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Politics, patriotism, and pacifism: An interview with Stanley Hauerwas

"America's Best Theologian" talks about war, peace, and the church's relationship to the state.
"America's Best Theologian" talks about war, peace, and the church's relationship to the state.

“America’s Best Theologian” talks about war, peace, and the church’s relationship to the state.

Named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, Stanley Hauerwas teaches at both Duke Divinity School and also Duke Law School. His book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century. He’s such a prominent thinker, the adjective “Hauerwasian” has been created to describe those who are influenced by his work.

More than an intellectual paragon, Stanley Hauerwas is a provocateur par excellence. He is always pushing people’s buttons, even once asking a medical researcher who defended experiments on fetal tissue, “What if it were discovered that fetal tissue were a delicacy? Could you eat it?” But he does this to provoke thought, not to pick fights. As a result, he’s become a prominent “Christian contrarian” and respected theologian. Here, he shares bluntly–would you expect any less?–his thoughts on war, pacifism and the church’s relationship with the state.

JM: Many Christians supported the war in Iraq. My home denomination, The Southern Baptist Convention, even did so publicly. This a problem in your view, isn’t it?

SH: Of course, the Christian support of war in Iraq is a problem. It’s more than a problem, it’s a sign of deep unfaithfulness.

JM: Many people attack pacifists with arguments about World War II, claiming that in some cases, war is justified and just. Do you disagree with this position? I mean, would the world have been better off if the Nazi regime had been allowed to pursue their agenda of aggression and genocide unchallenged?

SH: I always answer the challenge of WWII by asking people “Who fought in Hitler’s war?” The people who fought in Hitler’s war were Catholics and Protestants. All I’m trying to do is help Christian be able to recognize what they’ve been given in Christ, which is the ability to say “no” to the Hitlers of the world. Of course, the world would be better without the Nazi regime, but that’s not to say that the war was a good thing. Moreover, it wasn’t a just war as it was not fought on just war principles.

JM: You often point out that C.S. Lewis was a pacifist, or at least something like it. What was Lewis’s position and what do you believe modern Americans can glean from it?

SH: I do not think Lewis was a pacifist. I tried to suggest that through some of his literature he tried to imagine a way of life that could be described as “peace.” But he wasn’t a pacifist. Americans can learn a great deal from Lewis if they follow his imagination – not necessarily what he says explicitly.

JM: We’ve just finished celebrating the July 4th Independence Day. There were a lot of flags waving in and around American churches.  Is this show of patriotism problematic, in your opinion? 

SH: I’ve long said that flags being used in churches on the 4th of July is a form of betrayal. It is so because the flag represents for many a more determinative sacrifice than the sacrifice of Christ.

JM: What is your greatest concern for the church today, in terms of its relationship with the state? Any cautions?

SH: My greatest concern for the church today in terms of its relation to the state is quite simply idolatry. As I’ve tried to argue in my book, War and the American Difference, the deep problem is the Christian identification with America such that Christians are unable to distinguish the church from America. It’s an understandable confusion given our country’s history. But that doesn’t make it any less perverted.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Without sounding self-serving, I would like to recommend my book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now’ (Harvest House), which devotes an entire chapter to specifically to this issue and many more pages to the misguided use of violence as a means to bring about peace. Jesus and Paul preached a gospel of peace in which faith, not violence, wins the day.

  • I used to think that “blind obedience” was a Catholic problem. Then I came to see that for Catholics that practice occurs in a limited context. For many Christians blind obedience applies to a jingoistic obedience to national leaders, provided that say they oppose abortion.

    As for Hitler the Catholic Center parties in both Germany and Austria were effective in resisting Hitler. Then the Vatican made a deal with Hitler in Germany behind the Center Party’s back, destroying the Party’s influence. In Austria the head of the center party was assassinated by Austrian Nazis with the cooperation of the leading left wingers. Then the cardinal of Vienna urged Austrians to vote for union with Germany.

    The union of church and throne is alive and well in the USA. Worship of the military. Blind obedience to the Republican Party.

    Perhaps there never has been any Christianity in this world. Just another self serving bunch of opportunists calling themselves Christians or Catholics.

  • John,
    I see precious few Christians who practice blind obedience to national leaders. Indeed, I cannot think of a single name. Perhaps you can. If so, let;s have the names. But I hear a lot about these invisible and nameless blind folks whom I’ve never actually seen or heard. They strike me as a fiction. A fiction they will remain until you provide some solid names, dates, and words.

  • Seriously? You don’t have to look further than this interview to find names named: the Southern Baptist Convention and its support of the invasion of Iraq.

  • The answer to the question about WWII was ignoring quite a bit of the reality of WWII. He makes it sound as if it was a war between sects of Christianity, like The Troubles in Northern Ireland. WWII was all encompassing, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhist, atheist, Shintos, there was probably no major religion or belief system left out. And it really had little to do with religion, even Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was not necessarily based in religious fervor but in a belief that they were at fault for Germany’s troubles following the end of WWI. WWII was mostly about a clash of ideologies, economies and the transition of world powers.

    I abhor war and violence and there are wars that must and should be protested, Iraq, Vietnam, etc. At the same time though there is rank evil in the world and it should be opposed. As terrible as the number of dead from WWII was, how many more would of died, how many would have suffered in misery had we let Hitler move unopposed throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia. Or if we did not oppose the Japanese in the Pacific?

  • I don’t have a problem with it. We’re writing comments. Your book is more in-depth. We don’t have to buy the book if we don’t choose to. Thanks.

  • Perhaps the point is that if more Christians had stood up to Hitler in 1933 or 1935, or even 1938, there would have been no WWII in the first place. An effective pacifist can’t be passive the way too many Christians were in the 1930s. There were plenty of opportunities to stop Hitler peacefully, even very obvious ones, but most German Christians just went along with the program until it was far too late. Hannah Arendt points out that, even during the war, in countries where the Nazis met determined but peaceful resistance and non-cooperation from the civilian population, as in Denmark, even the SS tended to back down. I actually believe that Bolshevism/Stalinism poses a bigger challenge for pacifists than Hitler. How would a pacifist response to Stalin have prevented the famine in the 1930s, the Gulag or the destruction of Russian culture?

  • There are no Christians who practice blind obedience to national leaders. By definition, a Christian is one whose obedience is to Christ. The list of people who pretend to be Christian, but serve the devil is very long. Billy and Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, the presidential candidates in 2012….The list goes on and on.

  • Yes, Alan, unfortunately there’s no classy way to outright plug your products on someone else’s thread. Many people, including myself, automatically become uninterested when that’s done.

    What you’re supposed to do is write a pertinent comment, so interesting on its own that we’re pleased to see that your name is a hypertext link which will take us to your blog or website (or whatever) and read more of your fascinating thoughts.

    Once we’ve done that — gone to explore your work on our own volition — we’ll quickly see that you have a book for sale, and be potentially much more favorably inclined toward it.

    It’s a lot more work for you to do it that way, but the better path often requires more work.

  • I concur with the writer who said that Jesus’ whole life and ministryi was an act of sedition, sedition against both the state and the religious establishment.

  • The WWII question must begin with the World War, part I. Take a movie analogy: Without Jaws there is no Jaws Two. WWI and the treaty prepared the seedbed in which a Hitler could grow. And Christians killing Christians in WWI was in no way justifiable.