Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 1 of 4

Over the years, I’ve had a knack for coming in on the middle of a conversation, and consequently totally misunderstanding its meaning.

Such is the danger of writing in 2012 about The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). So much has already been said over the last 29 years about this early work by Stanley Hauerwas. It’s a conversation I’ve missed,  but in a strange way, that’s an advantage. I come at the work untainted by what others have written about Hauerwas, free to engage his writing directly, without the undue influence of others.

Background

Stanley Hauerwas is a professor of theological ethics at Duke University, shared between the Divinity and Law schools. His later book, A Community of Character (1991), is widely considered his best, laying out a Christian social ethic informed by the community of faith.

Professor Hauerwas has acknowledged the influence of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder on his own thinking. That debt was apparent not only in Peaceable Kingdom but also in Hauerwas’ scathing assessment of what he perceived to be American imperialism in foreign policy. This critique he delivered in a zealous but rambling address to a lukewarm audience at the 40th annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society in March 2005, a meeting that I attended and where Hauerwas was the keynote speaker.

Herein lies part of my motivation for carefully reading through The Peaceable Kingdom. In it, I hope to find the answer to my sincere question:

What led a man of his academic stature to risk alienating a room filled with members his own guild, over what some viewed as a matter of political opinion rather than of Christian faith? 

This four part series will examine the 1983 book, analyzing two chapters at a time. Accordingly, this first installment will weigh the major themes from Chapters 1-2.

Laying the foundation for a narrative Christian ethic

Christian ethics usually falls under two headings:

1. deontological — Emphasis is upon duty, and there is an accent upon rules, standards for behavior gleaned especially from the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or other moral guidelines contained in Scripture.

2. teleological — Here the focus is not so much on rules as the end (Greek telos) or objective being sought.

Stanley Hauwerwaus attempts to side-step this either/or approach by introducing a new variable, namely, narrative. He contends: “We know who we are only when we can place our selves – locate our stories – within God’s story” (p. 27). Why should understanding the role of story and our place within in have anything to say about how we live? Hauerwas (p. 28) gives three reasons. First, we are contingent beings, dependent (as is all creation) upon God for our existence. Secondly, we are historical beings. Tradition develops over time, but especially within the context of a community of faith. Finally, narrative is crucial because God has chosen to reveal Godself through narrative, particularly through the story of Israel and the life of Jesus.

The author’s claims raise questions. If ethics are determined within the context of community, then we might ask:

What do we do when two communities draw opposite conclusions about what is morally correct?

This is no hypothetical situation. Groups of Mormons have concluded that having multiple wives is not only morally acceptable but even desirable. At the same time, the consensus of American society in the 1800s was that having multiple wives was morally wrong. Two different communities drew two divergent conclusions. In the end, Mormons had to give way on the issue, if they wanted Utah to be admitted into the Union as one of the states.

A second concern about Hauerwas’ methodology touches upon the final point, namely, that the narrative surrounding Israel and the life of Christ must inform our ethics. Perhaps in the rest of the book he will clarify this, but my initial reaction is that different faith traditions have drawn different lessons from events in the life of Christ. A good example is Jesus’ encounter with the rich, young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). Saint Francis saw in this passage a mandate for not only he but those who wished to join the Franciscans to give up worldly wealth. Others, however, have interpreted the passage in a broader sense, that we must be willing to give up whatever it is that is our idol. For some, this could be wealth, yet for others, it is likely to be something else. What counts is that God is first. So we see that a simple story is interpreted differently by various groups. This gives pause as Hauerwas lays the groundwork for his Christian ethical theory with an emphasis upon the Gospels. Is there any guarantee that we can reach unanimity about how those stories should be applied?

A final element worth mentioning in chapters 1-2 is sin. Stanley Hauerwas (p. 31) observes:

The story Christians tell of God exposes the unwelcome fact that I am a sinner. For without such a narrative the fact and nature of sin cannot help but remain hidden in self-deception. Only a narrative that helps me place myself as a creature of a gracious God can provide the skills to help me locate my sin as fundamentally infidelity and rebellion. As a creature I have been crafted for loyalty – loyalty to the truth, to the love that moves the sun and stars and yet is found on a cross – but I find myself serving any powers but the true one in the hopes of being my own lord. The ironic result is that by seeking to possess I become possessed.

I’m glad to see Hauerwas acknowledge early on that sin is part of the larger picture of Christian ethics. It will be interesting to see how this factors in with what (I expect, judging by the book’s title) will be arguments for pacifism. How can a pacifistic ethic be worked out in a world that is fallen, a slave to sin? Does such an ethic take seriously enough the depraved nature of the human being?

Conclusion

Chapters 1-2 broadly trace the contours of Christian ethics, and hint at the content of coming chapters. Join me in the journey as together we continue our study of The Peaceable Kingdom.

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