Interview with Christian Theologian Stanley Hauerwas

Interviewed by Joshua Madson for The Mormon Worker

Stanley Haurwas is a United Methodist theologian, ethicist, and professor of law. He received a PhD from Yale University and a D.D. from The University of Edinburgh, and has taught at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School with a joint appointment at the Duke University School of Law.

Q: How did you come to be a pacifist?
Hauerwas: Well, it was through the influence of John Howard Yoder. I was educated in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and I assumed that was the last word to be said about pacifism. But I was also deeply shaped by the work of Karl Barth and once Yoder’s Christological pacifism became known to me and I really studied it I became increasingly convinced that Niebuhr had simply failed to appreciate the kind of nonviolence that Yoder had defended as constitutive of discipleship and so I declared myself a pacifist although I had no idea what that really meant, but I’ve grown into it.

Q: In your essay “Sacrificing the Sacrifice of War” you observe that nationalistic “patriotism” has become for many a substitute religion, and for Christians in particular. What has caused that to occur in your opinion?

Hauerwas: I’m not sure any of us know how that happened, other than the general subservience of the Christian church in America to America. The general view of most Christian Americans is they can let their children make up their minds about whether they are a Christian or not but they don’t let them make up their minds about being an American. Now that’s an indication that national identification has become more determinative for the way people live than their Christian identification. Now I’m sure they will deny that if you suggest it, but ask them if they don’t believe that they ought to raise children to grow up to make up their minds and they will always say, yes of course. But then they don’t, when it comes to the issues of national loyalty. They don’t let children make up their own minds; it kind of comes with the drinking water.

Q: What evidence do you believe supports that conclusion?
Hauerwas: Well I think generally that American Christians’ unproblematic support of war clearly supports that conclusion.

Q: Do you believe that Christianity and patriotism are compatible?
Hauerwas: It depends. I might well be a Ugandan patriot. I’m sure you can’t be an American patriot. I wrote an essay on this in which I use Alasdair Macintyre’s account of why patriotism is incoherent in the modern world because patriotism asks your support of nations that represent freedom and equality and so those become abstract ideals that are not interestingly enough nationally specific. That’s the reason why patriotism in America is fundamentally an imperialist position. But Macintyre argues that in the past patriotism was loyalty to land with a history. Now that’s more interesting and I think Christians want you to be loyal and supportive of the near neighbors who have made you possible. So I think that might well be a kind of patriotism that Christians could support.

Q: In the scriptures we have statements such as Christ’s “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, and we have Paul talking about the “powers that be.” How does the Christian faith draw the line between those statements and admonitions with Christian teachings that are often inconsistent with our own nation?
Hauerwas: Well I don’t think Romans 13; people read Romans 13 and don’t read Romans 12. Paul would have thought that the emperor should also forgive his enemies and so I think that chapter division is just a disaster. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, unto God the things that are of God.” I treat that in the new commentary that has just been published on the gospel of Matthew and I think it’s pretty clear that that wasn’t saying, “Oh, well Caesar gets to do what Caesar does.” I mean you know when Jesus says let me see the coin, the very fact that the people that had asked him the question handed him the coin already indicated that they were complicit with Rome in a way that was incompatible with being Jewish. So I think that the assumption that, oh well Caesar is Caesar and the church is church and we can get along, well you know Caesar wants it all and I think the idea that we got that straightened out by separation of church and state is just crazy.

Q: If that’s the case, can Christians be engaged politically?
Haeurwas: Of course. It depends on the politics that’s around but nothing about my position prevents Christians from being engaged in politics as long as they are Christians. What bothers me is when they want to say well as a Christian I couldn’t kill anyone but as a congressman or senator I have to do it. Well I don’t think that works.

Q: How then should Christians be engaged politically? What should we be doing as Christians?

Hauerwas: You shouldn’t let anyone tell you, you need to privatize your faith. You say: No, I’m going to vote this way because I’m a follower of Jesus and that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So that’s what I would think is necessary.

Q: Does Christ demand any duties or loyalties of us to our government?
Hauerwas: No.

Q: John Howard Yoder often discusses the problem of associating with the system, becoming Herodians, that in the end we will end up supporting the government over our Christian beliefs. How do we avoid that as Christians?

Hauerwas: By making sure we got good friends who will tell us when we are doing it. You need people who have been through the fire so to speak and can tell you when you may think you are just doing your duty but in fact you’re really collaborating with the devil.

Q: One of the things in your appeal to abolish war you discuss that we should no longer study war but instead study peace. What would we be studying if we studied peace? How do we approach that?
Hauerwas: What would it mean to envision what international relations might look like if we don’t assume the necessity of war? What kind of nation would we need to be in which war was not seen to be a necessity? Once you start down the road of just saying, you know, war is just kind of a given then as a matter of fact you will make sure it is a given.

Q: A common complaint directed at pacifists and advocates of nonviolence is that they have criticisms but no solutions. What should we be doing as Christians to change the world or the approaches to war?

