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 .

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 3 of 4”

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?

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 2 of 4”

Posted in Christian ethics

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.


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.

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 1 of 4”

Posted in Bible, Christian ethics

Honey, I shrunk the Bible

It was one of the more memorable fun flicks from the ’80s. Wayne Szalinski (played by Rick Moranis) was the mad scientist working on an incredible shrinking ray. Sadly, he only managed to blow things up, until the day his invention worked, accidentally shrinking two of his own children and two of the neighbor’s. The rest of “Honey, I shrunk the kids” revolves around the hapless teens’ attempts to avoid dangers lurking in the lawn while their parents search frantically for their diminutive offspring.

Herein lies a cautionary tale: We can shrink things unintentionally that were never intended to be shrunk. 

Take the Bible, for instance. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve reduced both its size and its function.

Continue reading “Honey, I shrunk the Bible”

Posted in Christian ethics, reflections

Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?

The essence of the Christian faith is love. Rarely, however, do we ask: And what does love require? Jesus answered this question not with a sermon but through his actions. He showed us what love requires during an instructive encounter with a woman unfaithful to her marriage vows (John 8:1-11).  The religious authorities brought her before the Lord. They demanded: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (v.5, ESV).

The reader hardly needs John’s explanation in v.6 to understand that this was a trap. Their target was not the hapless harlot but the teacher whose growing popularity they envied. They knew that if Jesus excused her action that de facto he would be setting aside the seventh commandment, a serious charge against any rabbi. On the other hand, if he concurred with the punishment that these scribes and Pharisees were only too willing to carry out, his popularity with the people would take a major hit. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his “yoke” was “easy” and his “burden” was “light” (Matthew 11:29)? Yet agreeing with their decision would appear to undercut that claim, joining him to those who specialized in piling up laws and interpretations. In the eyes of the common person, Jesus might go from “one of us” to “one of them.”

Continue reading “Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?”

Posted in book reviews, Christian ethics

When rights are secondary: Duty rediscovered

Under guard and carefully preserved in the refrigerated atrium of the National Archives in Washington D.C. are the precious parchments upon which our country was founded. We reverently shuffled past the glass display cases, the low light barely illuminating the faded documents. To the left resides the Declaration of Independence while in the center is the Constitution. As we made our way to the right of the chamber a third document came into view. Dimly visible was the Bill of Rights, the sacred words that make up the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Talk of “rights” is nothing new on the American scene. A course in American history is replete with the concept of rights, whether the rights of slaves to be free, the rights of women to vote or the rights of citizens to have access to affordable health care. But in our rush to claim our rights, more people are beginning to ask:

What is my duty?

Meic Pearse is one such voice. In Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (InterVarsity Press, 2004), he writes to those who have trouble understanding the context that gave rise to the atrocities of September 11, 2001. His argument is far-ranging, but a key plank in his thesis is the “me” orientation of Western (North American and European) culture vs. the “we” perspective of the non-Western world, what Pearse calls “the rest,” i.e. Africa, South America, and Asia. If the West were content to live out its radically individualistic credo without exporting it to the rest of the world, conflict could be avoided. However, in myriad ways, Pearse insists that countries like the United States are engaged in cultural imperialism, imposing our supposed superior values on others. One powerful source for this imperialism is media which includes sources on both sides of the political spectrum. Pearse observes (see Kindle location 1942):

Continue reading “When rights are secondary: Duty rediscovered”

Posted in Christian ethics

“Spider dead” or “Let’s be friends”?

A number of years ago, I was at a family reunion. My brother’s little boy, around two at the time, was seated in his high chair. Just for fun, I pretended that the fingers of my right hand were a hairy spider. “Spider’s coming to get you!” I warned. Without a second thought, Clay tightened his fist and slammed it down on the “spider.” With glee, he pronounced:

” Spider dead!”

That was what I’d expected him to do, since I’d played the game dozens of times with my own sons when they were younger. I wasn’t prepared for Gabrielle, his older sister. When my finger-spider inched toward her, with my usual verbal warning, she made a finger spider of her own, and inched it out toward mine. In a high-pitched voice, obviously the voice of the arachnid, she replied:

“Let’s be friends!”

And that, my friends, is why our world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Armies roam the world, sent by powerful male politicians wanting to play “spider dead.” How many wars are there going on right now in Africa alone, with all its countries (except Liberia) ruled by male Presidents?

Enough suffering. Let’s give the women a try. Maybe it’s time for “Let’s be friends.” It can’t be any worse.

Posted in Christian ethics, reflections

Is the death penalty Christian? (part 2)

Any argument against the death penalty sooner of later must stare-down the “tough cases.” None is tougher than Timothy McVeigh. On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m., he detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168, including 19 children in an on-site daycare center. When all was said and done, more than 680 were injured. Damage to buildings, vehicles and other property was estimated at $ 652 million dollars. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, never having shown any remorse for his heinous act.

The purpose of this essay is not to cause grief or pain to the many who lost loved ones on that tragic day. Rather, it is to question whether any punishment meted out by authorities could ever be sufficient in such cases. Can the execution of one man ever balance out the scales of justice in the face of such suffering? Surely it cannot. If this be true, then the door is open to asking a Christian question: What other form of response can speak a word of Gospel without at the same time condoning sin of the highest order, or taking the grief of the grieving lightly?

Continue reading “Is the death penalty Christian? (part 2)”

Posted in Christian ethics, reflections

Is the death penalty Christian? (Part 1)

Extremism is loose in the land. On May 15, 2010, a Christian punk rock group from Minnesota, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, caused a stir when their front man, Bradlee Dean, opined that Muslims who execute homosexuals “…seem to be more moral than even the American Christians…” The full context of his on-air radio comments – via audio clip – is available here.

Bradlee Dean’s remarks have been roundly condemned, and none too soon. Exodus International, a Christian ministry to gay individuals seeking another path, characterized his comments as “powerfully irresponsible” and “incomplete theology.”  While most Christians – including my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene – interpret the Bible as prohibiting sexual acts between those of the same gender (Romans 1:26-32), the apostle Paul also holds out the possibility of a God-given new start for those wanting one, including the gay individual (1 Cor. 6:9-11). On the other hand, Dean’s rant knows nothing of gospel, of good news. Instead, his version of Christianity is bad news, singling out one class of persons for special judgment, misusing Leviticus 20:13 as a none-too-subtle call to target gays.

Continue reading “Is the death penalty Christian? (Part 1)”