The Price of a Peaceable Kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom is a book by Stanley Hauerwas.  In 2001 Time Magazine named him “America’s best theologian.”  It’s been a few years, but it’s surprising how few people not involved in theological ethics know anything about his work.

Hauerwas is from Texas, the son of a bricklayer, and a bricklayer himself when he was young.  He makes a point of that in his memoir, Hannah’s Child.  The idea is that he’s down to earth, not like all these fancy theologians from Germany.

To be the church

“The first social task of the church is to be the church.” (Peaceable, loc 236)  One of his best-known sayings, I’ve never been quite clear what it means.  I think it means that the church should care for the souls of its congregation first.  Church members should practice non-violence, because they themselves are not pure.  Christians should exemplify “cells of joy” in a world that barely knows the meaning of the word.  More on this later. 

How can Christianity be true?

My overriding concern has been systematic—namely, to understand how Christian    convictions can claim to be true. loc 250

Hauerwas’ answer is that truth is part of a narrative, a story about the way things are.  This view has been around for some time now; its most eloquent exponent is Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue.  Truth isn’t just correspondence with the way things are, because how things are depends on the story of which they are a part.  Jesus isn’t true.  Or false.  Jesus becomes true when we understand the story of Jesus as the son of God, crucified on the cross, buried, and resurrected.  This truth should not be understood as doctrine.  It is embedded in the narrative that begins with the creation of the world, and ends with the eschaton, the end of the world.  The narrative lives when we are part of a community that transmits this story from generation to generation. 

Trouble is, Hauerwas can’t stick to the limits this view imposes, and it’s easy to see why.  if you don’t share the narrative then you don’t share the truth. 

In this book I contend that Christian convictions . . . transform the self to true faith by creating a community that lives faithful to the one true God of the universe. (loc 696)

From the perspective of the narrative theory of truth, there are as many true gods of the universe as there are stories about him.  You can see why Hauerwas can’t stick to the implications of a narrative theory of truth. 

The Christian narrative

The Christian narrative is a story of creation by a gracious God.  I did not have to be, just as the world did not have to be.  I understand myself and my role properly when I understand myself as God’s creature.  Trouble is, men and women rebel against this story.  They want to be their own masters, or at least subjects to masters of their own choosing.  Humans rebel.

No one has better understood this rebellion than Reinhold Niebuhr, as Hauerwas recognizes.  Niebuhr saw that sin results from our inability to live as creatures.  Man is ignorant and limited by his finite mind, but he pretends that he is not limited.

The religious dimension of sin is man’s rebellion against God, his effort to usurp the place of God. The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice. The ego which falsely makes itself the centre of existence in its pride and will-to-power inevitably subordinates other life to its will and thus does injustice to other life.  (Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, p 179)

Man does injustice to others because he can’t keep in his place.  He wants not only to be his own creation; he wants to usurp the creations of others.  The result is war and the exploitation and immiseration of the less wealthy and powerful. 

The price of a peaceable kingdom

In 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, a distinguished theologian at Yale, contributed opposing articles to Christian Century.  Japan had invaded China, and H. Richard argued for doing nothing.  For Richard Niebuhr, doing nothing was almost a form of prayer.

The inactivity of radical Christianity, therefore, is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. (1932, p 380)

Pacifism, says Hauerwas, is the only position compatible with Christianity.  The cross is a symbol of willing suffering.  Trouble is, it makes all the difference in the world whether I willingly suffer, or I willingly allow you to suffer.  To allow others to suffer so that my righteousness may remain pure seems all wrong. 

It is here that Hauerwas’ pacifism breaks down.  Try as he might, his representation of Reinhold’s position is longer and stronger than Richard’s.   

Reinhold, thus, characterizes his brother’s account of Christian inactivity as the attempt to “achieve humility and disinterestedness not because enough Christians will be able by doing so to change the course of history, but because that kind of spiritual attitude is a prayer to God for the coming of his kingdom.” (loc 3061)

That’s an indictment of Richard, not a defense.  Failing to act to save the lives of real people, even though it means killing other real people, and instead turning my passivity into prayer, means that something has gone wrong.  Can there be an arrogance to purity, in which my purity is more important than your life (recall the story of the good Samaritan)?  Or does it all come out equal at the end of the world? 

Reinhold admits that his brother’s “ethical perfectionism and its apocalyptic note” is closer to the gospel than his.  But that is the tragedy of Christianity (my term).  We cannot be as good and pure as we want to be not only because we are flawed creatures, but because doing so would often result in more human suffering.  And human suffering in this world today counts too.  We live not just for eternity, but for today.  In relations between nations no nation can ever be good enough to save another through the power of love.  The best we can hope for is justice (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1932, p 417).

The argument between the Niebuhrs was about China, but it’s easy to see its relevance to World War Two and the Holocaust.  The United States did not go to war to protect the Jews.  We went to war to protect our national interests and prevent German dominion.  But we did prevent the genocide of the Jews, which meant killing a lot of Germans and others, including innocents.  Would it have been better to preserve our purity?

Hauerwas argues for H. Richard’s pacifism.

From the argument of this book obviously I think H. Richard Niebuhr’s position is the one we Christians must take if we are to live in a manner appropriate to God’s kingdom. (loc 3115)

Cells of joy

But there is no real energy behind Hauerwas’ argument, no energy and no elaboration.  Difficult examples are not considered.  Hauerwas wants the church to be the church.  Only then can it demonstrate to the world the joy that Christ brings to his people.

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? (loc 3257)

This sounds like the ideal of nuns in a Dominican convent, perpetually praying the rosary so that Mary might intercede for the sins of the world.  Perhaps a few are inspired by knowing the nuns are in perpetual prayer, but most neither know nor care, and the same is true for “cells of joy.”  The more they remain cells, cloistered from the world of tragic action (tragic because a Christian must sometimes sin to prevent worse evil), the less people will be aware of them. 

Martin Luther King, a devout Christian, practiced civil disobedience.  More than once it got him thrown into a cell.  Sometimes that’s the right cell to be in.  But his pacifism was active, involved in the world.  And it is hard to imagine that even that would have stopped Hitler.  To engage in the world is to become impure, and so have one’s joy and goodness tempered by harsh reality.  But there is really no other way. 


Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics.  University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir.  Eerdmans, 2010.

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony.  Abingdon, 2014.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” Christian Century 49 (March 23, 1932), 378–380.

Reinhold Niebuhr, “Must We Do Nothing?” Christian Century 49 (March 30, 1932), 415–417.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, volume 1.  Westminster John Knox Press, 1996 [original 1941].

The painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, is by Edward Hicks from around 1830.  Hicks painted sixty-two versions.  It refers to Isaiah 11:6, where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.

8 thoughts on “The Price of a Peaceable Kingdom”

  1. Even wanting to live a virtuous life might be wrong as it is self centred.I suppose it depends on your motive.If you think that way
    for the sake of others it might be alright.But there’s a pride in thinking that we could become totally virtuous rather than hoping we might act well now and then.And the Kingdom is an aspiration like the point at infinity is in perspective drawing.Maybe it only exists in a particular moment then disappears.
    But we need it to make our life matter just as artists need that PAI

  2. From the Hebrew Bible: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
    A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

    1. No, but it’s “acceptable” to imprison those who hate if they harm others. That’s justice.

      1. Yes,I see that you mean.We may feel hatred but we must not let it make us do harm.Retaliation is very tempting in the shortt term

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