfasts] is such a vague God that it's very hard for me to see how it avoids idolatry. It's dangerous for Christians to think that the state is sponsoring their faith. Is it really about prayer? Or a display of piety? Prayer breakfasts are just parading the piety to ensure a kind of righteousness that isn't commensurate with confessional sin. You'd never catch me at one."

Hauerwas believes that Christianity, to be authentic, must take a stand. In a 1991 interview, he said: "If you ask one of the crucial theological questions--why was Jesus killed?--the answer isn't `because God wants us to love one another.' Why in the hell would anyone kill Jesus for that? That's stupid. It's not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution calling people to be an alternative to the world. That's what the cross is about."

If, as Gandhi often stated, nonviolence is a creed for the brave and the bold---"its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being"--then Hauerwas may not be our best theologian, but he is one of our bravest and boldest.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His recent book is, "I'd Rather Teach Peace" (Orbis, 2002).
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Previous Article:Bush trashes the United Nations. (Cover Story).
Next Article:Iraq. (Advertisement).

Related Articles
Is this just war? Two catholic perspective on the war Afghanistan: the editors interview Lisa Sowle Cahill and Father Michael Baxter, C.S.C....
Hard questions for peacemakers: theologians of nonviolence wrestle with how to resist terrorism.
Stanley Hauerwas: An interview.
This side of god: A conversation with David Tracy.
Humanizing the enemy empowering a nation through nonviolence.
On exile: Yoder, said, and a theology of land and return.
Truthful testimony.
Liberalism, race, and Stanley Hauerwas.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |