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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?

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