The Peacable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Church
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Intro: What role does narrative play in Hauerwas’ ethic?

            Hauerwas writes, “Indeed my first interest in narrative was sparked by the realization that the early church thought that narrative was the appropriate mode of expression for what they took to be the significance of Jesus” (xxi).  As such, Hauerwas uses narrative as a basic tool for understanding and practicing theology.

As Hauerwas indicates, narrative is simply a means, not an end, to theology.  “Theology itself does not tell stories; rather it is critical reflection on a story; or perhaps better, it is a tradition embodied by a living community that reaches back into the past, is present, and looks to the future… Narrative is but a concept that helps clarify the interrelation between the various themes I have sought to develop in the attempt to give a constructive account of the Christian moral life” (xxv).  One can very easily see Wittgenstein’s influence in these words.

As per Brad Kallenberg, also under the influence of Wittgenstein, language inevitably shapes us.  The traditions that we are born into become part of our character.  When we enter into the Christian community, we become a part of a new narrative, supported by traditions that form our character.  As such, Hauerwas views narrative as a natural component that helps advance theology.

Chapter 1: What does it mean when Hauerwas says we live in a world of “fragments”?

            There are several elements that pertain to Hauerwas’ perception of a fragmented world.  First, postmodernism has challenged the status quo of modernism’s stalwart certainty.  As such, society has become increasingly varied and diverse in its offerings.  Secondly, the Christian tradition, as suggested by the MacIntyre story, has become increasingly obscure.  The context and the language of the Bible, for many, including ministers, has been lost or twisted due to ignorance or being lost through time.  As such, we only understand the language of the Scripture to a small degree.

Hauerwas writes, “Moreover the fragmentation of our world is not only ‘out there’ but it is in our own souls.  Amid fragments it is extremely hard to maintain our moral identity.  We feel pulled in different directions by our various roles and convictions, unsure whether there is or can be any coherence to our lives.  We become divided selves, more easily tempted to violence since, being unsure of ourselves, we are easily threatened by any challenge that might rob us of what little sense of self we have achieved” (6).

Essentially, modernism’s surety giving way to post-modernism’s fragmentation has left us unsure of what we can be sure about.  We are bombarded by multivalent voices that challenge our traditions and beliefs, leaving the foundation of our lives rocking.  This feeling of uneasiness results in a combative attitude, which seeks to defend our comfortable paradigms from which we live.

In conclusion, our world is fragmented because we live from a fragmented history.  Our culture is overwhelmed by the fragmented voices that challenge the bedrock of modernism’s confidence.  And, finally, we find our paradigms being challenged which brings a sense of chaos and insecurity.  This is what it means to live in a fragmented world.

One final note, this fragmentation of society has led to a relativistic view of Truth.  Everyone can pick and choose from the multiple voices and beliefs and piecemeal them together.  As such, faith has become a private affair with little or no perceived need for the larger community of faith.

Chapter 2: What does Hauerwas mean when he says that, “in this context it is sufficient to note that Christian ethics is concerned more with who we are than what we do”?

            In this chapter, Hauerwas notes that one of the primary issues with contemporary ethics has been its focus on rules.  This focus is hoped to alleviate or eradicate the “subjective” decision making in moral “obligations.”  As such, there is little, if any, consideration for personal character as a shaping factor in ethics.  Rules provide, says the argument, an objective point for ethics.  However, ethics are not lived in a vacuum.  Ethics inevitably must be lived out of a context… which is later important for suggesting a Christian ethic.

Hauerwas gives three reasons why narrative is so fundamentally crucial for ethics.  “First, narrative formally displays our existence and that of the world as creatures – as contingent beings… Second, narrative is the characteristic form of our awareness of ourselves as historical beings who must give an account of the purposive relation between temporally discrete realities… Third, God has revealed himself narratively in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus” (28-29).

