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Paths to Peace

Excerpts from Hauerwas

The essential presupposition of peacemaking as an activity among Christians is our common belief that we have been made part of a community in which people no longer regard their lives as their own. We are not permitted to harbor our grievances as “ours.” When we think our brother or sister has sinned against us, such an affront is not just against us but against the whole community. A community established as peaceful cannot afford to let us relish our sense of being wronged without exposing that wrong in the hopes of reconciliation. We must learn to see wrongs as “personal” because we are part of a community where the “personal” is crucial to the common good.

It is an unpleasant fact, however, that most of our lives are governed more by our hates and dislikes than by our loves. I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate. It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?

* * *

One of the deep difficulties for people in the United States is what I call the Groucho Marx Principle. Groucho Marx said he wouldn’t want to belong to a country club that would have him for a member. The same problem holds true in making moral choices. Would you want a moral life that you’ve created? Most people wouldn’t, so cynicism has become the primary virtue of U.S. public life. Cynicism ensures that there’s absolutely nothing worth dedicating one’s life to in a way that totally encompasses it. One always wants to be able to dissociate oneself from one’s engagements at any given moment.

A way to counter this cynicism is to point out some of the delusions we have about choice in our lives. For example, in a marriage course I used to teach at the University of Notre Dame, I always gave the students one absolute they could write down and put in their pockets; when times got tough they could pull it out and say, “God, it’s great to have an absolute to guide my life.” My absolute was that you always marry the wrong person. It’s a reversible absolute, though: You also always marry the right person. The point is we don’t know who we are marrying.

That absolute is meant to challenge the presumption that a person’s life is fundamentally a matter of choice. It’s a matter of choice, but often one doesn’t know what one is choosing. That’s where fidelity comes in. A couple marrying must be willing to make a promise although neither person knows exactly what kind of promise is being made.

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Look what happened to Catholics in the United States. They struggled like hell to make it and finally saw John F. Kennedy elected president. Any Catholic of that generation will tell you how important it was that Kennedy became president. Catholics all over the world rejoiced, but I say it was their day of shame -- particularly when Kennedy told a group of Southern Baptists in Houston that he would follow his conscience and not the Roman Catholic church. Catholics said, “See, it is possible to be American and Catholic.”

But then what happened? Abortion happened. Catholics were forced to ask themselves, “What is this society that we just bought into?” It turned out to be a society that is going to kill its kids. Abortion is not some little mistake. Abortion is a reflection of who Americans are: People in the United States are supposed to concentrate on themselves and pursue happiness; thus, they ask themselves, “Why should we bother having children?”

Reprinted from The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright. Duke University Press, 2001.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002