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A playful mind

Interview | Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas relishes a good dose of controversy along with his theology

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

"America's Best Theologian." That's what Time magazine in 2001 called Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke University Divinity School professor known for his feisty pacifism. Hauerwas, 66, is a United Methodist who receives academic applause but conservative opposition when he critiques American patriotism and individualism.

Hauerwas refuses to compromise concerning pacifism even when alternative approaches have seemed more successful. I asked, "In retrospect, was Ronald Reagan right to insist that arms race pressure would force the disintegration of the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War, or do you think an American unilateral disarmament would have more quickly accomplished that objective?" He responded, "America should have unilaterally disarmed in the face of the unjust targeting character of nuclear weapons. That America was able to send the Soviet Union into bankruptcy is not what I would regard as a moral victory."

Many theological conservatives pointedly criticize Hauerwas. Wabash College professor Stephen Webb noted, "Perhaps the key to the reception of his work is his anti--Americanism. . . . By continuously thumping on that theme, he is able to gain a larger academic audience than would ever listen to a more traditionally evangelical theologian. Indeed, without his constant critique of everything American, he would be in danger of looking like just another evangelical theologian."

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And yet, that larger academic audience is hearing something about Christ, and apart from Hauerwas it's unlikely that they would. Students who have seen "personal peace and affluence" (to use Francis Schaeffer's expression) placed ahead of Christ in their churches often respond favorably to Hauerwas' call, and others turned off by legalistic churches may tune in to Hauerwas' playful mind. He opposes abortion, and his response to a defender of fetal tissue experimentation is hard to top: "What if it were discovered that fetal tissue were a delicacy. Could you eat it?"

WORLD: I'm wondering about your basic theology. Do you see Scripture as inerrant? Is salvation only through Christ?

HAUERWAS: I really don't have a "basic theology." I'm not sure what that description would imply. I believe what the church tells me to believe. I assume that the question about Scripture being inerrant assumes that such a view of Scripture is what constitutes "basic theology." But inerrancy is anything but basic. It's a modernist view that is in deep tension with the church's claim of the authority of Scripture. Of course I believe that Scripture is the word of God. It contains everything necessary for salvation, but it does so through the Holy Spirit through the discernment of the Word by the Body of Christians. To ask, 'Is salvation only through Christ?' presumes you might know what salvation is separate from Christ. Christ is our salvation-so you cannot separate the new creation enacted through Christ from His work.

WORLD: You wrote in your "Peacemaking" essay, "We know that as God's creatures we are not naturally violent." Unless you mean "natural" as pre-fall only, could you explain how-based on both Scriptural and historical evidence-you come to that assessment?

HAUERWAS: The claim that God's creatures are not naturally violent is one meant to make you think twice about the word "natural." We were created to be at rest, that is, capable of worshipping God. That we refuse to be at rest, to be at peace, is an indication of our fallen character. But we refuse to believe that God has abandoned us, making possible outbreaks of peace in places most unexpected. For example, look at the work of Jean Vanier and the L'Arche movement. Then you will see what we were naturally created to be. [L'Arche is an international network of faith-based communities involved in creating homes and day programs with people who have developmental disabilities.]

WORLD: You wrote that you have some sympathy with the position that Christians are "unjust if they allow another person to be injured or even killed if they might prevent that by the use of violence." Should Christians have tried to prevent the massacres in Rwanda, or in Darfur recently? While you don't approve of defensive wars, when (if ever) might you countenance a disinterested war?

HAUERWAS: That I have some sympathy with those who would refuse to allow another person to be unjustly injured or killed is simply a statement that any person should make. But that sympathy does not mean I think we should kill in order to prevent another from being killed. I've always insisted that Christian nonviolence is a harsh and dreadful love requiring that at times we may have to watch the innocent suffer for our convictions. But that is true of any serious moral position including the just war position. Of course Christians should have tried to prevent the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. The question is how? I can't imagine what a disinterested war would look like.

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