The narrative fashion of Christian ethics allows us to see the world as it truly is.  Furthermore, it paints an accurate picture of who we are.  We come face to face with reality and are called to live into God’s kingdom.  This basically means that we recognize the world as fallen and that we are sinners.  Secondly, it means that God has an alternative kingdom in which we are called to be citizens.  This is primarily an identity that informs our activity.

Christian ethics is concerned with who we are, not simply what we do.  “This is not to suggest that our actions, decisions and choices are unimportant, but rather that the church has a stake in holding together our being and behaving in such a manner that our doing only can be a reflection of our character.  The ongoing history of the church requires persons – characters, if you will – who are capable of living appropriate to God’s activity in the life and death of Jesus Christ” (33-34).  Remember, Hauerwas asserts that Christianity is not simply interested in rule keeping.  Rather, we are called to participate in the story of God.  A narrative that we live out involves our very character.  It becomes a consistent testimony to our character.  As such, we understand intuitively that we cannot consistently “do” without consistently “being.”

Chapter 3: What is “agency”?

            Hauerwas writes, “In my accounts, agency but names our ability to inhabit our character” (40).  Furthermore, Hauerwas believes, “I am not an agent because I can ‘cause’ certain things to happen, but because certain things that happen, whether through the result of my decision or not, can be made mine through my power of attention and intention.  The ‘causation’ proper to agents and their actions is not rendered by cause and effect, but by the agent’s power of description” (42).

Agency, for Hauerwas, is one’s ability to take the happenings in our life and fit them into a coherent, truthful narrative.  This, and only this, allows for freedom in the life of someone.  Furthermore, agency can only be truly expressed within a community from which this narrative derives.  Our agency shapes our character as we live into and take the community’s narrative as our own.

“For to say that we are agents is an attempt to avoid transcendental appeals while rightly claiming that we have the power to be one thing rather than another, in short, to be person of character” (41).  Although we are biological creatures, we are not simply the sum of our neurological tendencies.  Even though we are creatures of habit, character can actually override those biological tendencies when they come into conflict.  In short, our character is inextricably linked with who we are… not an add-on.

In other words, agency is not simply an ‘inanimate,’ passive receptivity of character.  Quite the opposite, although we may not always be able to choose our situations and circumstances, we can choose how we interpret those life moments.  Since we cannot engage ethics from a non-biased place, it only makes sense that our character is shaped in a context.  Therefore, agency is primarily found in a community’s narrative that inevitably shapes our character to embody a certain politic.

Chapter 4: Why is “Christian” a significant qualifier in talking about ethics?

            As Hauerwas has argued throughout his book, narrative is vitally important for us as people.  Our character is shaped by our history, only insofar as we take responsibility and claim that history as our own.  As such, ethics is not only concerned with the things we do but, importantly, who we are.

Hauerwas continued further describing agency as an active embodiment of a community politic.  Our characters are shaped profoundly by the communities and the narratives in which we dwell.  If all these things are true, then ethics is also contingent upon narrative.

Understanding ethics as derivative of narrative places necessary stress upon some type of qualifier.  That, Hauerwas believes, is a sufficient reason for embodying a “Christian ethic.”  Christianity provides a cogent narrative by which ethics are formed and fueled to shape the character of a community.  The Christian narrative provides the foundation for God’s redemptive work in the world, which ultimately calls us to live “ethically” in the world on God’s terms.

Furthermore, Christian ethics is not a thinly veneered humanistic ethic.  Rather, “What makes Christian ethics Christian is not our methodology, but the content of our convictions” (69).  As such, “The task of Christian ethics is imaginatively to help us understand the implications of that kingdom.  Or as I have said elsewhere: Christian ethics is the disciplined activity which analyzes and imaginatively tests the images most appropriate to orchestrate the Christian life in accordance with the central conviction that the world has been redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ” (69).

Chapter 5: What does Hauerwas mean when he says that the cross is not just a symbol of the kingdom but it is the kingdom come?

