It seems odd to go through Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom: a Primer in Christian Ethics only after having read and seen some of his more recent work. This book was originally published in 1984, and may be regarded as outdated—and hardly contemporary—for an ethical ‘primer’ (unless Patrik Hagman is painfully right in describing theology as a ‘lazy’ discipline). But perhaps Theo Hobson is right in that Hauerwas hasn’t had a change of heart since the early 70’s, and thus this book still does him right.
In his introduction, Hauerwas exposes some of his motivations for his dedication to theology, ethics and ecclesiology and for the writing of this very book. He appears to respond to critique, as he states he values very much (p. xviii), as it is usually his primer to write in the first place. This early book has Hauerwas make the effort of explaining himself, an act he has probably begun to resent later on, while he was largely misunderstood [sic] by his readers and critics. For example, he expresses his tiredness with explaining or fighting for his cause in his later book, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (2000): “I simply cannot muster energy for yet one more attempt to show the incoherence of liberal political philosophy or practice.” (A Better Hope, p. 24) In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas is still ready, willing and able to deal with these misunderstandings, or maybe he just wasn’t judged enough yet to feel as ideologically fatigued as he did by 2000.
Yet, there are some trademarks he deploys in this book, for instance his lack of interest in labels of denomination and his view on the church having the first social task of being the church (nb: not capitalized! p. xviii). Also: “[t]heology is not a matter of being liberal or conservative, but a matter of truth.” That he is especially opposed to the freedom of liberalism becomes clear in a later chapter, on page 47, where he states that “the very claim of freedom as a possession [...] is but a manifestation of our sin.” This sounds bold and pedantic, echoing what the Dutch call zwartekousenkerk, the strict and pessimistic, conservative and literal interpretation of Scripture. He emphasizes the sin in the very core of our humanity as a people looking for opportunities to make the most of their situation. We should refrain from the broadening of our horizons because that will only contribute to our sinfulness. It is self-deceptive to “attempt to overreach our powers as creatures [of God],” (p. 46). Hauerwas judges autonomy, because it divides. The church he wants to establish among Christians is being undermined by atomization, as it is propagated (or entailed, A Better Hope, p. 40) by postmodernism, but that is probably not yet an articulate problem at the time of this writing. “The fragmentation of our world is not only “out there,” but it is in our souls,” (p. 6) trying to found a moral life on this is in vain. He also praises the lives of premodern people (criticizing postmodernism in advance) by emphasizing their limited freedom, “they were not hounded by our modern ambivalence,” and “they did not need to question, as we seem required to do, whether their life was sufficiently coherent to legitimately ask its meaning,” (p. 7). In other words, should we regress to primitive conditions and abolish science and knowledge of the profane? Hauerwas sounds very conservative here, and it is not very likely this is one of his semi-serious provocative statements, since he takes his time to motivate his idea.
Meaning in life is not to be created, according to Hauerwas, but we can find it in truth. He ends his book with this reference to truth and how it should be our only moral imperative, “the grace of doing one thing,” (p. 151). By doing more than that, we define our own existences, create our paradigms and we are thus unable to see the truth in the Church and we design our own morality. We fail to see, according to Hauerwas, that our “picking and choosing becomes an imperative”, we are condemned to freedom, the “heretical imperative” (p. 7-8), obstructing a clear view of Hauerwasian truth. The peaceful kingdom “comes not by positing a common human morality, but by our faithfulness as a peaceful community that fears not our difference,” (p. 12) because our (modern) world is held together by the subtle tissues of violence—discrepancies between people fuelled by pride. Truth that must employ violence can not be truth, so peacefulness and truthfulness are related (p. 15). Therefore, although he didn’t want to be a pacifist, Hauerwas has to retreat to active pacifism as he saw, through John Howard Yoder, was utilized by Jesus (p. xxiv), a stance he takes pride in nowadays. (The introduction to The Peaceable Kingdom is an excellent summary of what I know of Hauerwas sofar, and the rest of the book, concerning freedom and (comm)unity, does cover the broader strokes of a Stanley Hauerwas growing into being a dyed-in-the-wool theologian.)