Hauerwas: By being who we are. People matter. For example, we live in a country now that is determined by fear. What would it mean for Christians to be a people that are not determined by fear? That makes possibilities open that otherwise would not exist.

Q: Could you elaborate on how we would live if we were not determined by fear?
Hauerwas: It would mean that death didn’t hold sway over us in a way that we might well be ready to take risks that might envision the possibility you’ll have to die.

Q: In your essay or the call to abolish war, you discuss the struggle to end slavery and there is this comparison with the struggle to abolish war. Do you see any trends towards either a national or global rejection of war in the same way we see a rejection of slavery?
Hauerwas: No. I don’t. I wish I could say I do, but I don’t.

Q: What will it take for Christianity or for the world to reject war as universally as it has rejected slavery?
Hauerwas: You just got to do the same kind of hard slogging, one person at a time convincing that I think is the heart of what our Christianity is about.

Q: In your essay “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America,” you state, “Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.” In what ways does that confusion make itself manifest?

Hauerwas: By the flag in the American church chancel. It’s everywhere. I think that that flag usually stands for the sacrifices that were made in World War II and in many ways that’s a much more real sacrifice for most Americans than the sacrifice of Christ.

Q: Why do you think Christians confuse that with the sacrifice of Christ?

Hauerwas: Because we haven’t faced up to the particularity of Jesus as a Jewish Messiah and we instead turned Jesus into a generalized savior rather than the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

Q: What is the central message of the Sermon on the Mount?

Hauerwas: I think that to try to give it a central message like you ought to love your neighbor or that you can’t serve God and mammon; I think that to try to seize on something central like that is to try to avoid the particularity of the Sermon on the Mount. So, I’m against trying to give it a central message.

Q: What do you feel the particularity of the Sermon on the Mount is?

Hauerwas: This is what it means to be disciple of Jesus.

Q: Do you feel that Christians in today’s world believe in the Sermon on the Mount or follow the Sermon on the Mount?

Hauerwas: No. Clearly we think that the Sermon on the Mount is an ideal we ought to strive for but you really cant live it. You can’t forgive enemies. It’s just not going to work.

Q: Why is it that we don’t embrace the Sermon on the Mount then?
Hauerwas: Because we don’t want life to be that complicated or interesting. It puts us to much out of step.

Q: Is there anything Christians should be willing to kill for?
Hauerwas: No.

Q: Is there anything Christians should be willing to die for?

Hauerwas: Everything.

Q: There is a quote in your article that states “Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith.” What is the significance of that quote?
Hauerwas: It’s a very important quote. It means that exactly where Christians lose their faith is the overriding presumption that what you are willing to die for or have your children die for is true and that means the country and it doesn’t mean the church. Mormon persecution is of course, just as Christians say that our faith is built upon the blood of the martyrs, your faith is also built on the blood of your martyrs.

Q: In that Christians have a history of the blood of the martyrs and I would argue Mormons have a history of the blood of the martyrs. Why have we abandoned that tradition and now it is the blood of the patriots and blood of the Americans?
Hauerwas: Well because America has been very very good to us and we are wealthy.

Q: Do you see this allegiance as a monetary or material sort of allegiance?
Hauerwas: It certainly helps but no it’s deeper than that, it gives you identity.

Q: If you were given a forum to address Mormons or LDS what would you want to share with us?
Hauerwas: Well, I did it once. I addressed Sunstone and they didn’t like it at all. Because Sunstone of course is the Mormon liberals and my critique of liberalism wasn’t to their liking. I was not a success. I think Mormons have proved to be extra loyal to the United States because they know they are seen as religiously so weird. So a Mormon can run for president just like a catholic ran for president and said, don’t worry I’m not going to take my theological convictions serious when it comes to running the country. You know you’ve gone to hell in a hand basket when that happens.

Q: What would be your admonition or your call to Mormons? What should we be doing with our religion?

Hauerwas: Of course I think you ought to read the New Testament more and the Book of Mormon less. I understand the debate within Mormons about whether you are Christian or not. I understand it. I understand that there is a debate. I don’t necessarily understand all the nuances of the debate. I think the more Mormons move towards classical Christianity, the better off you will be.

Q: What makes someone a Christian in your mind?
Hauerwas: That they have been baptized into the life death and resurrection of Christ and that they are identified by a body of people that hold them accountable.

Q: Often times pacifists get marginalized when they identify themselves as a pacifist. Do you believe that self-identifying as a pacifist marginalizes ones ability to be part of the war debate?
Hauerwas: I try not to let it do that. Obviously I’m pretty well. But if marginalization is marginalization its better than the alternatives. My way of putting it is that I don’t think that I’m committed to Christian non-violence because obviously I’m a violent son of a bitch. But by creating the expectations in you I hope that you will keep me honest of what I know is true. So that’s the way you got to begin to think about what it means to be committed to Christian non-violence.