            Hauerwas opens with the assessment that we are called to be like Jesus in this world.  This is hardly some wishy-washy, abstract notion.  Rather, Hauerwas believes that there is a very specific nature to be Christ-like.  “It involves seeing in the cross the summary of his whole life.  Thus to be like Jesus is to join him in the journey through which we are trained to be a people capable of claiming citizenship in God’s kingdom of nonviolent love – a love that would overcome the powers of this world, not through coercion and force, but through the power of this one man’s death” (76).

Furthermore, Israel’s walk with God always needed someone that embodied this kingdom politic for the community to imitate.  The prophet, priest, and king all fulfilled this role.  “Jesus’ life was seen as the recapitulation of the life of Israel and thus presented the very life of God in the world.  By learning to imitate Jesus, to follow in his way, the early Christians believed they were learning to imitate God, who would have them be heirs of the kingdom” (78).

As such, it is decidedly important to understand the trajectory or type of life Jesus led.  Namely, Jesus’ life was cruciform.  “It is thus in the cross that Christians see the climax of God’s way with the world.  In his cross we see decisively the one who, being all-powerful, becomes vulnerable even to being a victim of our refusal to accept his Lordship.  Through that cross God renews his covenant with Israel; only now the covenant is with the ‘many.’  All are called to be his disciples through this one man’s life, death and resurrection, for in this cross we find the very passion of God” (81).

Hauerwas notes, “The kingdom ideal that Jesus proclaimed is no new idea nor does he seem to have given it some startling new meaning.  Rather he proclaims that the kingdom is present insofar as his life reveals the effective power of God to create a transformed people capable of living peaceably in a violent world” (83).  This is significant considering that the cross was the most violent way to deal with criminals of the state.  God takes the very violent nature of the cross and transforms it for His glory as the means of life for His people.

As disciples, we are taught to dispossess ourselves of all that would seemingly give us control or power over our lives and the lives of others.  The cross is significant for this reason.  “The cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world.  The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.  It is only by God’s grace that we are enabled to accept the invitation to be part of that kingdom.  Because we have confidence that God has raised this crucified man, we believe that forgiveness and love are alternatives to the coercion the world thinks necessary for existence.  Thus, our true nature, our true end is revealed in the story of this man in whose life, we believe, is to be found the truth” (87).

The cruciform life is a deconstruction of the powers’ narratives that continue to fragment our world into an individualistic, nationalistic power struggle.  Moreover, the cross is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus lived out in bodily form amongst his followers in the world.  Quite literally, it is “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” through God’s people.  As such, the kingdom is not merely a future reality, but a present hope in the midst of false powers.  It is not coercion aimed at manipulation, but rather it is non-violent action aimed at redemption of creation.

Chapter 6: What does Hauerwas mean when he says that the first ethical task of the Church is to be the Church?

            It is important to note at the beginning of this discussion that Hauerwas believes that a Christian ethic is a social ethic.  It has been said, “No man is an island unto himself.”  A Christian ethic undeniably holds this to be true.  More properly, we can only understand ourselves in relation to others.

“The church is not the kingdom but the foretaste of the kingdom.  For it is in the church that the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.  The church must be the clear manifestation of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and of course, most of all, God” (97).  A Christian ethic is fundamentally designed to operate within a Christian community, namely the Church.

The Church, as a glimpse of the kingdom, is not about gaining control to force the world to be a better, more equitable place.  The end may be desirable, but achieving that through coercion is detestable.  Hauerwas suggests, “Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church – the servant community.  Such a claim may well sound self-serving until we remember that what makes the church the church is its faithful manifestation of the peaceable kingdom in the world.  As such the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” (99).

The Church is here to provide a counter-cultural example of God’s kingdom at work in the world.  By this servant-like, cruciform life the Church not only brings the world under conviction but enlivens the imagination for a radically new politic in the world.  It shows the world what it should be as God’s good creation, rather than the twisted reality it has become.  How can the Church be such a light if they too are quarreling and bickering among one another?  How can the Church be salt if it is about power and violence like governments and nations?  Simply put, it cannot fulfill its mission in the world as God’s emissaries.

