Friday, December 4, 2009
Why Hauerwas Matters
Almost 30 years ago, Protestant ethicist James Gustafson wrote that 'all constructive theology in the Christian tradition needs to be defined [over against this Yoderian] option' with its focus on discipleship to Jesus. 'Yoderian' refers to the Mennonite Notre Dame professor John Howard Yoder who wrote a book called The Politics of Jesus in 1972 that made radical political engagement normative for the Christian disciple. Yoder, convincingly, made the case for a political Jesus, one who confronted the powers that be, so much so that it landed him on the cross.
Today, a dozen years after Yoder's death, Stanley Hauerwas keeps the Yoderian option alive. In books, essays and lectures, Hauerwas calls the American church to a radical vision of citizenship in the reign of God. This means that our allegiance is ultimately to God's way of being in the world and this means that we don't take 'practical' or 'responsible' steps to make everything work out well. The Christian life, for Hauerwas, is a risky adventure of prophetic participation in a community that embodies Jesus' way of peace, reconciliation, humble service and inclusion. In a recent interview, he weighed in on Obama's recent decision to increase troop levels:
Q: What should be the church’s role in the debate over Afghanistan?
A: Let’s start with people in our congregations who are connected with the military, and ask them how they can justify that. Let’s start there. I have high regard for people in the military, but very seldom are they asked to justify what they’re doing.
Q: So every Christian is called to be a pacifist?
A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: So how do you respond to people who say that’s unrealistic?
A: Try lifelong monogamous fidelity in marriage. Do you think that’s realistic? Yet we do it. I’m not terribly cowed by the charge of being unrealistic.
Q: If Obama were to call you for advice on Afghanistan, what would you say?
A: I’d say you have to tell the American some really hard truths, namely that the war on terror was a mistake and we’ve got to start, as Americans, learning to live in a world that we don’t control. That’s not going to make you very popular.
Q: So you’d be politically toxic to the president of the United States?
A: Yeah, I would be. Just like (former Obama pastor) Jeremiah Wright. I hope I’m absolutely as toxic as Jeremiah Wright.
A: Because I think what I’m saying is what Christians should be saying.
Blunt, honest, truthful, radical--classic Hauerwas. This Christian perspective does not get a lot of love in our media or in our churches. It's not popular because it, quite frankly, asks too much of us. It's 'unrealistic.' Most Evangelical churches portray themselves as apolitical (which usually means a very political platform of laissez-faire economics while prioritizing social conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage). Senior pastors at Evangelical churches are paid by their congregations and must walk the socio-political-economic tightrope so as not to offend these diverse agendas. These pastors are trapped in a spiritual and/or future gospel that leaves much of our world untouched by Christian faithfulness. Hauerwas, paid by Duke University to teach theology and ethics, is freed from agendas that imprison Jesus' way. His goal has never been to sell more books or build a larger congregation. He trains future theologians, pastors and ethicists to think deeply and critically about the Bible and our world. We need his voice now more than ever.