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.