Posted in Christian ethics

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 2 of 4

Look at any tree. What you see above the ground – branches, leaves – is mirrored underground where we cannot see. So, if a tree’s branches stretch one-hundred feet into the sky, then its roots push one-hundred feet into the earth.

As with trees, so with Stanley Haurwas’ book, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). In an eight chapter book, I’m four chapters in and still the author has only vaguely alluded to peace. Yet it is the ideas in pages 1-71 that will anchor what he has to say in pages 72-151, like the deep roots of a sprawling tree.

In Part 1, we looked at Chapters 1-2. In this post, let’s consider Chapters 3-4. Specifically, let’s take a look at two ideas, namely, his concept of freedom and how Christian community determines our ethics.

Freedom as “the presence of the the other” 

In what sense are we “free”? Stanley Hauwerwas rightly points out that there are many circumstances over which we have no control. He points to a professor of philosophy who was denied tenure, so instead he enrolled in law school and became a successful attorney. While he chose his new path, the roadblock that pushed him to change directions was determined by other forces not of his own making. Because of the reality of causes outside of ourselves, instead of the word “freedom,” Hauerwas (p. 42) substitutes the concept of “agency”:

…to be an agent means I have tried to develop my action within an ongoing history and within the community of language users. Even what has happened to me, my habit of dependency, becomes mine to the extent that I am able to make it part of my story. I am not an agent because I can ’cause’ certain things to happen, but because certain things that happen, whether through the result of my decision or not, can be made mine through my power of attention and inattention.

This “ongoing history” is part of the “narrative” of which each of us is a part. A personal illustration may help. My Uncle Norman grew up alongside my father (Don) in the Pacific Northwest. Yet at a critical juncture in his early 20s, my dad joined the Navy, which relocated him to New Jersey, where he met my mother. And so began a new story, resulting in a new family raised on the East Coast. Meanwhile, his brother, Norm, stayed on the West Coast, married, and raised his own children. Though they are my cousins and we’ve gotten together several times, I realize that they have been brought up with a different narrative, a story with some common elements to my own, but a divergent story nonetheless. So, for both myself and my cousins, important parts of who we are were not our own choice. Neither of us chose our parents, nor where we would grow up. In that sense, none of us were “free.”

But returning to Stanley Hauerwas, he is not willing to say that elements of our environment determine in-full what we become. He observes: “Yet it is the Christian claim that no one is completely determined that he or she lacks all means to respond to the story of God and thus find some means to make his life his or her own” (p. 44).

I agree with the thrust of the author’s argument, but it does raise a question:

To what degree does becoming part of God’s story require a repudiation of our story up to that point? 

Having grown up in a revivalistic tradition, I remember hearing many “testimonies” (as we called them) to what God had done in the lives of individuals. Many testified to a life that was aimless and damaged in some way before coming to Christ, and how much more meaningful and hopeful God had made their lives since that encounter. The most common “narrative” was of radical change. As one who never spent – in the words of the old hymn – “years in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified” – I longed to hear testimonies from those whose stories from the start seemed more aligned with the “story of God,” as Hauerwas called it. Are we willing as a community of faith to affirm not only the “prodigal sons” (and daughters) but also those who never wandered in a far off land? Are not both testimonies of God’s grace at-work in the lives of individuals?

Christian community determines our ethics

Besides the concept of agency, Stanley Hauerwas also explores how community forms our ethics. Hauerwas (p. 60) observes:

By virtue of the distinctive narrative that forms their community, Christians are distinct from the world. They are required to be nothing less than a sanctified people of peace who can live the life of the forgiven. Their sanctification is not meant to sustain the judgment that they are “better” than non-Christians, but rather that they are charged to be faithful to God’s calling of them as foretaste of the kingdom. In this sense sanctification is a life of service and sacrifice that the world cannot account for on its own grounds.

Here is Hauerwas at his best. “Sanctification” (being set apart) is not solely to maintain purity in an unclean world. More importantly, it is character formation for a purpose, with an eye to “service” and “sacrifice.” In other words, personal transformation is not a sufficient end, but is only valuable to the degree that it looks beyond the interests of the individual Christian or even the community of faith to the needs of those on the “outside.”

But how is life in the faith community defined and sustained? The author returns to the importance of narrative, or history. We are “a people of a book” (p. 70). Hauerwas argues that the Christian Scriptures have two main narratives, that of Israel and that of Jesus. He is setting up the rest of his argument, where a focus on the life of Christ will enable him to develop a peaceful ethic. But I wonder if – being a “people of the book” – we can forget the rest of the NT narrative? Will Paul, Peter, and John and the rest of the early Church as presented in the book of Acts have anything to contribute to this Christian story?


What is “freedom”? How does the narrative, the story into which I was born, help determine who I am? These are questions that Stanley Hauerwas addresses, finding a balance between the influence of our history and environment vs. the genuine agency that God has given us, the invitation to participate (by grace) in God’s peaceful story. It is to the exact nature of that peaceful story that Part 3 will turn.



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 2 of 4

  1. Gregory, I have never read this author, but your portrayal of his content is terrific! I’m going to share.

    Not having read your first installment, I would pose this question in response to this second offering. You portray him as speaking of our story before knowing Christ and our becoming a part of His story when we come to Him, but in reality, is it not all His story? Is not all of history in general and my story in particular all a saga of His love and redeptive efforts, of paradise lost and gained?

    1. Thanks, Gary, for your comment. I think I agree with you in a general sense that God is sovereign. Even evil nations like Assyria could be used by God to discipline His people, as we see in the Old Testament. Yet we are not puppets on a string. Though struck down on the road to Damascus, Paul voluntarily become a willing instrument in the hands of Christ. Perhaps we can say that when we willingly fold our stories into God’s that even greater things can happen?

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