Plough: Stanley, you’re a Christian ethicist – what makes Christian ethics Christian?
Stanley Hauerwas: Jesus.
Yes, Jesus. But which Jesus?
It is the Jesus of the Gospels that makes Christian ethics Christian. Of course, part of the difficulty of contemporary Christian ethics is that it tries to be an ethic for anyone, everyone. That’s not only a mistake but tragic. Jesus didn’t espouse some “universal ethic”; if he had, he wouldn’t have been crucified. No, what determines our way of negotiating with the world is not some rational ethic but a life based on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
That makes Christian ethics somewhat embarrassing. Didn’t Paul say, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”? (1 Cor. 1:18). Anyone baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has the possibility of living the way God would want anyone to live.
So there’s a difference between a Jesus-centered ethic for his followers and some kind of universal ethic approachable and applicable to everybody else.
So-called universal ethics are actually someone’s ethics disguised as for anyone. When that happens, “Jesus” ends up being what Kierkegaard described as our hobby-horse. That’s why I can’t advocate pacifism or some abstract principle of nonviolence. Whose pacifism? Whose nonviolence?
Yet you believe that nonviolence is not just a distinctive mark of discipleship or following Jesus, but an essential one. Many people who claim to follow Jesus would disagree. Why is nonviolence essential to who Jesus is?
Because God incarnate entered our world in a manger and died on the cross. He refused to save us by coercion. Instead, he redeemed the world on the cross, and by enduring such suffering, he gave us an opportunity to see how we can live in the world without killing those who would kill us. Crucifixion is the central act that makes nonviolence intelligible and so powerful.
So, crucifixion isn’t just a salvific event.
Well, it is a salvific event, all the way down. What I mean is that it is not just salvation from this world of sin and evil. Christ’s salvation offers us the possibility of being grafted in to a whole new way of life that is otherwise not possible. In him a new kind of humanity exists, a life together made possible only because of the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Christ. Christ does not make the world itself more peaceable. The cross itself is the world’s peace, and our task is to live into it and bear witness to it.
What about the broader culture, and our mandate to limit violence in the world? Aren’t we supposed to be salt and light?
Anyone living in a manner that makes violence less necessary is on the side of the angels. So, it’s not like God’s call to nonviolence only applies to us who profess faith. We should assume that the longing for peace will show up in people “outside the fold,” and in many surprising ways. God is God, and we are not. It’s extraordinary what God can do with people who do not know our Lord, but nonetheless often live more faithfully than we.
You’ve consistently argued that nonviolence is not a moral rule or a commandment. It lies in something deeper.
Well, I wouldn’t mind nonviolence being a strict commandment, but it’s actually, and more importantly, an invitation to a way of life that is committed to telling the truth. And truth is a necessary condition for being able to live without coercion. The way of nonviolence is a hard, long business. It involves being trained in the virtue of patience. But this is the message of the cross. The cross disarms us from having to make the world turn out right. This makes most of us very uncomfortable, but that’s the way God’s kingdom works.
The cross itself is the world’s peace, and our task is to live into it and bear witness to it.
Are you saying that truth wins?
Truth wins. Consequently, we don’t have to impose it, or enforce it, or even aid it along. That’s why patience is crucial to peacemaking. God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish. We have to live in light of this truth, with ourselves and with others, and we can rest confident that truth will win. But you have to remember, most of us don’t want to know the truth. Give us the lie any day.
Because truth scares the hell out of us. It makes us face death and the limits of what is possible for us in this life, and that’s a hard learning. Instead of truth, we rely on lies, which invariably sow seeds of violence.
Part of facing the truth in one’s own life is to see how violent one is and can be. We can’t escape it, and if we are truly honest with ourselves and with one another, we can’t rationalize it.
We’re not sure what peace looks like anymore. This is why I hate the language of pacifism because it’s understood as not something. Pacifism is just too passive a notion. The challenge of truthfulness is to learn how to speak about what peace actually is and why it is absent in our world.
Tell me more about this. What does it mean to side with peace and work for it?
To envision peace you have to think concretely. Dorothy Day feeding soup to the poor is the work of peace. The tiredness in her face is peace. “Peacemaking” sounds like it’s always a dramatic event. But peace requires the everyday virtue of courage in a world constituted by cowardice and self-interest. Peacemaking takes the work of a whole people, not just one heroic individual. Dorothy Day depended on Peter Maurin, and the two of them on a movement, on a community. We mustn’t think of peace as the exception to violence; it’s the other way around.
