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Confessing to One Another
The Uncomfortable but Liberating Gift of Openness
Confessing one's sins to someone - even someone we trust - is never easy because it means becoming vulnerable; it means admitting we need help. But renewal, freedom, joy, and a deepening of faith and relationships are the reward.Continue Reading
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America’s most frequently quoted theologian talks with Plough editor Peter Mommsen about the Benedict Option, evangelism, marriage, Christian communism, and why voting is overrated.
Peter Mommsen: Stanley, if I could sum up your influential career as a writer, you aim to help people live out the gospel more fully. Is that a fair description?
Stanley Hauerwas: I certainly hope so. I try to call attention to people who are living out the gospel in a way that makes my own life but a very pale reflection. I am thinking of people like Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community. If I know of anyone who is genuinely holy, it is Jean Vanier – not that he would ever think of himself that way. So in my writing about how to live according to the gospel, how to live to become the gospel, I try to direct attention to real people, not just to beliefs or concepts.
You’ve written extensively about how the church should respond to the “end of Christendom” – the fact that we no longer live in a culture whose ground rules stem from Christianity. What about the “Benedict Option” proposed by the writer Rod Dreher? He argues that Christians should respond to secularization by following the example of the early monastics, withdrawing from a heathen civilization to build alternative communities where Christian virtues can be nourished and passed on. Is he right?
This After Virtue, in which he observes that the barbarians have been ruling us for some time and that our future is “no doubt to have a Benedict, no doubt a very different Benedict.” Here’s the problem: Alasdair once told me that this is the line he most regrets ever having written! He wasn’t advocating some kind of withdrawal strategy – he was only pointing out that we can’t be compromised by the world in which we find ourselves. I don’t think your community, the Bruderhof, takes a withdrawal strategy, for instance.idea comes from the last line of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book
I sometimes say that I wouldn’t mind withdrawing, but we’re surrounded – there’s no place to withdraw to! Maybe the Benedict Option should be rethought in terms of the vow of stability and what it might look like in congregations. We would tell 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.”
That kind of accountability to one another is only possible in a community where there is mutual commitment – where there is a church discipline.
Right. My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates that we are a people who need help. We need to pray to God to help us, because we’re not quite sure anymore where we are – we’re not quite sure what the dangers are. We need all the help we can get from one another, and we need God in order to know how to be accountable to one another.
What do you mean that we can’t just make community up?
First, community for community’s sake is not a good idea. Sartre is right: hell is other people! Community by itself cannot overwhelm the loneliness of our lives. I think we are a culture that produces extreme loneliness. Loneliness creates a hunger – and hunger is the right word, indicating as it does the physical character of the desire and need to touch another human being.
But such desperate loneliness is very dangerous. Look at NFL football. Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome. I used to give a lecture in my basic Christian Ethics class that I called “The Fascism of College Basketball.” You take alienated upper-middle-class kids who are extremely unsure of who they are – and suddenly they are Duke Basketball. I call it Duke Basketball Fascism because fascism has a deep commitment to turning the modern nation-state into a community. But to make the modern state into a kind of community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk about community – is very dangerous. It is not community for its own sake that we seek. Rather, we should try to be a definite kind of community.
Alasdair MacIntyre, for one, resists being called a communitarian – he fears that in this place and time such calls are bound to lead to nationalistic movements. Those who hunger for community should never forget Nuremberg.
In confronting Nazism in the 1930s, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof communities, used to repeat that our goal must never be community, only Jesus.
What I admire about Arnold is his Christ-centered vision. In some ways I think of Eberhard Arnold as an early Barth. He recovered the centrality of Jesus in a way that was extraordinarily impressive.
I think that his stress on how you need one another to know who Christ is was one of the great gifts of the Anabaptists. In many ways, the left wing of the Reformation was the Catholic reformers, not Protestant reformers. So I find in Arnold a commitment to a view of the church that seems to me very Catholic, at least in the sense that he emphasizes that the church must take material form. He insists that there must be a living, visible body of believers.
War, Peace, and Evangelism
For Arnold, as for the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, faithfulness to Jesus meant nonviolence – going the way of the defenseless Christ. Should nonviolence be part of the church’s communal discipline?
Well, it’s important first of all to distinguish between Christian-community nonviolence and nonviolence qua nonviolence. The problem with the word nonviolence is that people think they know what nonviolence is apart from Christ. Then nonviolence becomes a marker more determinative than Jesus – it conceives peace apart from the crucifixion. But in reality, discipleship is the defining characteristic of what it means for Christians to be nonviolent. It means always being open to having the violence of our lives exposed.