Hauerwas promotes the unity of the church by defining freedom as the presence of the (probably not postmodernist) other (p. 44). This means that the other holds expectations of us, which create our personal character. Character is an important word, because only with character we can participate in a community. And, conform Gadamer’s hermeneutic principles, the community forms the character. The other invites to imitation and “challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation,” (p. 45). In other words, the other provides an external view on the self, and thereby distracts from the self by focusing on the communitarian aspect. Still, I feel there is a paradox in there somewhere. How can one use ‘otherness’, an alternative, external view on the self, and thereby go past the focus on the self? One has to focus on oneself in order to make one fit in a community, unless there is an unconditional approval, but the condition is truth and faithfulness. Hauerwas depersonalizes the self by arguing that “character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift,” (p. 45). This should make us recognize our existence as a gift. (I wonder what Caputo would say about this—postmodernist—otherness in the economy of gifts.) Hauerwas further complicates the matter by removing a telos from the equation “as we learn through [the others] and their pursuits to understand what it is we are pursuing.” (p. 45). It reminisces the (also mentioned) categorical imperative by Kant, that the duty should be a duty for its own sake. The pursuit being a pursuit for the sake of the pursuit? We need a story, a history to hang our faith upon and position ourselves in while we are pursuing the pursuit itself, and that is the narrative of Christianity. And God, “the ultimate given” (p. 46), is the basis of our freedom.
We love our sinfulness, it pleases us to pursue clear ends (the telos). We are not at all upset by the inevitable entropy John Milbank warns us for in Being Reconciled, or the neverending and perpetual craving for more information and knowledge that doesn’t increase our happiness at all, according to Slavoj Žižek in The thrilling romance of orthodoxy. Hauerwas does fear the unfathomable depths of self-fullfilment, the abysses along the pathway towards the Romantic Bildungsideal. He tells us to refrain from that and seek refuge in unity, intraconnection, where we will be confronted with that malignant modern urge and find peace in the peaceable kingdom that is already partly here in the church of the crucified God. We have to face our fear of becoming a “nobody” (p. 47) in order to let go of self-deceptive pride in individuality, the “sin as a fundamental orientation of the self,” (nb: not capitalized! p. 47). We need violence to control this self, and that can never be reconciled with truth. Peace with ourselves will mean peace with the other (p.49). Perhaps that’s what Hauerwas is doing by avoiding labels: disorienting his self.
That’s why we need Christian ethics, as Hauerwas summarizes on page 63. We can not take the “natural law” as a starting point, because it reduces Christian ethics to human ethics: violent and self-deceptive. As soon as we lose ourselves in abstractions (modern temptations and aims), we are removing ourselves from salvation. The role of Christianity is to provide the narrative that makes us realize we are God’s creatures (p. 62). Christian ethics are not meant to illustrate the superiority of Christianity, because Christians are not necessarily “better” than non-Christians (p. 60), but they are aware of their calling and thereby participate in the foretaste of the Kingdom in a very tangible way. Christian ethics run deeper, focus on the church and pacifism, the abolishment of violence and distraction from selfness.
Hauerwas ends his book with the notion that it all can be rather self-defeating, because it promotes a lifestyle that is hardly attainable: taking distance from all kinds of violence, followed by the remark that “[n]one of us knows the depth of our violence” (p. 149). How can we ever participate in this ideology if we don’t have the knowledge that should guide us there? This is exemplary in complexity and contradiction in Hauerwas’ work, also fuelling his critics. He seems to implicitly promote the abstract he’s trying to catch by spinning words around it while he explicitly judges it. He propagates a (pre)modern society that keeps from selfindulgence but uses postmodern tools and terms. We must act, and still our limited capabilities impeed us from acting. Hauerwas knows what’s wrong, but we can’t help ourselves? Or should we just not care about the trouble in the world, like he suggests with “[peaceableness] is learning to live joyfully in the face of the tragic,” (p. 148).
The Peaceable Kingdom didn’t strike me as explicitly provocative or controversial. It is like Hauerwas is formulating his vision before the mocking and criticizing by his peers, although he has been ‘in business’ since 1965. In spite of his contemporary appearance as a cheerful theologian with a sense of humor, his later writings do make him sound a tad fatigued with the public opinion on him.