You’ve written a lot about how narrative is important to our understanding of peace and the virtues that lead to peace.
It’s crucial to be able to reframe our justifications of violence, to learn to see alternatives that we didn’t know existed. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some bad outcomes, or that what we did was wrong. It means that we can wait in a world of impatience for God’s history to unfold. His story is what needs to shape who we are. It alone is the alternative to the violence that so tempts us.
We often think of violence as the brutal taking of life, but violence takes on many forms. What are some of the ways violence lurks around our lives?
There is no more coercive phrase in the English language today than, “I love you.” That’s a recipe for one person trying to control another. The police experience the most violent forms of behavior amidst family disputes. They constantly have to intervene and try to prevent a husband and a wife from killing each other, and then have to guard themselves when both of them turn on the officer! A classic case of needing a common person to hate. You know, I’m a southerner, and there is no form of coercion more deep than Southern civility. It’s an ongoing training in passive-aggressive behavior disguised as, “I want to do the best for you.” So, nonviolence isn’t just an alternative to war. It’s an alternative to all that divides us.
Where else do you see violence manifesting itself?
Driving, and the way in which people treat each other on the road. I think driving is one of the most morally interesting (and perhaps revealing) ways of relating to one another we have: I have to trust you to stop at the stop sign. Well, that’s asking a lot. My wife and I were on vacation in western Scotland once, on the island of Mull, and the roads were all single lane. If you saw another car coming, there were pull-offs, and you had to decide which car would pull off first. I think it led to a sense of cooperativeness among the people on the island that I would like to call peace.
That’s quite a metaphor, because conflict is often two people trying to occupy the same space at the same time and navigating that. It feels like we’re less and less able to navigate those spaces in a peaceful way. Why is that?
It’s because there is a loneliness that possesses people, which means that we’re not sure who we are or who the other person is. This invites the sense that we must always protect ourselves. Isolation breeds mistrust, and mistrust encourages violence.
You warned long ago about how fragmentation and isolation breed violence. What you just said reminds me of that. Is there anything else exacerbating our sense of unpeace? It seems that misinformation is a significant factor. The levels of hate, of anxiety, of resentment are certainly reaching volatile proportions.
As Christians we’re not sufficiently truthful with one another, and we fail to acknowledge how some forms of Christianity are idolatrous. When Christianity is identified with American interests or a political party, it needs to be called out for what it is. We’re afraid to do that because we think being a Christian is better than not being one. But bad Christianity is very bad, and we need to be more upfront about that.
What about the so-called free market? If nationalism is idolatrous, surely conspicuous consumption is as well. Might not capitalism contribute to our propensity to coerce others?
Well, in our economic system you’re morally obligated to be a consumer, because if you’re not, you throw people out of work. Yet much of the work we do keeps us apart and forces us to be less than human, hindering us from a true sense of community and of the common good. I don’t have any secret way to think about how to negotiate a world in which I’m obligated to be a consumer – lest we forget, money is a power. The more you try to will your way from the need of it, the more you need it. That’s how I think about the principalities and powers. The very attempt to try to control them ends up controlling you. So you’ve got to be called out of them into a different way of life.
Hope is not optimism. It’s the resolve to live within the promises we have made, trusting in surprise.
Let me switch gears a bit. Many social activists employ techniques of nonviolence for revolutionary or social change. What do you think about that?
It depends, because nonviolence as a strategy is often based on a form of coercion. Gandhi thought that he was saving the British, and when, at the famous salt strike, his followers started violently reacting to the British violence, he called it off. He received deep criticism for that because he had been going to win, but he stood his ground, arguing “We are only repeating the violence of the British if we are not, ourselves, nonviolent.” Martin Luther King, whom I regard as a miracle, had a similar approach. In Birmingham, nonviolence was nonviolence because the African-American community had been nonviolent for generations. As he developed his campaign, however, people were not trained in nonviolence in the way he had originally envisioned. And so, the movement became more important than the witness, results superseded the means. He really worried about this, and did his best to provide an alternative.
The means and the ends had to coincide. But how realistic is this in the long run? Don’t we have an obligation to at least try to restrain evil in the world?
The police function of the state has to be there. But our real duty, as Christ’s reconcilers, lies in finding ways to live where the police do not have to carry guns. That’s a political position.
