Stanley Hauerwas always makes for an interesting read, and this work proves no exception. Although in the twilight of his career, Hauerwas continues to write with the passion of a young firebrand, especially when it comes to issues of justice and peace. This work on Christian pacifism sets itself apart by the way it connects the moral issues surrounding war with the unique challenges faced by American Christians. In the first chapter, Hauerwas throws down the gauntlet. Reflecting upon what Charles Taylor calls “the American difference,” Hauerwas writes: “Taylor is right to recognize that America’s unrivaled power in the world gives Americans a sense of confidence about our role as the ‘world’s policeman,’ but he does not articulate… how American civil religion (our assumption that we are a ‘religious nation’) relates to the fact that war for most Americans is unproblematic. War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations” (4). In the remainder of the work, Hauerwas seeks to counter this assumption about the moral necessity of war by demonstrating that “a commitment to nonviolence is the presumption necessary for the church to reassert its political significance” (12).
At this point, if the reader is tempted to assume that War and the American Difference simply involves Hauerwas recycling his most famous aphorisms regarding nonviolence, she would be mistaken. While Hauerwas certainly leans on his decades-long effort to move pacifism to the forefront of Christian theological discussions, his work here approaches the topic from enough creative angles to ensure an engaging read, even for the most seasoned reader of Hauerwas. Besides tackling the ethical challenges unique to the American experience, he also engages the thought and practice of some of the most profound twentieth-century thinkers on these topics. As one might expect, John Howard Yoder’s presence hovers over the entire book, but Hauerwas also includes an essay in honor of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent witness, while dedicating another chapter to a critique of C. S. Lewis’ arguments against pacifism. As in the rest of his writings, Hauerwas does not write from the stance of a detached ethicist; rather, he consistently grounds the discussion in deeply-held ecclesiological convictions.
From my perspective, though, it’s precisely when Hauerwas moves to ecclesiological concerns that he runs into his most serious roadblocks. While Hauerwas makes strong claims for the Church’s authority within the context of Christian ethical reflection, he himself has never fully embraced a particular tradition, being at different points in his adult life a member of Catholic, Methodist, and Anglican communities, all the while cherry-picking from the best aspects of the Mennonite tradition (at different times, Hauerwas has described himself as a “high church Mennonite”). In this book, as well, Hauerwas weaves together various strands of historic Christian thought, which certainly makes for a fascinating and challenging synthesis, but the question remains whether any particular ecclesial community actually embodies—or, even, can embody—the ecclesiological picture that Hauerwas paints. If, as Hauerwas claims, “the divided character of the church… endangers the world” (139), does it make any sense for Protestants to persist in their protest against the Catholic Church? Even if the original Protestant Reformers were not intending to compromise the unity of the Church, has not Protestantism concretely proven itself incapable of resisting fragmentation?
As a former student of Hauerwas, I pose these questions in charity. I realize that Hauerwas’ personal circumstances—most significantly, perhaps, his marriage to a Methodist elder—have fostered within him a genuine commitment to staying where God has placed him, even as he readily admits the weaknesses inherent to the Protestant position. As a Catholic moral theologian seeks to engage Hauerwas’ thought, however, it can end up being a frustrating task, as he presents somewhat of a moving target. For example, even while chiding Christians for their lack of unity, Hauerwas seems unwilling to entertain the traditional Catholic modes of embodying this unity (e.g., the Roman See as a symbol and instrument of unity) as possible answers to the problem of Christian disunity. On the flipside, if an unswerving commitment to nonviolence is constitutive of the apostolic faith, one almost wishes that Hauerwas would fully embrace the Mennonite perspective, which would arguably comprise a more coherent position than the one he currently holds.
In short, Hauerwas’ “chameleon-esque” modality in the realm of ecclesiology tends to weaken his criticisms of American civil religion, which is characterized, perhaps above all else, by the triumph of denominationalism. If Christian disunity truly does endanger the world, then this truth demands an utter seriousness in approaching the issue of ecclesial location and, in turn, inevitably leads to the question of which Christian tradition has faithfully maintained the apostolic means of preserving the unity that Christ wills for his Church. While I cannot substantiate the following claim within the space constraints of this review, it seems to me that Protestant denominationalism, by its very nature, undermines the possibility of addressing questions of war and violence in a coherent and counter-cultural manner. Admittedly, Hauerwas would resist the notion that his theology possesses a distinctly Protestant character, yet in important ways he retains Protestant habits, particularly, in his ecclesiological approach.
None of these complaints diminish my profound respect for Hauerwas’ lifelong work or cause me a moment’s hesitation in recommending this monograph. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Hauerwas always makes for an interesting read, and Christians from all traditions will find themselves challenged by his interpretation of the Gospel. Undoubtedly, one of the most fruitful projects for Catholic moral theologians in this century will be to appropriate Hauerwas’ most important insights while remaining fully committed to their own ecclesiological convictions.