For Christians, to be nonviolent means always being open to having the violence of our lives exposed.
Talking about nonviolence presupposes you’ve got to know what violence is in order to know the “non.” I don’t like the language of pacifism either because it’s so passive. What I like to talk about is peace, and peace is hard work in which oftentimes conflict is required. It involves acknowledging the violence we often misidentify as peace. What’s important is how a community becomes shaped by Christ in such a way that we are able to reject the falsehoods that lead us to use coercion.
You’ve insisted that “it is not the task of the church to ensure a stable world” (The Work of Theology, 69). What then is the church’s response when confronted with the atrocities of ISIS, including the wholesale slaughter of fellow Christians? The Archbishop of Mosul, for one, has been calling for the international community to defend the innocent, if necessary with military force.
I don’t know how to answer those kinds of questions. One of the failures that such questions elicit is our lack of any sense of Christian unity. What happened to Iraqi Christians is absolutely horrendous. The fact that Christians in America didn’t feel or didn’t care about what was going on there was a failure to acknowledge our Christian unity.
What would unity have meant? Well, it might have meant sending missionaries to be present in Iraq. That might have offered some protection, because it’s easier to kill Iraqis with impunity than to kill Americans.
Still, if you ask, “Stanley, what is your foreign policy toward ISIS?”, I don’t have one. But I do maintain that love to our persecuted brothers and sisters must mean facing the same dangers that they are undergoing. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. For instance, they’ll go to Hebron where Jewish soldiers and Palestinian activists are toe to toe, ready to kill one another. The Christian Peacemaker Team will come in and say, “Can we fix you guys a meal?” It doesn’t sound like much, but eating together is a big deal. It’s a start.
If the church’s task is not to ensure social stability, then what is it? You’ve famously described the church as a colony. We were just speaking of Eberhard Arnold, who used a similar image: that of the embassy, based on Paul’s words that “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). He wrote in 1934: “In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid. We are ambassadors of the kingdom of God. This means that we do nothing at all except what the king of God’s kingdom would himself do for his kingdom.” What’s your take?
I like this. I have high regard for ambassadors in the State Department because they are, in a certain way, hostages we sent out, having to negotiate a world in which they are not in control. I understand they’re surrounded by Marines and so on. Nevertheless, we send them out to be peaceful representatives of the United States, and oftentimes by having to learn to live in a foreign country they become sympathetic with the people they’re coming to know, people who are different from ourselves. In this way they come back and teach us what these folks are about in a way that helps us not to demonize them.
The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission.
So Arnold’s words touch on a very interesting way to think about mission. We could put it this way: as Christians, we are establishing embassies around the world in which some of our brothers and sisters are being held hostage – so that we might learn better who the folks are that we want to tell about Jesus.
And that’s the church’s mission?
The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.
Politics and Marriage
What is the church’s witness in the public square in an election year? Should Christians be organizing politically? Should we be voting?
I think voting is way overvalued. One, you forget that voting is a coercive activity. It’s where 50.1 percent get to tell 49.9 percent what to do. People forget that voting is not supposed to be an end in itself. Instead, it is a means to force conversation between people that otherwise would not happen. And that’s great. Of course I take it that at the Bruderhof and other intentional communities the majority doesn’t win – I mean, you’ve got to talk it out.
That’s right, there’s no majority rule, at least if we’re living as we should be, and no minority rule either. Our aim is to make decisions unanimously. That’s why we pray for the Holy Spirit.
Exactly. And that means that oftentimes, given the divisions within the community, you simply can’t make a decision. You have to be patient.
Democracy in its fundamental form is also patience. It requires you to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member, and sometimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced, you have to wait.
Looming behind this year’s presidential campaign are, of course, the September 11 attacks. That trauma continues to be operative in American politics. Our nation, allegedly the strongest in the world, runs on fear. The American people are frightened to death.
If in a hundred years Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well.
Fear, by the way, is the reason that our foreign policy is just the flip side of our commitment to developing increasingly technological forms of medicine. We hope that medical technology will get us out of life alive! The American people simply don’t seem to know how to deal with death – we’re basically a death-denial country.
Denial of death might be why there now seems to be a concerted campaign for the acceptance of euthanasia. We seek to disguise the reality of disease and dying with the illusion that we’re in control.
Yes. I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.
Does electoral politics have a place in combatting evils like these?
Sure. Christians can run for office. I just want them to run as Christians. They may even be elected once – you never know! But how to speak the truth in the public arena as a Christian is a deep challenge.
