Pacifism in the hard cases

February 24, 2015
From the cover of his memoir "Hannah's Child"

From the cover of Hauerwas’s memoir “Hannah’s Child”

I received an emphatic response, pro and con, to my last blog post about war and the justified use of violence. Of all the negative comments, the following, from my Irish Presbyterian friend Kevin, was best:

I feel this post badly mis-represents Hauerwas. It certainly does not engage with Christological non-violence in terms that proponents could recognise. For one thing, the claim that pacifism is secretly pragmatic is somewhat undercut by reference to one of Hauerwas’ most famous aphorisms:

“Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.”

I used to ask Christians who present the argument as you have the following question:

If Just War Theory is the appropriate Biblical pattern for Christian living, then what war that has been fought satisfied the criteria?

But in the midst of the never-ending War on Terror, I realise the question that needs to be asked is:

What war fails to satisfy Just War criteria?

The former President of Yemen spent last night hiding in the back of a food truck after a drone attack he got caught up in killed three people. The conversation that American Christians has about who they are allowed to kill in the name of God appears absurd to your Christians brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.

Here’s my preliminary response. First, if my post fails to “engage with Christological non-violence in terms that proponents could recognise,” he’s going to have to tell me what “Christological non-violence” means, and tell me what I’m missing. The word “Christology,” by the way, is a showy, overused seminary word that pertains to the ways in which Jesus is both God and man at the same time.

In this context, I’m guessing he means that because Jesus was non-violent, and, when given the opportunity in his passion to respond with violence, chose not to, we should therefore, in all cases, eschew violence. Indeed, as I said in my original post, Hauerwas’s pacifism is premised upon the idea (unless I’m badly mistaken) that God is perfect non-coercive love. Although he’s often called a “high-church Anabaptist,” Hauerwas isn’t like an old-fashioned Anabaptist whose pacifism says, “We believe strongly that vengeance is God’s to repay, and we look forward to it.” From Hauerwas’s perspective, there is no vengeance, no violence, on God’s part.

How he reconciles this with scripture I have no idea.

I never said that Hauerwas was pragmatic about his pacifism, only that the blogger I quoted was: Remember, he’s the one who said that there is a peaceful solution, if only we’ll have the time and patience to find it.

As for Hauerwas’s comment that “faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent,” I can only wonder what world he’s living in.

And this gets to the heart of my objection to Kevin’s complaint. As I said in my comment back to him,

Kevin points to murderous drones killing civilians or whatever. Fine. But if you’re going to be principled about it, defend the principle in the hard cases, too. Here’s why a police sniper isn’t allowed to stop the man who’s spree-killing children at an elementary school. Here’s why soldiers can’t forcibly liberate Auschwitz. Good Lord, here’s why I can’t use force to stop the man who’s raping my wife or molesting my child. Reductio ad absurdum? Reductio ad Hitlerum? Sorry. It’s his principle, not mine. Do we make exceptions?

According to Hauerwas’s principle, any act of violence is proscribed—not just this or that heinous act of indiscriminate killing in warfare—because, after all, how can any of us faithful Christians imagine forcibly stopping someone who is harming our own children—or other people’s children? We must oppose not only our military in all circumstances, but also police protection, the violent defense of our families, and self-defense (obviously). As Hauerwas has said before, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? We get killed? We’re Christians! Who cares?”

It’s easy for him to say! Even if we share his pacifist convictions, let’s confess that we in the industrialized West are unlikely to find our convictions put to the test. Why? In part because we’re freeloading (except for our taxes) off the umbrella of protection afforded by our national and local defense systems. Our stable systems of government are ultimately enforced through violence, or at least its threat.

As I also indicated in my comments, if this article fairly represents his comments in a recent debate, “maybe Hauerwas disagrees with himself, too.”

Police force that’s short of killing is now “an open question.” Really? It wasn’t an open question back when I was reading him in seminary. Is he really starting to budge on non-lethal violence? On what principle? And how does that principle, whatever it is, not apply to protecting lives outside of one’s country—if it were possible?

7 Responses to “Pacifism in the hard cases”


  1. Fine, my friend, I’ll take your bait. 🙂

    Para #1
    Christological is not a showy seminary word. It is part of the vocabulary of Christianity. Christological non-violence is different from generic pacifism because it holds that Jesus, not war (or its absence), is the centre of ethical reality. So Hauerwas is better described as Christologically non-violent (CN-V from now on as abbreviation), than as “pacifist”.

    Para #2
    Hauerwas doesn’t turn to the language of “non-coercion” as a first port of call, but when he does, it is used with a discipline that resists your assertion that there is “no vengeance, no violence, on God’s part.”

    So an example would be the pivotal chapter in Peacable Kingdom. It’s the chapter that people would have to read in seminary if they had to read one chapter of Hauerwas. 😉 There, Jesus’ whole life is “a life of noncoercive power.” But that power is seen in how “he does not try to control their [his disciples] responses.”

