For more than thirty years Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, has focused his work on showing how Christian communities are to serve the world. Hauerwas is often wrongly (and much too quickly) dismissed by his critics as sectarian. But the question for Hauerwas is not whether Christians should be engaged with society, but how that engagement should be understood. Far from wanting the Church to turn its back on society, Hauerwas challenges Christians to serve the world through lives of faithful discipleship. This understanding of the fundamental vocation of the Church in the world is the abiding theme of Hauerwas's latest book, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. Though most of the ten chapters develop distinctive themes, each echoes Hauerwas's claim that perhaps the most important contribution of the Church to the world today is to be a community of truth.
Hauerwas's conviction that nonviolence is intrinsic to a life of faithful discipleship is further developed here, first in the opening two chapters which look at the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In a fascinating analysis, Hauerwas probes Bonhoeffer's insight that injustice and violence rest on, and are the harvest of, lies; by contrast, a community or social order characterized by peace and nonviolence require people so wholly committed to truthfulness that they refuse to lie. In general, Bonhoeffer claimed that the fundamental mission of the Church was to be the people whose faithfulness to Christ makes God's will visible and comprehensible in the world. Christians are called to be the "body of Christ" inasmuch as through their concrete, historical existence they manifest "God's new will and purpose for humanity." But there is no way for people to know, much less be attracted to, God's salvific will unless there exists a people who refuse to succumb to the distortions and deceptions of the world, a people who refuse to lie. This is a vocation of the Church. In one of the most perceptive passages of the book, Hauerwas notes that "Bonhoeffer was a relentless critic of any way of life that substituted agreeableness for truthfulness." Hauerwas acknowledges that this remains an abiding temptation not only for individuals and societies, but also for churches. In the name of tolerance we refuse to make any substantive claims for truth; indeed, tolerance, not charity, becomes the preeminent Christian virtue. But Hauerwas sees well that the outcome of this position is not the harmonious, peaceable community, but nihilism. "Tolerance becomes indifference and indifference leads to cynicism." Or as Bonhoeffer wrote to German Christians in the early days of Nazism, "All evasion is useless....Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now."
Hauerwas returns to this theme in the latter chapters of the book. In "Explaining Christian Nonviolence," he analyzes why for a Christian pacifism involves more than a commitment to nonviolence. The problem with reducing pacifism to nonviolence is that it suggests peace is nothing more than the absence of violence. But the peace that comes from Christ summons one to a comprehensive way of life constituted by an array of practices (e.g., forgiveness, truthfulness, fraternal correction) that make genuine community possible. Following Aquinas, Hauerwas argues that peace is the work of charity, and charity describes a way of life that has been wholly reconfigured by Christ. Thus, pacifism is the vocation not of a heroic few, but the way of life to which every baptized Christian is called. Through the Cross and resurrection of Jesus, an otherwise unthinkable possibility becomes a new and more hopeful way to live.
The penultimate two essays of the book are Hauerwas's response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. He agrees that for many September 11 demonstrated why an absolute commitment to pacifism is not only politically irrelevant, but also morally irresponsible. But the patience amidst suffering that is necessary to sustain a commitment to pacifism serves the world by showing that it is possible, even after a terrorist attack, to find more promising alternatives than violence and revenge. For Christians, the world changed once and for all not on September 11, 2001, but "during the celebration of a Passover in 33 A.D." It is this fact, Hauerwas says, that empowers Christians to imagine more creative and hopeful ways to respond to enemies.
Though some of the essays in the middle section of the book are likely to be too complex for the general reader, this is a book that needs to make its way into the life of the Church. Performing the Faith is a moving, compelling, and challenging book that captures well how the work of Stanley Hauerwas has not only enriched Christian theology, but has also served the Church. More than anything, in Performing the Faith Hauerwas shows that the utmost service of the Church is to be the people who "perform" the love, justice, goodness, and truthfulness of Christ both in and to the world.