So nonviolence is political.
Healthy politics itself can be a form of nonviolence to the extent that I have to listen to what my opponent has to say and not kill him, though I might want to. Nonviolence is more than an attitude. It calls for political engagement in a way that is quite surprising.
That’s a rather optimistic view of politics. Granted, people aren’t killing each other in duels these days, at least not yet. Even so, a lot of people feel threatened and are getting politically slaughtered.
Pollyannish? Consider the university. We often fail to see how a university is a form of nonviolence. This is because a university is committed to exposing society’s conflicts in ways in which we can work through them without picking up guns. Yes, universities are contentious places, but they are where we learn to live better with strangers and those with whom we disagree.
But what about culture-silencing, identity politics, radical deconstruction, which make it all but impossible to explore the truth around a common table?
I confess, our universities are in deep trouble. First, we live in a culture in which some people say you can’t read Macbeth because it’s anti-feminist. Some people say you can’t watch The Wizard of Oz because there are no good witches. How in the hell do you teach the great texts of western civilization and explore what is good and true and beautiful in a society which is so unbelievably ill-educated? We are failing to do the job we need to do. The task of the university is to teach people to be eloquent and to expect eloquence in others. The last four years have certainly not been very good at that.
Let me turn our attention back to your work as a Christian ethicist. You repeatedly make a distinction between faithfulness and effectiveness. Can you elaborate on this?
There is a difference between the two, but faithfulness, in the end, is actually effective. Think about the 1989 revolution in eastern Europe. It took years. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. The fact of the matter is the movement for freedom, for liberation was always a guerrilla movement. It just took years before the peaceful revolution succeeded. And who made it possible? Among others, it was reformed pastors, of all people, in Hungary. And that’s because the people just couldn’t live lies anymore. Were the World Wars effective? I suppose you could say the second World War got rid of Hitler, but the first World War gave rise to him.
So, the effects of faithfulness might just take longer.
Yes, faithfulness will bear fruit. It’s a matter of God’s time. Remember, crucifixion was and is followed by resurrection.
But we do have a role to play.
Of course. One of the most important things we as Christians can do for the world is to lead interesting lives. Unfortunately, we have become far too predictable. We’re too invested in the status quo. We desperately need to learn what it means to live interesting lives, because otherwise, no one will ever be drawn into the church – God’s new society. What an extraordinary thing we have been given, to live as people of peace destined to death and resurrection, in confidence that there is a God who has given us a way of life that is unimaginable if Jesus, the king of God’s peaceable kingdom, had not been conceived and dwelt among us.
As you mentioned earlier, nonviolence or peacemaking is a communal commitment. It demands an alternative community.
Correct. Putting it in the most contentious way I can, the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world see what it is, because the world cannot know what it is unless there’s a community that helps it name itself. What does it mean to be of the world? The world of power, hostility, mistrust, fear, of greed and injustice, draws on God’s patience and draws us away from worshipping God. The church is, or should be, an alternative to that world, though oftentimes the church’s unfaithfulness may be worse than the world’s denial that there is a God.
As a people with nothing to lose, we might as well go ahead and live the way Jesus wants us to.
Are you saying that the church, as an alternative, ultimately stands in judgment on the world?
All this sounds like self-righteousness, that we are somehow better than the world. No. God’s original creation is a good creation. This is why we are called to be what that world can be. The church is an eschatological alternative. It has been given gifts that make God’s peaceable kingdom genuinely possible for the world.
So there is hope for the world, and not just for the church.
I seldom think about this. In my view, hope is the couple who just came to the Church of the Holy Family, where I belong, and wanted to be married. We asked them to wait a year before we could determine if they could keep promises, and they did. And now they’re pregnant. That’s hope. Hope is not optimism. It’s the resolve to live within the promises we have made, trusting in surprise.
But many Christians are wringing their hands over the loss of God in society and of our Christian heritage.
Well, I actually think that one of the good things that is happening today is precisely the loss as Christians of our status and power in the wider society. That loss makes us free. We as Christ’s disciples ain’t got nothing to lose anymore. That’s a great advantage because as a people with nothing to lose, we might as well go ahead and live the way Jesus wants us to. We don’t have to be in control or be tempted to use the means of control. We can once again, like the first Christians, be known as that people that don’t bullshit the world. Despair is a sin, and I’m hopeful because being a people of peace is ultimately about God’s victory in the world. It’s not about us.