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Paths to Peace

Theologian’s feisty faith challenges status quo

Silk Hope, N.C.

Stanley Hauerwas sat on the hand-me-down couch at the far end of the living room. His audience, a collection of Christian activists, many of whom had driven more than an hour to the talk, crammed into the kitchen, dining room, living room and two adjoining bedrooms of the Silk Hope, N.C., Catholic Worker House to spend a couple of hours in February listening to the man Time magazine calls, “America’s best theologian.”

Before last year, Hauerwas, a Duke Divinity School professor of theological ethics, lived in relative obscurity. While he has been revered for decades among some who study theology, Hauerwas was not a household name, not even in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., area, where he has lived and taught for 18 years. Last year, Hauerwas became the first U.S. theologian in 40 years to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, theology’s equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize.

Hauerwas lost most of his anonymity last year when a story about him appeared in the edition of Time that hit newsstands on Sept. 11. The story, headlined “Christian contrarian,” seemed by divine design. As a shocked, angry and grieving nation yearned for bloody revenge, along came Hauerwas, a Christian pacifist who spoke in Time of his disdain for nationalism, and his utter disappointment with an American church that fails to instruct its adherents in basic gospel values.

Following Sept. 11, Hauerwas, a Methodist, was flooded with interview requests. He was on the Oprah show, and quoted in The New York Times. While U.S. bombs were bursting in midair, Hauerwas, known for his salty tongue, was not about to crawl in the crowded hole full of those reluctant to speak out amid a post- 9/11 hysteria that left virtually no room for dissent.

Christian nonviolence -- even in the face of terrorism -- “is not a strategy to rid the world of war,” Hauerwas said, “but rather, as faithful followers of Jesus, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent in a world of war.”

Hauerwas has a knack for broaching subjects others won’t touch. Forget labels. Hauerwas is antiwar, anti-death penalty and antiabortion. In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term “American imperialism” matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls “the loneliness of the American people,” a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.

“On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments,” Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. “Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.”

Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, Hauerwas says, but “so were the people that supported the Nazis.”

Hauerwas said he worries about “how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence. ... most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.”

While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives.

“A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for.”

Hauerwas respects those who allow for Christians to fight a “just war.” However, he knows of no war that has met the rigid just-war criteria. He also rejects postwar celebrations that include rituals like the display of yellow ribbons by the victors.

“In the past when Christians killed in a just war, it was understood they should be in mourning,” Hauerwas said in an interview in Duke Magazine. “They had sacrificed their unwillingness to kill. Black, not yellow, was the appropriate color. Indeed, in the past when Christian soldiers returned from a just war, they were expected to do penance for three years before being restored to the Eucharist.

“That we now find that to be unimaginable is but an indication how hard it is for us to imagine what it might mean to be Christian.”

A Texas native with a doctorate from Yale, Hauerwas has braced himself for the long haul where those with prophetic views will have to endure the kinds of scorn and persecution the Bible promises. Besides, given the choice between worldly scorn and God’s wrath, Hauerwas is a Christian who knows where his loyalties must lie.

“This is the first time we may have to pay some costs for being Christian pacifists because it makes people mad,” he said.

Another consequence of 9/11, said Hauerwas, is evident in what he sees as a new political correctness, one that has no association with the postmodern left. There are “speech codes” in place that don’t allow for any “critical edge,” said the author who’s best-known book is appropriately titled Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas said American Christians are “more American than ... Christian.” In the Duke Magazine interview, Hauerwas said the current identification of God and country is deeply troubling.

“Let me be as clear as I can be, the God of ‘God and country’ is not the God of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Yet this is not a development that began with Sept. 11. One of the issues before American Christianity is whether the God we worship is the God of Jesus Christ.

“American Christians simply lack the disciplines necessary to discover how being Christian might make them different,” he said.

While the resurrection story is one of triumph for the Christian, Hauerwas doesn’t want people to forget allegiance to Jesus includes being “united with him in his death.”

Hauerwas understands that true Christian pacifism may carry a heavy price.

“Christians must be ready to die, indeed have their children die, rather than betray the gospel. ... Christians are not called to be heroes. We are called to be holy.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002