Posted in Christian ethics

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 4 of 4

“You can be committed to the Church but not committed to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ and not committed to the Church.” So said Joel Osteen.

Exactly why the church is important is unclear from Pastor Osteen’s quote. Such is not the case for Stanley Hauerwas. Like Osteen, he sees a large place for the church, but Hauerwas ties it directly to how we develop Christian ethics, particularly the ethic of non-violence.

In previous posts, we examined ideas from Chapters 1-6 of Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). In this final essay, we turn to two ideas gleaned from Chapters 7-8, namely, the role of the Church in forging a Christian ethic and the “grace of doing one thing.”

Christian community and moral convictions

In earlier chapters, Stanley Hauerwas insisted that the Peaceable Kingdom was not about just any ethic, but the Christian ethic. The Christian ethic – in distinction from ethics that could be formed in other communities – is hammered out in a community with a unique story. The Christian community was brought into being by reflecting upon the story of Israel (Old Testament) and the life of Christ (New Testament) and continues to embody the ramifications of those stories. This narrative element is crucial in understanding Hauerwas’ methodology. The Christian ethic is modeled in positive ways by the life of the community, through the actions of individuals in the context of the group.  As an example, Hauerwas introduces the topic of abortion, observing about the positive modeling of community (p. 119):

…you learn about the value of life, and in particular human life that comes in the form of our children, because your community and your parents acting on behalf of your community, do not practice abortion. Therefore the negative prohibitions of a community though they often appear to apply to anyone because of their minimal character (e.g., do not murder) in fact gain their intelligibility from that community’s more substantive and positive practices. Prohibitions are the markers for the outer limits of the communal self-understandings. In short, they tell us that if we do this or no longer disapprove of that, we will no longer be living out the tradition that originally formed us.

Across the years, Christian pro-life activists who carry their young babes-in-arms as they converge on Washington, D.C. for a demonstration have been roundly criticized for exposing their children at a tender age to a decidedly untender topic. Yet looking at Hauerwas’ principle, this instead is arguably the community of faith affirming: “Here is the positive embodiment of what we think about children and their value.” In other words, we first as the people of God tell the positive story. We model first for all what is helpful and right and only later by inference does what is destructive and wrong become clear, in the light of our “story.”

As a dad, when my sons were young, I carried on the tradition that my dad had practiced with me and my brother. Every night at bed time, he would tuck us in and say prayers with us, but not until he told us a story of “Blackie and Whitie.”  He always began the same way: “Once upon a time, there were two rabbits. Their names were Blackie and Whitie, and they were brothers.” (Those last four words – and they were brothers – was all my dad ever had to say about race relations. We’re brothers — that says enough). And so I told my sons Blackie and Whitie stories. Some nights I really got into it. Their adventures were well thought out and exciting! Other nights, I’ll admit that I was in a hurry, and I told the story poorly. At those times, I fulfilled my fatherly duty, but barely and with little enthusiasm.

How well are we as the people of God telling the story? In our relations with the poor and the oppressed, have we done our bare minimum to salve our conscience, telling the story of love poorly by acting in perfunctory rather than genuine ways? In this way, have we unwittingly given permission to even members of the Christian community to permit discriminatory policies that keep the marginalized “out of sight, out of mind”? Having modeled self-less love only half-heartedly, are we at a loss as a community to oppose – or to use Hauwerwas’ term, to “prohibit” – societal practices that keep the oppressed mired in a hopeless situation?

The “grace of doing one thing”

In the closing pages of The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas returns to the theme of pacifism. Following twelve pages addressing objections to the pacifistic ethic, he introduces a key understanding: Even if we cannot do everything to bring in the Peaceable Kingdom, we can at least do something. He insists (p. 150):

No, we must remember that violence that provides the resources for the powers of the world to do their work lies in each of our souls. That does not mean that we can begin only by changing hearts and then, later, look to wider structural issues. Indeed that is a false dichotomy, since our hearts are also within the wider structure. Rather it means that I do not have to think about doing everything or nothing; I do not have to begin by trying to “solve” the real problem. Instead I can take the time to do one thing that might help lead myself and others to God’s peace.

Last Spring, my wife and I walked our legs off in Washington, D.C. We saw many amazing things, including Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” the Declaration of Independence, and the Lincoln Memorial. But one of my favorite souvenirs did not come in the gift shop of the Smithsonian. Rather, it hung on a modest building that sits behind the nation’s Capitol. It’s message is simple: “War is not the answer.”

I have a nephew in the Marines and another about to join the Navy. Often, I pray for their protection, but it strikes me that the best way for them to keep safe is for our world to remain peaceful. When the sabres start rattling, and the rhetoric heats up, my D.C. peace photo goes on my FaceBook banner. It’s a token gesture, for sure, but I’d like to think it’s the “one thing,” the small, peaceable gesture that Stanley Hauerwas was talking about. Like St. Francis, I, too, pray: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace!”


And so we reach the end of this four-part series, examining The Peaceable Kingdom. Stanley Hauerwas presents a minority position in today’s world with audacity. He dares believe that the Sermon on the Mount is not an unattainable ideal, but a blueprint from God for the People of God. I wonder: Are we willing to pay the price to build that kind of Kingdom, that kind of world? My head says that Hauerwas is only a lone voice, crying in the wilderness, but my heart dares to hope and to pray otherwise: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”



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

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