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Theologian: Christian Contrarian

5 minute read
Jean Bethke Elshtain

Here is a Stanley Hauerwas story. Hauerwas was debating a medical researcher who was defending experiments on fetal tissue. “What if it were discovered that fetal tissue were a delicacy?” Hauerwas asked with his trademark Texas twang. “Could you eat it?”

Hauerwas is contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur. His depth charges are just as frequently aimed within that world as outside it. That “Hauerwasian” has become a common way in theological circles to characterize an argument is an irony, given that the Duke University Divinity School professor set out to place himself at the margin rather than in the center of the theological mainstream.

Hauerwas has been a thorn in the side of what he takes to be Christian complacency for more than 30 years. For him, the message of Jesus was a radical one to which Christians, for the most part, have never been fully faithful. Christians, he believes, are called to be a pilgrim people who will always find themselves in one political community or another but who are never defined completely by it. Thus, as the body of Christ on Earth, Christians must be a “sign of contradiction,” to borrow a term from Pope John Paul II, a moral theologian much admired by the very Anabaptist Methodist Hauerwas. Hauerwas recently argued that in a human future he believes will be bleak, Christians should be known as “those peculiar people who don’t kill their babies [through abortion] or their old people [through euthanasia].”

Hauerwas is happy to say that his rise to prominence is not the result of any special intellectual gift. He has always said that he is no smarter than other people but that he will “damn well outwork ’em.” Salty in speech, given to joking about the “ontological superiority of being a Texan,” he has written 25 books and hundreds of essays and articles on dozens of topics. Avoiding highly technical monographs, Hauerwas insists that the best theology is most often found in sermons, homilies, prayers and popular writing. The theologian who is faithful must engage the pressing issues of the culture rather than hide behind impenetrable jargon.

Before communitarianism became a buzzword, Hauerwas addressed community. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act, he wrote perhaps his most engaging work on persons with disabilities and how, as a community, we react to their presence. He anticipated debates about genetic manipulation. Before talk of “the virtues” became widespread, Hauerwas wrote about the need for an account of our habits as members of communities. Do these communities sustain virtues? One virtue Hauerwas extols is faithfulness. He urges people to be faithful Roman Catholics or Orthodox Jews or Evangelicals or Muslims. It is faithfulness to a complex tradition that forestalls being overtaken by majoritarianism or convention.

Hauerwas is a volatile, complex person with an explosive personality and high-energy style. For many, he is an unlikely pacifist. He insists that Christians should exemplify a radical message of peace. Hauerwas learned this lesson from the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder. Hauerwas has respect for a position known as the just-war perspective, a mode of reflection on war’s occasional tragic necessity, either for self-defense or to protect those who might otherwise be slaughtered. But he insists that most Christians who claim that position are not really serious about it, or they would oppose many more wars than they do. His radical pacifism leads him to condemn any and all forms of patriotism, nationalism and state worship. (And he disdains most distinctions between these positions.)

If Hauerwas’ rough speech and pointed views are taken as scandalous within academic society, he believes that what really scandalizes the so-called wisdom of the world is the message of the cross. If Christians really faced up to the facts of Jesus’ story, they would be shocked. It is a radical tale: God revealed himself in inauspicious circumstances–in a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire and among a beleaguered people, the Israelites. Through his ministry and death, Jesus offered humankind a radical vision of forgiveness and freedom from revenge. To a world obsessed with power, that is outrageous. An omnipotent God incarnate who relinquishes his power and dies an ignominious death in order that human beings might “have life and have it more abundantly”? Whoever heard of such a thing?

A God who embraces powerlessness unto death is a message the world will never accept, says Hauerwas. Yet, he argues, it is that message the Christian is bid to take to all nations. If you were to ask Hauerwas to define himself by a single word, once he got Texan out of the way, he would probably say disciple and add that anyone who uses the word “better damn well mean it.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago

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