Stanley Hauerwas, one of America’s preeminent theologians and ethicists, thinks the combination of a “liberal narrative” and modern medicine has led to an inability to deal with death and sickness in a healthy, communal way.

For a set of related reasons Hauerwas claims that the liberal narrative is the story by which the American nation-state lives and dies. In War and the American Difference (2011) he argues, in his understated yet bold way, that war constitutes a rival church in possession of a counter-liturgy. He insists that war has unified America, from the Civil War to the major conflicts of the twentieth century, and he argues that these wars constitute a sacrificial system which upholds the nation-state in such a way as to give American lives meaning. One of his most central claims, which will be familiar to any long-time reader of Hauerwas’ work, is that the Christian church, in being a community which bears witness to a story that is truly worth dying for, has a much better answer for the question of what gives life meaning.

The problem, as Hauerwas sees it, is that the church in America is more like America than it is like the church. The churches to which most Americans go “do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their personal and communal lives.” Most Christians in America have adopted the script which says that they should have no script for their lives except the one of their own choosing. The contrast for Hauerwas is clear: “The church believes that we are the creatures of a good God who has storied us by engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” What unites Americans in a post 9/11 world, he suggests, is simply the fear of death. If a gathered assembly no longer exists to bear witness to Christ, to make him present in the world, war will easily become an alternate sacrificial system. As he tersely puts it: “War is a counter church.”

Christians should be particularly careful in the language we use, Haeurwas warns, since we are a group of people committed to praying and declaring the peace of Christ. War is a habit that captures the imagination because it is compelling, fascinating, and at times even beautiful. But war exists in opposition to the church. “Christians have now been incorporated into Christ’s sacrifice for the world so that the world no longer needs to make sacrifices for tribe or state, or even humanity.” For Hauerwas Christians live free of the necessity of violence and killing since the sacrifices of war have come to end. In sum: “War has been abolished.”

If the church is an assembly of peace in a world often consumed by war, the church is also Hauerwas’ model for justice. He argues that “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” What is needed, then, are Christians who live in diaspora, in the light of Pentecost. That is, reversing the confusion of tongues, Christians ought to be that community through which open conversation is the peaceful alternative to violence.

The Pentecostal lesson, as Hauerwas sees it, is that Christians should be the ones who seek “to transform the media of domination into the media of communication, in which people are free to love one another without fear.” This can serve the common good precisely because the church is a people-group continually open to new “languages”, to the communities that might call our own into question for further revision. This can serve the common good precisely because it is a powerfully pacific alternative. “The Christian refusal to kill surely is imperative if we are to sustain the conflicts necessary to learn from one another.” Hauerwas insists that this model of the church serves the common good because it refuses to remain isolated and instead shares what it has learned in the attempt to faithfully worship God.For Hauerwas the church is at its core a community of faithful witness. Christians are called to serve and not to rule, to suffer rather than inflict suffering, whose fellowship crosses all social boundaries. To believe in the cross and resurrection means being a participant in a faithful, peaceful, serving community.

As I noted in a previous post, Hauerwas constructs his argument in sweeping terms, to the point that at times I have serious reservations about the scope and the precision of his claims. I’ll try to be more specific about these in a future post. Yet part of the power of his criticism derives from a wide angle of view; as a reader I can live with this limitation, provided it is acknowledged, since the aim is to think truly about what the Christian church is for. In yet another week where we have seen profound violence across the globe, and which has also seen the passing of a hugely influential theorist of religion and violence, René Girard, to me it seems worth taking the time to reflect on Hauerwas’s claims. If the church is a community of witness, Hauerwas challenges us to think again about what it means for that assembly to be a missionary community at work in the world through worship and service.


War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity by Stanley Hauerwas. Baker, 2011, 188pp.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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