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An Interview with Stanley Hauerwas

TOJ: In his book, Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout says that “no theologian has done more to inflame Christian resentment of secular political culture” than you have. What is at stake for you in arguing for the church to come out of its immersion in secular culture?

Stanley Hauerwas: Well, the Gospel is what I think is at stake. Part of Jeff’s mistake, I think (and I really admire the book) is he thinks I have been writing for him. I’m not mad at liberals who want to perform some procedural form of democracy. What I am upset about are Christians who think that is their primary task in the world in which we find ourselves. And I want them to remember that our first task is to be the church of Jesus Christ, that’s our politics. And that doesn’t necessarily name Democracy. I always say, ‘it’s unclear who started looking like who first, if Texas politicians started looking like Southern Baptist Pastors or Southern Baptist Pastors started looking like Texas politicians’, but, the church always copies the forms of politics that it finds surrounding it. And I think that Americans copy the politics of what they see as part of the economic and political system within the church and as a result they think that they have a relationship to God which they go to have expressed by the church, rather than the church is the necessary medium through which they find whatever relationship with God, that God makes for us.

TOJ: While Stout says that you offer a prophetic “No” as did Barth and Bonhoeffer did in their time, to the church’s accommodation to theological and political liberalism, he says that “there is little in your work that resembles Barth’s active commitment to democracy and social reform.” What do you see as some concrete examples of ways forward for the church regarding social reform, if any, while remaining faithful?

Stanley Hauerwas: That’s a good question. I always think that the way you start being the witness in the world at which you find yourself is the Church asked to care for the poor, to care for the widow, to care for the orphan… and we do that, we need to do that. Unfortunately, I think that many liberal Christians today think that the way you do that is we are on the liberal democratic side to ask the State to do that, so we don’t need to do that. So I would like to think that the wider public, if we did it well, in caring for our poor that we find among us, would then say ‘that’s pretty good we need to copy that.’ I mean people forget, for example, that the hospitals came out of Christian discoveries that we don’t want to let people die alone. And the wider society took that up, now, and hospitals have become a place that people think ensures that we will never have to die. And so you get those kinds of reversals that Christians must always be sensitive towards.

And I must say that I’m a pacifist, and I want the Church to help this society to find ways to be less violent. I’m always in favor of.

TOJ: In your book, Truthfulness and Tragedy, you used the poignant story of Albert Speer, who was a German architect that designed concentration camps, to demonstrate the human susceptibility to self-deception. Where is self-deception most prevalent in the church today, and what would it take for the church to see itself more truthfully?

Stanley Hauerwas: Well first off, Speer was trained to be an architect, who Hitler discovered, and who wanted to design these mammoth architectural monuments that Hitler thought would be very important to suggest what the character of the 3rd Reich was. And they even figured in what the ruin factor would look like 3,000 years out. They were thinking about, you know, the Egyptian monuments and the pyramids and that sort of thing. It was a monomaniacal kind of vision they had.

Speer got pulled in to the Nazi’s even more fully by becoming Hitler’s minister of armaments. He was very good at organizational work, and so some people think that Speer was so good at what he did that he made the war last another year, because he kept figuring out ways for Germans to get parts for their tanks and that kind of thing.

As far as we’re concerned, it’s very interesting, self-deception is not self-lying, because if you were lying to yourself you would know that you are lying to yourself. Self-deception names being under the power of a power, that makes it impossible to acknowledge the engagement that you are in, that is being unfaithful to the worship of God. For example take the simple statement, “America is a land of Freedom”… and people believe that. And that it becomes part of our project in life to believe that we are a land of freedom where you can be what you want to be. It’s a very strong narrative; it’s a very self-deceptive narrative that fails to help us locate the powers that control our lives in the name of freedom. So that’s the kind of thinking that I think self-deception opens up in.

TOJ: You have made a strong critique against “civil religion” in your work, and against the belief that the U.S. has a uniquely providential role in history. Given the current rhetoric of our administration, what sordid implications do you see arising currently and in the near future as a result of the blurring of the lines?

Stanley Hauerwas: Yeah I think that things went desperately wrong after September the 11th. And part of where they went desperately wrong was George Bush wanted to comfort the American people after September 11th. And the comforting words that were said were ‘We are at War.” And what that did was mis-describe what happened on September the 11th, September the 11th was not war, it was murder, and you don’t go to war against murder, you try to arrest murderers. So “we are at war” takes up a kind of religious tone that says “we are on the side of right” and then you see that people want to agree with George Bush that we are at war after September the 11th. Some people want to say, “ah, I don’t think Iraq was a good idea”… but look, “we are at war after Sept the 11th” exactly leads to the war in Iraq because it is not a careful use of language. Because it is not a careful use of language, you get a war in Afghanistan and then a war in Iraq. And it is all, George Bush is saying, under the broad description, “War against terrorism.” And I think that is a disastrous use of language.

