In Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on the Church, Politics, and Life (2013), Stanley Hauerwas again envisions the church as an alternative politics. The church’s alternative politics is rooted in a redemption story, one which encompasses both the ultimate beginning and end. He reasons that if God’s creation is a good and determinative act of peace, so too must be its end, particularly as that end is also a new creation. Moreover, if the church is a community whose witness embodies the redemption story, Hauerwas insists that this has implications for some of the more pressing concerns of our day. As we’ve seen in the previous two posts, this includes medicine.
Hauerwas contends that we live in a world that shares no goods in common. Modern medicine is simply an institution that delivers services to consumers. The problem with this view, as he sees it, is that it seems to imply that there is no story into which medicine and health fit. But if medicine is understood as a story, as a tradition of wisdom and practices remembered, learned, and taught, it is a story of learning to develop the skills required for coping with a body that is destined for death. The aim of medicine is to return sick bodies to health. Hauerwas argues that a Christian view of medicine aims at restoring the body to health, but it simultaneously relies on Christ and his witnessing community to face the realities of illness and death. It is not, then, simply a question of the doctor-patient relationship; it is also a call to remember, as the church does on a regular basis in communion, that God is with us, Immanuel. From this perspective the church can be a community of care, even in the midst of illnesses that modern medicine might not be able to cure.
On this reading the church’s vision is theological: when it addresses sickness and death, and when it addresses the past. Following the trail of John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas argues that the church must bear witness to God through nonviolence. The traditional story of the great deeds of kings and princes does not determine history; rather, the Christian church recognizes God as the driving force of history. This is obviously an apocalyptic reading of the past; God has, does, and will use the powers of domination in spite of themselves to serve his peaceful and just ends. Consequently, Hauerwas thinks that we should be carefully suspicious of the liberal state and the ultimate sacrifices it demands from us (i.e. our life for the state’s definition of freedom). The contrast, we are meant to see, is clear: the Christian church is a people determined by the one sacrifice that ended all worldly sacrifice.
Previously I wrote that Hauerwas insists that God cannot be known apart from witness. Christians do not witness to what they believe, but rather what they believe must be a witness. This view understands Christian witness as a faithful display of Christian speech sufficient to test what is said in light of how it is said, and which cannot be divorced from character. Character is not only a question of embodied practical virtue, it is a question of story. For Hauerwas the story of Christianity provides the basis for making practical judgments in the present. All Christian disciples bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and prudently engage in activity based on that truth.
If the church is the embodied story of a faithful community’s encounter with Jesus Christ, this story, Hauerwas underlines, does not end arguments; it opens spaces. As bearers of peaceful witness Christians cannot, as Christians, force their story. Instead they should trust in the God who has sent them to bring forth something new in which they are participating. In this sense, Christians are not against the world, but for it. The rite of baptism requires the church to live in such a way as to testify to the crucified and resurrected Jesus as fully present in the world. Lacking this witness, the church has no new life, language, or politics to offer, no practical wisdom or transforming power that can break open the possibility of renewal. Hauerwas understands this stance as theocratic, though, anticipating criticism, he’s quick to add that Christian politics is “a politics of persuasion all the way down”; coercion and violence are not legitimate options.
It might sound as if Approaching the End is unduly idealistic. But an attentive reader of Hauerwas knows that he consistently aims to be practical and concrete. Consider his reflection on the fiction of J. M. Coetzee. If the Christian church is a community of care, and if the Christian church cares by bearing witness, it does not deny that reality is difficult; far from it. Hauerwas reads Coetzee as a writer whose stories address our difficult realties. That is, in works such as Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee does not try to argue about the cruelty of reality, as an activist might on the subject of animal rights. Instead Coetzee’s stories make us aware and engage our imagination.
Hauerwas claims that Yoder’s understanding of holiness acknowledged a similarly difficult reality and, in response, called for a doxological reading of history. Seeing history doxologically does not mean Christians have a unique handle on history. Rather, as he puts it, seeing history doxologically is a form of witness that stretches the systems of thought through which we try to control our world. This is apocalyptic thinking insofar as it recognizes God as the cosmic ruler. Saying this might tempt Christians into thinking they can be the vehicles of God’s rule, but this would mean forgetting that human beings are fractured creatures. “To see history doxologically means we must learn to test our behaviour by identifying our life with those descriptions we call “the beatitudes.”” Among other things, we must refuse to exclude the enemy or exact vengeance. With Coetzee, then, Christians story their recognition of our difficult reality, and they refuse, given their apocalyptic perspective, to use this difficulty as a justification for violence. Instead their hope lies in God’s mighty deeds.
Like communities the world over, Christians struggle to acknowledge both their own wounds and the wounds of others. If we follow Haeurwas, Christians’ recognition of humanity’s mutual woundedness should lead to an acknowledgement of their own vulnerability and a commitment to forsake violence and vengeance as a means to redress it. Christians should openly admit their vulnerability while testifying to the source of their hope in the crucified and resurrected God. Approaching the End underscores the apocalyptic side of Christian witness, but this is not an otherworldly chiliasm; quite the opposite. As a community rooted in hope, joyfully celebrating even in the midst of a difficult reality, Christians participate in a story whose end is good. Nor is this a superficial solace. It is grounded in character, rooted in affirmation, and guided by a concrete prudence that knows how to distinguish between true and false consolation.
Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life by Stanley Hauerwas. Eerdmans, 2014, 251pp.
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