Is Stanley Hauerwas the end of socially responsible Christianity?
Stanley Hauerwas was named “America’s best theologian” by Time Magazine in 2001. It’s been a few years, but was he ever America’s best theologian? Or does that category even make sense?
Hauerwas’ most well-known and popular book is Resident Aliens. There he argues that Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land. Instead of attempting to influence government and society, Christians should live lives that exemplify the love of Christ. The first social task of the church is to be the church (Peaceable Kingdom, loc 235, 2492).
Hauerwas quotes an American Jew in South Carolina.
It’s tough to be a Jew in Greenville. We are forever telling our children, ‘that’s fine for everyone else, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jew. You have a different story. A different set of values.’ (Aliens, loc 293)
Christians should live and think the same way. Serious Christians have become a Diaspora community (Reader, loc 6997).
How could this be, the reader might ask. An aggressive Christianity is everywhere, from abortion protests to people knocking on your door asking if you’ve been saved, a recent experience of mine. But this isn’t what Hauerwas is worried about. He worries that Christianity has been colonized and tamed by American society, so that it no longer stands for much of anything different or separate from the culture at large.
Nothing brought this home to me more clearly than Hauerwas’ suggestion of what the church he belongs to should say to prospective members.
When you join our church, you don’t get to decide by yourself when and where you will move. If your company wants to send you to a new town, you first need to ask the church whether it’s a good idea.
New members, all members, should disclose how much money they make. (https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/why-community-is-dangerous)
Behind this startling idea, at least to individualistic Americans, is Hauerwas’ claim that the most important thing the Christian church did was to “create a community whose like had never been seen before.” (Reader, loc 1563) Gary Wills made a similar comment, and it is the reason I take Paul so seriously.
Truth and community
Hauerwas’ most difficult claim, at least for me, is his assertion that Christian claims must be objectively true. Theology is not a matter of being liberal or conservative, but “a matter of truth.” (Peaceable, loc 250-255).
The reason I had so much trouble with this claim is that Hauerwas insists that the most important thing about the Gospels is that they are written in stories. Recent theology is mostly about abstract propositions. Understanding the Gospels is making its stories your own. We understand Christianity when we understand its narrative, and our tiny part in it. For all true understanding, as opposed to factually true statements, depends upon the narrative it is embedded in. (Reader, loc 701-706)
Finally, I got it, though Hauerwas does little to make it easier. By “objectively true” Hauerwas means in accordance with lived narrative. Truth is narrative truth, its story developing over time, its characters rich and real, and ending in a way that makes sense of all that has passed. One advantage of this approach is that it supports the Christian view of a linear history, one that will end with the return of Christ. Now that’s a story.
I still think that Hauerwas plays off this double meaning of truth: objective truth versus narrative truth. But for the most part it becomes clear that when Hauerwas says truth, he means people making Christianity true by living it every day. This fits with his view that Christianity is itself a narrative.
The nature of Christian ethics is determined by the fact that Christian convictions take the form of a story, or perhaps better, a set of stories that constitutes a tradition, which in turn creates and forms a community. Christian ethics does not begin by emphasizing rules or principles, but by calling our attention to a narrative that tells of God’s dealing with creation, gifting it to us. (Peaceable, loc 864)
Church and world
Hauerwas is critical of almost every recent theologian, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer because they want to involve the church in the world. The result is to make the church worldlier. Instead, the church must fight to remain free of the world, so that its members can be exemplars of a true Christian life.
I continue to wonder why my Episcopal church has an American flag standing by the altar, something I’ve noticed at every church I’ve attended. Isn’t that idolatry? The whole point of the church is that it not be loyal to the state (though its members may be), but to the message of the Gospels, which is love others as Christ has loved you (John 13:34-35). Does anyone really believe that America even pretends to this ethic? Are the Beatitudes on anyone’s list of American virtues? (Matthew 5:3-12)
Reinhold Niebuhr says he is quite prepared to admit that his brother’s “ethical perfectionism and its apocalyptic note” is closer to the gospel than his. But such an admission simply notes the inability to construct an adequate social ethic out of a pure love ethic. (Peaceable, loc 3082)
As I read Hauerwas, it becomes clear that it is impossible to construct a social ethic from a love ethic. The virtue of the Gospels is love. The virtue of society is justice. This is why it is important that the church stay out of politics, that the church care for the souls of its members. “The church does not have a social ethic. Rather the church is a social ethic.” (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/bricklayer’s-son) The church should strengthen its members resistance to the common culture, not encourage it.
Cells of joy?
It may be that we must learn to “do nothing” in the face of one nation’s invasion of another nation, or the suffering of so many, says Hauerwas.
Yet we can be a people who witness confidently to the peace that we know is possible in this life, since we have begun to feel its power in our lives. For what hope has the world if there are not “cells” of people who manifest a joy that otherwise the world would have no means of knowing to be possible in this life? (Peaceable, loc 3256)
These cells, he suggests, might coordinate with other cells around the world, but I don’t know why. Is coordination going to increase the joy of any of its members, or extend it beyond other cells? Perhaps.
It is realistic to hold that the church can do virtually nothing to stop the bloodshed around the world. It need not try to do nothing. It can do nothing. But consider the beggar on the street, or the homeless family anywhere in the world. Here the church has a chance to make a difference, one person, one family at a time.
If I were a member of Hauerwas’ church, I would ask prospective members if they are willing to donate ten percent of their income to the poor. Not to the church, but directly to the poor through organizations like Oxfam. I think this is more important than just about anything else, and it follows Christ’s pronouncement that whatever you do for the least of men you do for me (Matthew 25:40).
The church and desegregation in America
The church may not be able to change much about the world, but there was a point beginning about sixty-five years ago when it changed everything. The American civil rights movement was based in the African-American church. Without the institutional structure of the church, the civil rights movement would have looked vastly different, and been far less effective. Add to this that it brought peace to the struggle via the strategy of non-violent resistance, and the church enabled America to make a decisive moral breakthrough.
The question we must ask Hauerwas, who understands the church as a community unto itself, is whether the church will know when the world needs it once again, and whether the institutional structures will still exist.
[Dear readers: my books shelves are groaning, and I’ve run out of space. I’ve decided to use Kindle e-books by Amazon whenever possible. I will cite these e-books by page location (loc), rather than page number, which Kindle e-books generally lack. Sorry if this inconveniences anyone.]
Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright. Duke University Press, 2001.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Abingdon Press, 2014.