Pacifism, Stanley Hauerwas and Faithful Witness

on August 3, 2013

Famed neo-Anabaptist theologian Stanley Hauerwas of United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School was recently interviewed about his pacifism. He called Christian support for the Iraq War an issue of “deep unfaithfulness” and said of World War II:

I always answer the challenge of WWII by asking people “Who fought in Hitler’s war?” The people who fought in Hitler’s war were Catholics and Protestants. All I’m trying to do is help Christian be able to recognize what they’ve been given in Christ, which is the ability to say “no” to the Hitlers of the world. Of course, the world would be better without the Nazi regime, but that’s not to say that the war was a good thing. Moreover, it wasn’t a just war as it was not fought on just war principles.

Hauerwas also bemoans flags in churches as a “form of betrayal,” because the flag “represents for many a more determinative sacrifice than the sacrifice of Christ.” And he complains that Christians are “unable to distinguish the church from America,” which is “perverted.” These themes are traditional for Hauerwas, who defines pacifism as intrinsic to Christian faith, and who deeply despises the United States, for supposedly offering since 1776 a presumptuous counter narrative to Christianity.

Hauerwas has a wide following among oldline Protestants and some evangelicals, who imagine that his defiance of traditional religious conservatism is provocative, even naughty. But little of what Hauerwas offers is seriously prescriptive for the church’s public witness. It’s mostly just flippant repartee suitable for the professoriate and some student followers.

For example, it’s obviously true that many professing Christians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe tragically served the Third Reich. But how should Christians who opposed Hitler then should have reacted to subsequent outrages? Complete fidelity to Hauerwas’ demand for absolute pacifism required that Christians in Britain, America, Australia, Canada and elsewhere should have stood aside while Germany overran Europe, plus parts of Africa and Asia, committing genocide, and creating a monstrous new empire that then would have threatened the rest of the world. Millions of Jews and others would have been and in fact were murdered in the short term, while tens of millions of others, like the Slavs, more gradually would have been exterminated after an initial slavery, as these “subhumans” were eventually replaced with Germans, according to Nazi theory. Japan’s genocidal occupation policies were backed by similar claims of racial superiority.

Hauerwas says WWII was not a just war because it was not fought on just terms. Which wars has he considered just? Pacifists like to claim that no conceivable conflict ever attains just war criteria, because they don’t apply the tradition seriously. Also, which parties fought unjustly? The Soviets obviously did not aspire to just war principles, nor did the overwhelmingly non Christian Chinese or most other Asian peoples resisting Japanese aggression. Hauerwas of course likely has America and maybe Britain in mind, specifically the air war against Germany and Japan. But would he describe armed resistance to Axis aggression as just absent Allied bombings? Doubtful.

Once Hauerwas declared he wasn’t offering a foreign policy, he was offering the Church. But Christ is Lord of all and intrinsically cares about the welfare of all people, which entails attention to peace and security to the extent attainable through civil governments. The Church cannot retreat into neo-Anabaptist escapism if it is to be faithful to its scriptural and historic calling.

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