An Honored Prophet
Stanley Hauerwas: “America’s Best Theologian”
by Mark Tooley
Stanley Hauerwas was declared America’s “best theologian” by Time magazine shortly before September 11, 2001. Since then the debate within America’s religious community over the morality of war has only magnified his fame—or his notoriety. Hauerwas, from his perch at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, is also America’s most influential Christian pacifist.
He is largely orthodox theologically and robustly critical of theological liberalism. But his condemnation of American patriotism, distaste for religious conservatives, frequent resort to profanity, and ambivalence about homosexuality have prevented his being an ally to evangelicals in his own United Methodist denomination.
A chronic and colorful contrarian, Hauerwas is in continuous battle mode against liberalism, which he discerns not only in the Social Gospel or the Jesus Seminar, but also in capitalism, the modern nation-state, democracy, and the United States in particular. “The God that is called forward to God Bless America is not the God of Jesus Christ,” he often says. “I think President Bush represents the privatized form of Christianity that revels in how important Jesus is for them but wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do if they followed any of the radical demands of the Gospel.”
In typical fashion, Hauerwas publicly asked after September 11 why the world shouldn’t “be mad at us,” given that the United States had “sponsored” a “regime of torture” in Chile. After all, he pointed out, September 11 was the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s overthrow by Augusto Pinochet. He did not explain why Islamic fanatics might have sympathized with Allende, who was Marxist.
Hauerwas contrasted the September 11 terrorists who died “as an expression of their profound moral commitments,” with the American people, who were asked by their leaders to go shopping to revive the economy. “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” he told the National Catholic Reporter, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for.”
With questionable accuracy, Hauerwas complained that President Bush, at the National Cathedral prayer service held shortly after September 11, had “reiterated in the midst of an Episcopal Mass that we were going to take vengeance.” (Bush actually said: “This conflict was begun on the timing of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”) More recently he alleged that the United States has “bombed Afghanistan back to the Stone Age.” He has called the US atomic bombing of Japan during World War II “terrorist acts.” But he claims not to be especially concerned about developing sophisticated political commentary. As he likes to say, “I don’t have a foreign policy. I have a church.”
Nevertheless, on the one-year anniversary of September 11, Hauerwas edited Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11, which is largely devoted to opposing the US war against terrorism. With his co-editor, Hauerwas wrote, “This war has seen the capitulation of church and synagogue to the resurgence of American patriotism and nationalism.” Though stressing that they “abominate” terrorism, they wrote, “We find it unacceptably childish that Americans refuse to take any responsibility for September 11.”
In Hauerwas’s world, the Church is a perfectionist model for the rest of the world to emulate. But neither the Church nor Christians as individuals are called to change the world through political reform, at least not in America, according to him. Indeed, to do so is a betrayal of the gospel in favor of the false gods of democratic, majoritarian rule, of which the United States is the embodiment.
Hauerwas says he has no problem with a patriotism that is rooted in a specific history and land. “Patriotism in most countries is associated with thankfulness to forbearers that made life possible, to a past that has given a tradition of worth,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. But he cannot be an American patriot because the “United States doesn’t want you to be loyal to a land or to a history. It wants you to be loyal to ideals. And those ideals are universal.” Those ideals are also, to Hauerwas, repugnant.
“The kind of patriotism that we see in America cannot help but be a kind of imperialism,” he explains. “It says, ‘This is really what you would want if you were thinking clearly.’ I think that’s deeply perverse.” In his way of thinking, American patriotism is intertwined with the global promotion of liberal democracy and capitalism. He often refuses to sing the National Anthem.
Hauerwas’s pacifism and his anti-Americanism have alienated him from much of the Church, he readily admits, which makes him “deeply sad.” But he is often unsparing in his critique of American Christians who do not share his views. “Most American Christians, they are blank-check people,” he charged while appearing on Oprah after September 11. “Whoever the democratically elected president asks us to go kill, we go kill them.” He said that Americans hope to overcome their sense of violation through “identification with the cause of democracy,” which is “very dangerous.” When Americans sense fragility, they become “repressive,” he warned in an interview with Zion’s Herald.
Often Hauerwas’s promotion of Christian political withdrawal seems more Amish than Methodist, and he has called himself a “high-church Mennonite.” He admits that some have called him a “sectarian fideistic tribalist.” Sometimes he calls himself “ecclesiastically homeless.” Raised a Methodist in a Texas blue-collar family, Hauerwas decided in favor of the academy over the ordained ministry. While teaching at Notre Dame, he pondered becoming a Roman Catholic. But he insists he is still a United Methodist.
“You have to stay with the people who harmed you,” he told the Charlotte News Observer. “The Methodists left their mark on me. They’ve got to take responsibility for it.” Though carrying the Methodist mark, Hauerwas now attends an Episcopal congregation that apparently shares his pacifist inclinations.