“Therefore calling for the church to be the church is not a formula for a withdrawal ethic; nor is it a self-righteous attempt to flee from the world’s problems; rather it is a call for the church to be a community which tries to develop the resources to stand within the world witnessing to the peaceable kingdom and thus rightly understanding the world.  The gospel is a political gospel.  Christians are engaged in politics, but it is a politics of the kingdom that reveals the insufficiency of all politics based on coercion and falsehood and finds the true source of power in servanthood rather than dominion” (102).

Chapter 7: What is casuistry?

“Casuistry is the reflection by a community on its experience to test imaginatively the often unnoticed and unacknowledged implications of its narrative commitments… Casuistry, therefore, cannot be limited simply to consideration of ‘cases’ or situations, but also requires the imaginative testing of our habits of life against the well-lived and virtuous lives of others” (120-21). 

Hauerwas has asserted continuously the narrative nature of the community.  In so doing, he connects the “decisions” that we make to a community, not to an individual.  “Indeed the primary task of casuistry is to help us understand our interconnectedness so that we can better appreciate how what we do not only fits within the story of our lives, but also how it is determined by and determines the ongoing story of the Christian community” (130).

Casuistry allows us to see how well, or how poorly, our story mirrors and conforms to the story of the community.  This is extremely important for the Christian community as we seek to be formed by God’s story.  This helps us keep in mind that we are not simply trying to make “right” decisions.  Rather, the task is to become a particular type of people from which our actions derive.

Casuistry is the communal reflection on what it means to be Christ-like and how well we are living into that calling.  It allows us to see the implications of our choices and help direct the “narrative” on a particular trajectory.  Granted, we must keep in mind that this is necessarily achieved by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  However, it is vital to remember that we are part of a community in which we are called to be faithful.  And, such discernment is usually best done in the context of the greater community.  “For we are each charged to seek constantly a better understanding of what it means to make God’s story my story.  Our lives literally enrich one another, as we learn the full power of that story only by seeing it displayed in others’ lives” (134).

Chapter 8: What is the relationship between effectiveness and faithfulness?

Effectiveness is much more about achieving results.  This view tries to affirm the end as the most valuable aspect of our actions.  This view believes that the end result is most important no matter how that end might be achieved, even if the means are simply a “lesser evil.”  Inevitably, this line of thinking contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Faithfulness, although having a vested interest in a goal, does not see the goal as the only important part.  Rather, faithfulness is concerned with the method for achieving an end.  The means to the end must not violate the values that are characteristic of the end goal.  For instance, someone who believes non-violence to be important contradicts themselves by violently opposing those who enact violence in our world.  It makes little sense for someone to be about preserving life but support the death penalty.  Faithfulness, as Hauerwas would put it, is living in conformity to the narrative of the community of faith.

Hauerwas remarks on effectiveness versus faithfulness, “We discover that the patient hope that requires us to wait in the face of violence is not some means to a greater good, but the good itself.  Such a patience is less something we do or accomplish than it is our recognition of what God has made possible in our lives” (146).  As such, faithfulness is response, not achievement as effectiveness might suggest.

Furthermore, as Christians we live in the realization that God has already achieved His purposes in the cross.  As such, we are called to live into that reality.  “Joy thus becomes the disposition born of a hope based on our sense that it cannot be our task to transform the violence of this world into God’s peace, for in fact that has been done through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Our joy is the simple willingness to live with the assurance of God’s redemption” (147).  As such, Christians are called to live toward God’s purpose, not achieve that purpose.  Christianity is not simply about being effective, but faithful.  “For the Christian life is more a recognition and training of our senses and passions than a matter of choices and decisions.  By displaying some of the sense and passion of that life, we may all be better able to see how to live it” (149).

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