Speaking the truth in the Christian arena can be a big challenge too. Take same-sex marriage, which continues to split churches across the denominational spectrum – as someone who attends an Episcopalian church, you’ve seen this firsthand. How do we learn to speak the truth to each other about marriage, about singleness, about sexuality?
The first thing we need to say is that we want to make marriage difficult for people to enact. The idea that falling in love is sufficient for getting married is just a deep bedevilment. In order for two people to be married and have their marriage witnessed by the church, we need to know how their marriage is going to build up the holiness of the community. In practice, this means they may not be terribly attracted to one another. We forget that for centuries Christians married one another and had sex on their wedding night even though they didn’t know one another; they may well have never met one another until the day of the wedding. And yet the church blessed it because the community would hold them to the promises they had made. That’s why divorce and remarriage is such a serious issue.
So marriage is not something to be done because two people think they love one another. Rather it’s based on faithfulness to one another in the community such that over a lifetime, we’re able to look back on the relationship and call it love. Faithfulness becomes the defining mark of Christian marriage.
And how do you define marriage?
Well, I don’t define it but I will describe it. Marriage is the lifelong commitment to be faithful to one another, not only in terms of sexual relations but in terms of being attentive to your first responsibility to the person to whom you have pledged your life. Marriage gives witness to the same kind of faithfulness of Christ to his church. Part of this commitment includes hospitality to new life, which results from sexual relations.
That is the sticking point I have toward gay marriage. Not every marriage between a man and a woman is necessarily procreative. But marriage as an institution of the church of Jesus Christ is only intelligible in terms of the Christian willingness to have a child.
Community of Goods
Now that we’ve covered politics and marriage, let’s talk about money – specifically, community of goods. What is the relevance of Acts 2 and 4 for the church today?
I don’t know that the Bruderhof mode of communal sharing is the only way to go.
Neither do we.
Right. But there’s something to it. Years ago I was giving a lecture at Houston Baptist University at their new business school. At the dinner before the lecture, the associate dean of the school told me how her church grew between fifty and one hundred members every Sunday. My lecture was called “Why Business Ethics Is a Bad Idea.” When I finished the lecture, the dean said, “This just sounds so despairing. Isn’t there something we can do?” I said, “Yes, but it’s too late for your students. By the time they get to business school they’re too corrupt. However, I think before you let anyone join your church you ought to have them disclose how much they make. ‘I make $85,000 a year. I want to be a member of the church.’ ‘I make $150,000, I want to be a member.’” She said, “Well, we couldn’t do that. That’s private.” I said, “Where are the fundamentalists when you need them? God knocked off Sapphira and Ananias for not sharing what they made. Where did all this privacy stuff come from?”
Before you let anyone join your church, you ought to have them disclose how much they make.
So when it comes to money, maybe we should begin by telling one another what we make. That would be a very small first step, but at least it’s a way to start. For instance, at my church the rector knows approximately what I make, which as a full-time professor at Duke is about $100,000 per year. The problem that you run into is that many congregation members don’t want to expose their income – not because they’re making so much, but because they’re making so little, and they value their lives based on what they earn.
Money is a power. The more of it we have, the more subject we make ourselves to it.
That’s a danger every Christian has to reckon with – the power of mammon. It’s definitely not a danger that members of intentional community are immune to. That said, what are the gifts that Christian intentional communities can make to the wider church? And what are the dangers to avoid?
I think the danger for you in the Bruderhof is that you’re too impressive: people say, “Well, they can live that way but not me. I can’t see how we could ever live that way!” So you risk being an example that is praised but dismissed.
On the other hand, you do have a contribution to make to more conventional forms of Christianity. The reform of the church across the centuries has always come from monastics, and you’re part of that movement. You’re married monastics. I think we will just have to wait and see how God’s going to use you to help those of us who live more conventionally. We need to better understand how the kinds of commitments you represent are necessary for the whole church.
One of those commitments is to live in such a way that the church becomes, in your words, “a visible and bodily reality.” Of course, that reality isn’t confined to communities like ours. Where else do you see it today?
I think it’s more of a reality than we’re often able to see. People always ask me, “Where’s your church?” I’m an Episcopalian – I mean, you don’t become more compromised than that! But at the church I attend – the Church of the Holy Family in Durham, North Carolina – we see people who appear quite ordinary, and yet show an extraordinary thoughtfulness. Right now, for instance, one member is mobilizing a number of us to support one of our former members who is dying in Florida. I believe that that is God at work; that’s God showing up even in an Episcopalian church. I think God shows up many places, even among Southern Baptists!
Interview by Peter Mommsen, March 4, 2016; edited for clarity and concision.
Photographs: Masha Danilova, Unsplash (people on island) and www.scrowing.org (rowing).