Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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