Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.


James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

In his important and big book on Christianity and culture To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World James Davison Hunter turns his attention to the neo-Anabaptists.

This will be a longer post on what is a significant chapter.

The main difference, he says, between Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists is their attitude to the state. The former seek to use and transform it to aid justice, the latter have an innate distrust of political power. Similarities are an intense dislike of the Christian Right and a highly sceptical view of Western capitalism.

Neo-Anabaptism has its roots in radical Reformation, the rejection of hierarchy and of the structures of Christendom, and the vision of authentic Christian communities. If the Anabaptist tradition is still found in Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites etc, the neo-Anabaptist movement is wider – drawing theologically on Anabaptism’s vision for how to engage the wider 21st world.

Two names best known names [to me anyway :)] are the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

And let me nail my colours to the wall here – I have great sympathy for the Anabaptist tradition and huge admiration for contemporary exponents like Stanley Hauerwas. I find him a truly prophetic voice; an authentic voice; an honest voice; an inspiring counter-cultural voice who articulates the deeply subversive nature of what it means to follow Jesus in late Western culture. You don’t have to agree with all he says to see that we need prophets like him.

Hunter is right to say that it is not that neo-Anabaptists have no interest in changing the world, but that they have a fundamentally different vision for how to do so.

Main characteristics:

1. Constantinian Error: While Jesus announced and inaugurated the upside-down-Kingdom of God, the story of the church since Constantine has been anything but radical – one where it supports and has been too often corrupted by the status quo. Rather than being radical it became conservative, power-obsessed, wealthy; a custodian of a civil religion while simultaneously losing its prophetic voice to fight for the weak and the vulnerable.

And this submission of the church to the state is nowhere seen more starkly than in the story of capitalism. So dominant has capitalism become, the state’s role and even existence depends on propping it up. [This is right – have you noticed it is our patriotic job to be good consumers so as to help the Irish state survive?].

Capitalism oppresses the poor; panders to greed and selfishness; destroys the environment; leads to a global financial crisis; promotes an insatiable desire for more; replaces God with things as the chief goal of desire. And the American church is up to its neck in sanctifying capitalism. Thus says Hauerwas, ‘God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it.’

2. The identity of Jesus: big important neo-Anabaptist themes revolve around Jesus. Authentic Christianity will be marked by

the way of the suffering servant who gives up his life for others

the rejection of force and coercion

– a Jesus-like challenge to the political and spiritual powers of the day. The concept of ‘powers and principalities’ is important here. Governments have overstepped their mark, becoming an end in themselves, demanding wholehearted allegiance. Yoder says that the spiritual grip of the powers must be broken. Jesus defeated the powers, his followers are to be free from their grip. Such a calling is communal – when the church is fulfilling its calling it will bear the brunt of the hostility and disdain of the world. The Christian response is one of forgiveness and peace.

a free church that embodies authentic Christian community as a counter-culture to the world. That refuses to endorse and participate in the power structures of the world and is therefore committed to non-violence.

3. The church versus the world

Flowing from this is a strong antithesis between church and world. The present world order is broken, rebellious and violent. Over against this the church is to be the visible foretaste of the kingdom, marked by baptism, Eucharist, preaching, forgiveness, service, peace, justice, love. Hence Hauerwas and his ‘Resident Aliens’ theme. The first and greatest task of the church is to be the church.

So to Hunter’s critique.

His main gripe is that neo-Anabaptism, in a strange parallel to both the Left and Right, still frames its vision in a deeply political way. Discipleship to Jesus is equated with social non-conformity. The very identity of the movement is drawn from opposition to the Christian Right, to the State, to capitalism. The vision for the church is framed against that of the sinful world. It is a ‘passive-aggressive ecclesiology’ – one which depends on the status of the church as a marginal minority community fighting democratic capitalism.

And in tone, the movement is negative. Negative about the world, negative about the failures of the church and its compromises with Christendom, negative about the idolatry of the Christian Right and so on. Hunter uses words like ‘anger, disparagement and negation’ as well as a ‘relentless hostility to all that is not God’. Shane Claiborne gets a mention as an example of the perfectionist, pietistic and separatist tendencies within neo-Anabaptism. In this way, Hunter concludes, neo-Anabaptist joins the ‘politics of negation’ that so dominate American contemporary culture.

Yoder when alive rejected such criticisms, as does Hauerwas today. The church living as an alternative community living a different way of life poses ‘a fundamental challenge to the way of the world’. Far with being pietistic and separatist, such a way of life is deeply political and is radically engaged with culture as it offers a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

We’ll get to Hunter’s own proposal for what he calls ‘faithful presence’ in the next post.

So is this a fair summary and critique of neo-Anabaptism?  Do you agree with its main themes? Why?

My tuppence worth: it seems to me that Hunter is not so much dissenting from any of the three key themes described above, but from the tone and political focus of the movement. It also seems unpersuasive to criticise a movement for being shaped by what it opposes. All theology is contextual, all reform movements are by definition seeking to change the status quo.