    So the non-coercion is about openness. When drafted into a political theology, what it means is that you cannot compel someone to agree with you or manipulate history to fit your desires – which would be a good paraphrase of war. 🙂

    So you worry, Brent: “How he reconciles this with scripture I have no idea.” But I think you worry in vain. While Stanley is not about to join me in preaching penal substitutionary atonement, he does see judgement as part of the Gospel. It is judgement on sin and it is resolved on the Cross, which is the definitive non-violent action. Hence an aphorism he has made famous: “The grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses.”

    I grant it was the blogger who introduced the concept of pragmatism and I am glad we can agree that CN-V is not driven by a pragmatic logic.

    > “I can only wonder what world he’s living in.”

    He is living in the world revealed by Jesus. This blithe comment suggests you haven’t engaged with the theological substance of Hauerwas’ objection to war.

    You speak of how in the West we are living under the security of “protection afforded by our national and local defense systems.” I am an Irishman. I am from the West. My army consists of 12,000 men and women trained primarily in first aid, crowd control, and flood relief. My police force carries no guns. I have no local defense system or national defense system. The national emergency plan in the event of a major terrorist attack in Dublin is to get people off the buses, drive the buses down to the one major army barracks 100km south and then have the soldiers board the buses and hot-tail it back to the city. In other words, we have no defense system. Our army openly admits that in the event of an invasion, it could hold our 4th largest city – Limerick, an ancient walled city – for four days, IF they put ALL their resources into the city and abandoned the rest of the country. We have no defense system. Nobody dies.

    I wrote some scathing words in my first comment – words that honestly I regretted for being too harsh – about how absurd it is that American Christians can wax eloquently about just war while engaging in at least 4 patently unjust wars at this very moment. Perhaps asking you to think about why Ireland or Iceland or Liechtenstein or Panama or Costa Rica get by with limited or no army at all is a better bet. America needs to kill because of commitments other than justice. You call it freedom. Much of the rest of the world call it greed.

    Here’s the critical point. I am a careful reader of Hauerwas. He is my PhD supervisor. I think I have a good grasp of what he has written. But I have never heard him say that he is opposed to coercion. That isn’t a category that functions for him. There is a critical difference between physical force and lethal violence. I think that difference functions throughout his work. When Hauerwas talks about “Jesus’ life of non-coercion” that shouldn’t be read to mean preposterous things. When you interpret a guy as if he is preposterous, he is bound to be preposterous!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Kevin. Was that so hard? 😉 Ireland does have an army, though, and if there were some grave threat to its existence it knows that other nations would carry the freight in its protection. It is, after all, a part of the EU.

      As for being preposterous, are you saying that Hauerwas does now believe in the use of potentially lethal coercion to protect oneself or others? Because even a billy club or taser or bare hand might accidentally kill someone if one is defending oneself or someone else.

      I thought it was a stunning admission that he’s “open” to non-lethal force, but being open isn’t the same as saying, “of course it’s sometimes the right thing to do.” You make it sound like Hauerwas is now A-OK with non-lethal violence, and I’m sure he isn’t. By what principle, though, would his CN-V permit him to resort to violence, and how is this so different from potentially lethal force?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I re-read what you wrote. This caught my attention, and, yes, I remember Hauerwas writing this in an essay we studied: “it means is that you cannot compel someone to agree with you or manipulate history to fit your desires – which would be a good paraphrase of war. :)”

      It would be a good paraphrase of any number of perfectly justifiable actions—not least of which, parenting!

      Again, you may accuse me of expecting and thereby making Hauerwas’s ideas preposterous, but the fact that violence “manipulates history” can’t disqualify violence as a justifiable course of action—unless we are prepared to embrace quietism or a view of sovereignty that even a Presbyterian like yourself would reject! 😉 God chooses to work through us human beings to accomplish his will in the world. He doesn’t have to, but he chooses to. How isn’t this “taking the future into our own hands”? By what principle would coercive yet strictly non-violent actions be excluded?

    • brentwhite Says:

      It’s not clear to me that God never calls us to use violence, and it certainly doesn’t conform to the biblical witness.

  2. Clay Knick Says:

    If you want to understand Hauerwas on violence read Yoder. That’ll do it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Trust me, I know… Even in Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew, he’s all, “”Yoder this, and Yoder that.”

  3. victorgalipi Says:

    “As for Hauerwas’s comment that “faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent,” I can only wonder what world he’s living in.”

    Same here Brent.

    That is one of those broad sweeping and overreaching statements that in my opinion do very little in helping one make their point.

    How does Hauerwas know what other faithful followers of Christ can imagine much less believe and do? He has no Biblical warrant whatsoever for this claim that any faithful follower of Christ could not be violent, could not even imagine being violent, in any circumstance.


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