Published March 1, 1987
Professor Stanley Hauerwas of the Duke University Divinity School is on anybody’s short list of the most provocative and thoughtful moral theologians practicing that ancient craft in America today. Professor Hauerwas is also a living embodiment of American ecclesiastical pluralism; five years ago, when he was teaching under the golden dome in South Bend, Indiana, he defined himself in these distinctive terms:
“I am, after all, a (Southern) Methodist of doubtful theological background (when you are a Methodist it goes without saying you have a doubtful theological background); who teaches and worships with and is sustained morally and financially by Roman Catholics; who believes that the most nearly faithful form of Christian witness is best exemplified by the often unjustly ignored people called anabaptists or Mennonites. In short my ecclesiastical preference is to be a high-church Mennonite. It is no wonder that some find it hard to pin down my position.”
Be that as it may, Professor Hauerwas is not hard to pin down on many important things. He is a pacifist, for example. Which would, were this not Stanley Hauerwas, predispose one to think that the good professor would be gratified by the Methodist bishops’ recent pastoral letter on nuclear weapons and strategy, “In Defense of Creation.”
In fact, however, because this is Stanley Hauerwas, what we have is the registration of a most vigorous and resounding “non placet” against the Methodist bishops’ labors. The arguments Professor Hauerwas makes are important far beyond the purview of the United Methodist Church.
Take, for example, the bishops’ assertion that the church must go beyond both pacifism and just war reasoning, since neither is adequate to the demands of the moral life in a nuclear age. Professor Hauerwas finds this an “extraordinarily odd and confusing claim” because “the bishops never make clear exactly why the pacifist and/or just war traditions are seen as inadequate. They say that they continue to value both positions and wish to take a little from each but it is not clear how one can do that. Indeed one has the impression that their attempt to transcend these traditional alternatives makes ‘In Defense of Creation’ something like a lawyer’s brief on behalf of a client. It does not matter that the arguments be consistent and/or coherent; it just makes a difference that they be persuasive. So one can simply pick and choose mutually incompatible positions as long as they contribute to making nuclear war less likely. That is a nice example of the end justifying the means which both the pacifist and just war tradition stood against.”
Hauerwas is also concerned by his bishops’ treatment of the issue of “survival”:
“In a Jonathan Schell-like maneuver, the bishops seem to buy into the contemporary humanistic assumption that if death is the end not only of the individual but of the human species, all life loses its meaning. That, of course, is a form of atheism that one can only hope the bishops unintentionally and unreflectively proposed.
“I am aware that such a suggestion may appear extraordinary but it seems we live in extraordinary times when the church has difficulty maintaining the integrity of its witness. Thus, for example, the bishops tell us that ‘the Gospel command “Love [thy] enemies” is more than a benevolent ideal; it is essential to our own well-being and even to our survival.’ They may well be right about that, of course, but it may equally be the case that love of enemy, in particular, may make our individual and social survivability less sure. Yet I would think it extraordinary for Christians to think that love of enemy is any less an obligation because it may not work out well for our ability to survive. It is to be noted that on this issue the just war and pacifist traditions stand together on the common conviction that Christians must be ready to die rather than to act unjustly toward their neighbor.
“Moreover, what kind of witness can we make as Christians if we lead our neighbors to believe that there is nothing more important than their personal survival? That would surely be a strange witness of a people who have been given new life by a God who was willing to die on a cross. If we Christians have a witness to make in the face of nuclear destruction, it is one that will draw on our confidence that we have a destiny given to us by God that cannot be eradicated by our death and even the death of the human species. That is surely a witness that needs making today.”
Nor is Professor Hauerwas pleased, as so many religious activists and commentators were, that the Methodist bishops’ pastoral letter contains a veritable shopping list of public policy recommendations:
“I think it is indicative of [the bishops’] failure to wrestle with the fundamental theological issues at stake in addressing the issue of nuclear war that ‘In Defense of Creation’ spends much more time with the strategic and policy issues than with the theological…. One has the sense that in spite of their disavowal of being experts about nuclear strategy, the bishops feel more comfortable condemning SDI than they do in proclaiming God’s sovereignty over our existence. In particular nothing could be more outrageous than for the bishops of the Methodist church to underwrite the human presumption that nuclear weapons have now given mankind the power to destroy God’s creation. No claim could be more promethean and theologically scandalous than the assumption that human beings, through the development of nuclear weapons, have in fact taken control of their own existence. To underwrite that assumption is equivalent to underwriting the claim that suicide is the way as finite beings we can determine the meaning of our lives…. This issue reminds us of how important it [would have been] for the bishops to have kept in mind their primary audience. For their lack of theological reflection in ‘The Defense of Creation’ is but an indication that they were more interested in the influence they might have in wider society than the stance the church as such should take.”
The results of this distortion of emphasis and audience damage more than the church, Hauerwas concludes; they damage the public dialogue on these crucial questions of our day. Why? Because if the leadership of the church becomes merely another partisan faction, it simply confirms “the world’s presumption that our theological convictions are but ideologies to support positions arrived at on secular grounds. The bishops might have simply said that these are the kinds of issues we must discuss as Christians if we are to know how to speak to our situation. That would have been an invitation to genuine discussion rather than simply asking us to choose up sides. Such a perspective, if it had been taken by the bishops, would have allowed them to speak in a much more decisive way…. Rather than speaking as if the church has a better foreign policy than Ronald Reagan, we could have been called to witness that in the face of nuclear weapons we believe we have the time to be a community that believes truth more important than survival.”
One might argue that this is all just a theological alley fight among Methodists—a denomination, after all, that has been hemorrhaging congregants for twenty years. One might argue that. But one would be profoundly mistaken in doing so.
For when the last warhead has been counted, and the smallest circular error probable calculated, and the most refined targeting plan consigned to the computers’ battle-management software—when all that has been done, we are still left with the fundamental question. What ought we to do about all this? The quality of argument over that unavoidable and irreducible question will have much to do with the wisdom of our country’s strategy for peace, security, and freedom. The Methodist bishops, following the lead of their Roman Catholic brethren, have decided to choose up sides in the partisan political wars, rather than to work primarily at the level of moral education and culture formation.
Which underlines, again, the importance of the work of Professor Stanley Hauerwas and others who are unfashionable enough to think that the bishops’ choice amounts to running for lower office.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.