And I think also, George Bush, his Christian faith, is the Christian faith of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can quite understand that. It never seems to occur to him what it would mean to be a part of a Church and under ecclesial authority, and to have your language tested by ecclesial authority. I mean, I’m sure he’s very genuine in his religious faith, I just don’t think very much of his faith. For someone like me to say that, you think well that’s very arrogant. And it’s true, it is very arrogant. And I think that one of the things that we suffer from in America is that religious people thinking secularity is such an enemy, that any religious faith is better than no religious faith. That is a deep mistake! There are very perverse forms of religious faith, that, give me a secularist any day compared to some of the forms of religious faith. And I must say, I think that Evangelicalism bears the brunt of a lot of this. I think that it is far too a-ecclesial and Evangelicals tend to turn the gospel in a system of belief rather than a body of people through which we are embraced through God’s salvation that makes us different.

TOJ: Jean Bethke Elshtain said in October 2003 that you and Griffiths “seemed remarkably unconcerned with the tens of thousands of lives being lost to violence – to ethnic cleansing, to violent regimes, genocides while the world stood by and did nothing – by remarking that there is not the way to stop the slaughter. Only if the violence is stopped can these people begin to build decent civil societies.” Given the peculiar place of America as the last superpower in the world, while violence may not be the answer coming from a Christian perspective, what do you see as an imaginative and faithful Christian response to some of the situations we see in our world, the violent situations that we find?

Stanley Hauerwas: Well, first of all, the people that did the killing in Rwanda were Christians, well many of them, were Christians. We need as Christians to figure out how we’ve gone so desperately wrong in some of these kinds of contexts. For Jean to raise that as a criticism, of course, it looks like I guess Paul (Griffiths) and I are saying, “well gee it’s better to have a Saddam Hussein.” We’re not saying it’s better to have a Saddam Hussein. But, the idea that somehow you are going to respond to these issues only by using the armed forces of the United States of America strikes me as unimaginative.

Even before, I was concerned about Iraq; I was concerned for example about the Sanctions. The sanctions were unjust on just war grounds; you don’t blockade a people. I wanted Christians to be concerned about that, to find imaginative ways to help Iraqi people even under Saddam Hussein not be starved to death. When the war in Afghanistan was started, I said rather than spend all that money to go to war in Afghanistan, why don’t we buy them bread, bomb them with bread. For all the money, hell, buy them off. Give one million dollars to each Afghanistan person. I just think the idea that the only way to be concerned by genocide etc… is by using military force is unimaginative. We have got to force ourselves as Christians to understand what it means to be related to other Christians in these contexts in a way that helps us not assume that the only way for us to act is through state agency.

TOJ: Now would the imaginative Christian becoming engaged in these issues, would that mean being involved in policy writing…?

Stanley Hauerwas: It could, it could. I have nothing against that. You know I’m accused of being a sectarian fideistic tribalist calling Christians away from involvement in government. No! I just want them to be there as Christians. But you see as soon as you get involved in public policy issues the question starts being raised how then are you able to have a policy that isn’t going to be offensive to secular people because it’s based on some kind of Christian practice, so immediately when you get involved in policy you are asked to give up your Christian speech. And people say well this is a pluralist country and I say, if it’s a pluralist country then why do we have to give up our Christian speech. And so on and so on…

I regret deeply the alienation that Paul and mine’s review of Jean’s book caused between us, I have deep admiration for Jean Elshtain. But I have to say just the very notion of “Just War against Terrorism,” I don’t know how you have a just war against terrorism, because the very idea, it’s a crusade, it’s not a just war. Listen to George Bush at the Air force academy, “it is like WWII, it is like the Cold War”… those were crusades. The enemy was understood as completely evil and you want to destroy them, Just War doesn’t demonize the enemy, you want the enemy to be able to surrender. I just want those basic issues considered and Jean didn’t in that book. And so I just think the book underwrote generalized presuppositions after September 11th that we need to question.

TOJ: Thank you for your time.

SH: Thank You.

Stanley Hauerwas’s response to Jeffrey Stout can be read in his most recent book, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Brazo Press; March 2004).


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Dan Rhodes :
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.