Although irascible in his rhetoric, Hauerwas’s gregarious personality, eager role as mentor and friend, icon-oclastic attitude, and prolific writing habits have earned him a zealous following among the seminary students at Duke University and among the young clergy who have studied under him. He likes to tell them, “I don’t want you to think for yourselves. I want you to think like me.” That way of thinking inevitably includes Hauerwas’s sharp critiques of American democracy and free enterprise.
According to the salty Hauerwas, capitalism produces “sh—y people.” “Greed has always existed, but this is the first time the system encourages it as a virtue,” he says about the American economy. The world’s poverty can be blamed in part on America’s wealth. He lays the fault for abortion, divorce, and euthanasia on capitalism’s insistence on choice and individualism.
Instead of offering an economic alternative to capitalism, his concern is focused on the Church as community. Christians who are attempting to develop an economic policy, or a foreign policy, or almost any kind of political witness have potentially sold out to “Constantinianism.”
Relishing the disdain of both conservatives and liberals, Hauerwas explains that liberals are “right to hate me, because I represent for them a recovery of unapologetic Christian speech that’s doing work.” He has described theological liberalism as “Protestant pietism gone to seed” because of its hyper-individualism.
Conservatives dislike him, Hauerwas believes, because they “continue to let their views about Christian salvation be policed by their democratic presuppositions. And so they want to have their Jesus without the implications, for example, for living nonviolently.”
Hauerwas traces his pacifism to Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder who “stunned” him with his argument that “nonviolence cannot be separate from Christology.” As Hauerwas explains it, as interpreted from Yoder, “Nonviolence is the way that God has redeemed the world through cross and resurrection.” “I am a pacifist because I believe nonviolence is a necessary condition for a politics not based on death or determined by the fear of death,” he recently wrote in The Other Side. “Because I am a pacifist, the American ‘we’ will never be my ‘me.’”
When he refused to jump on the “patriotic bandwagon for war” after September 11, Hauerwas recalls a friend wondering if he were not disdaining all “natural loyalties” that bind human beings. Hauerwas admits he pondered whether that might not be right. But then he replied that his friend, as a Christian, should also disdain “natural loyalties.” Baptized believers must be prepared to die rather than “betray the gospel.”
Faithfulness to the gospel requires adamant resistance to American democracy and its inevitable imperialism. “The United States is a country that lives off the moral capital of our wars,” Hauerwas wrote for The Other Side. War is a “moral necessity for a nation of consumers.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans need a “common enemy” to make sense of their national identity. “Now, we can fight the war against terrorism,” Hauerwas wrote. “We can kill, something we are very good at, though we often fail to acknowledge how accomplished we are at it.” Even better, this is the “best kind of war” because it has no end, he believes.
As a nation that “has no time for the poor” and “no space to worry about the extraordinary inequities that constitute this society or about those parts of the world ravaged by hunger and genocide,” the United States will “subordinate everything,” including both law and civil liberties, to win its war, Hauerwas warns. The Church must witness against “this current convulsion of militarism” and the “frightening power” of “US militarism,” he implores. But he admits he is struggling against a deeply ingrained American reliance upon an “extraordinary sacrificial system” that offers up its sacrifices to the “wrong god—Mars.”
Unlike most Americans, Christians “believe the ultimate sacrifice has been made, and you don’t have to repeat it over and over again in the name of nations,” Hauerwas explained in an interview with Lingua Franca. “In a world of war, pacifist is the only way Christians can be,” he said. “God chose to respond to evil by dying on the cross. I need to be nonviolent because that’s what God was.”
Though Hauerwas claims that his brand of Christianity is rooted in the New Testament, many of his theological idiosyncrasies seem not to pre-date his favorite theologian, Yoder, or the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. “Deeply ingrained in our own theological development was the Vietnamese War,” he admits in his book Resident Aliens, which he co-authored with fellow Duke professor Will Willimon. “Our grandest illusions about ourselves led to the greatest horrors of our history. We killed the native Americans, we bombed the North Vietnamese for the very best of American reasons” but in a “dishonorable war.” (But Hauerwas also points out that he did not become a pacifist until the 1970s.)
Hauerwas calls himself an “unapologetic Enlightenment basher” in his book A Better Hope. He rejects “inalienable rights” and is tired of the “futile project” to show that “freedom of the individual can be reconciled with equality.” He still insists that, “I love the land and people called American,” and he denies advocating full Christian withdrawal from social and political involvement.
Hauerwas likes to style himself as a unique voice that rejects the compromises of American culture. But secular media coverage of him is universally positive, and he is routinely acclaimed by religious and secular pundits, the Time magazine accolade being among the most recent. Perhaps Hauerwas is not as counter-cultural as he likes to believe.
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“An Honored Prophet” first appeared in the April 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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