Posted in Christian ethics

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 3 of 4

G.K. Chesterton wryly remarked: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” What is true for Christianity is equally true for pacifism.

Let’s face it: violence sells. What would a James Bond movie be without silencer-fitted handguns taking out the “bad guys” and explosives detonating every 20 minutes? No one makes action figures of Mahatma Gandhi.

It is upstream against this strong cultural current that Stanley Hauerwas is determined to swim. Chapters 5-6 of The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983) form the heart of his argument. Much more is packed into these chapters than can be addressed here, but let us examine three ideas, namely, Jesus’ denial of the “right of violence,” the church as God’s “sanctified people,” and just war theory.

Jesus’ denial of the “right of violence”

Without question, the Sermon on the Mount is the most challenging portion of the gospels to put into action. Yet it is here in Chapter 5 of The Peaceable Kingdom where Stanley Hauerwas teases out the implications of non-violence. Commenting on Matthew 5:43-48, he insists (p. 85):

God wills nothing less than that men and women should love their enemies and forgive one another; thus will we be perfect as God is perfect. Jesus challenged both the militaristic and ritualistic notions of what God’s kingdom required – the former by denying the right of violence even if attacked, and the latter by his steadfast refusal to be separated from those on the “outside.”

Jesus was not creating a peaceful ethic out of whole cloth. Isaiah 11:6-9 is the image of the “peaceable kingdom,” of the wolf lying down with the lamb, of God’s holy mountain where lions will eat straw like an ox and where children play near a snake’s nest without fear of harm. Yet how shall this idyllic estate be attained? For Hauerwas, violence as a “right” must be eschewed and can be because the resurrection – “God’s decisive eschatological act” (p. 88) – establishes peace not in some far off future but as a “present reality” (Ibid.). The Sermon on the Mount contains “rigorous demands” but is not “some unrealizable ideal” (p. 85). Because Christians “worship a resurrected Lord, we can take the risk of love”(p. 90). This love is embodied in forgiveness, the only way that we can renounce violence.

The ethic of loving forgiveness is imaginable on a personal basis, and there are stories to bear it out, such as parents of a slain child eventually being able to forgive the guilty party. Here Hauerwas is on solid ground experientially. Where it becomes murkier is relationships between groups or nations. Is a peace ethic workable when so much is at-stake? Cannot “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” mean practicing a love that “protects” (1 Cor. 13:7)?

Yet Hauerwas seems to realize that ethical theory is insufficient. As the old saying affirms, some things are better “caught than taught.” The peaceable kingdom is best modeled not individually by corporately by the winsome lifestyle of the people of God .

The church as God’s “sanctified people”

Chapter 5 explicated the way of non-violence as not only prescribed by the Sermon on the Mount but inaugurated when God raised Jesus from the dead. Now in Chapter 6, Stanley Hauerwas turns to a description of the community of faith as the embodiment of the peaceful ethic. Here, he employs the language of sanctification (p. 97, italics added):

The church is not the kingdom but the foretaste of the kingdom. For it is in the church that the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible. The church must be the clear manifestation of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and of course, most of all, God. There can be no sanctification of individuals without a sanctified people. We need examples and masters, and if we are without either, the church cannot exist as a people who are pledged to be different from the world.

Hauwerwas is not writing a book on Christian doctrine. Nonetheless, he has touched upon a grossly neglected point in biblical theology generally, and in Wesleyan theology particularly. We preach an individualistic salvation, that God wants to save me and sanctify me. But what would it look like for God to sanctify us? Hauerwas develops this point by speaking of God’s “holy people” as those who maintain a life of “charity, hospitality, and justice” (p. 109). Importantly, he remarks: “The kind of holiness that marks the church, however, is not that of moral perfection, but the holiness of a people who have learned not to fear one another and thus are capable of love” (p. 110). This rings true with the teaching of John Wesley, who summed up the essence of holiness as love of God and neighbor.

On the concept of a “just war” 

While Stanley Hauwerwas capably lays out the argument of a Christian ethic of peace, his response at the end of chapter 6 to what is commonly called “just war theory” is shallow. In the context of “freedom” and “justice,” he acknowledges the logic of a government (state) that “uses violence to restrain those who have no respect for the lives and rights of other people in that society” (p. 114). To use the colorful turn-of- phrase from a friend, “There is only one cure for a rabid animal.” Regarding the use of force to prevent a greater evil, Hauerwas admits that no one “can easily dismiss the power of this position” (p. 114). Yet he laments that we too quickly turn to violence when faced with violence, and that “it stills the imaginative search for non-violent ways of resistance to injustice” (Ibid.).

Here we have come full circle back to G.K. Chesterton’s quote that began this essay. In the words of the Vietnam anti-war song, have we ever really given peace a chance? Yet must we choose one option or the other? Is it not possible within the framework of a single foreign policy to hold in tension theories regarding the peaceful resolution of conflict and just war theory?


Stanley Hauerwas ably presents pacifism arising from a Christian ethic. Consistent with that ethic, he puts the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus front-and-center, a Jesus who – by denying the “right of violence” – pointed to a better way. This peaceful ethic, however, is not so much an individual ethic as a corporate ethic for the people of God, a people “sanctified” in order to model the meaning of loving forgiveness. Though so-called “just war” cannot be easily dismissed, neither should it obscure the possibilities of a more peaceful path pioneered by Christ himself. Does God in Christ call the people of God to this difficult path? Hauerwas answers with a resounding “yes!” In this age of terrorism, how will we answer?


Join us next Saturday for the conclusion of this four-part series on The Peaceable Kingdom, looking at Chapters 7-8, examining specific applications of a Christian ethic of peace.



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

4 thoughts on “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 3 of 4

  1. I struggle with the ‘Just War Theory’. If we do accept both able to exist in tension, then we have to also accept limitations on being transformed and the transforming influence of God…. almost an acceptance of God not having the power/influence to change some things…. I do accept that humanity is flawed deeply and that some will remain so, but we should still strive for the ideal….

    I think we will be judged on our attitude and approach to these difficult situations rather than how successful we are at getting the final result of peace. I Like the series Greg.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree with everything you’ve written here, Andrew. In some ways, pacifism is an extension of one’s thoughts on capital punishment, since they both deal with retaliation for violence. You know that I’m opposed to capital punishment, but on that and on pacifism, it’s hard to apply a Christian peace ethic consistently. Like you said, it’s an ideal toward which we strive.

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