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A Prophet Against the Empire

America's "best" theologian may also be its most profane and hardest working.

By 4.5.11

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Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir
By Stanley Hauerwas
(Wm. B. Eerdmans, 308 pages, $24.99)

Almost every article about Duke University ethicist Stanley Hauerwas references Time magazine's having named him America's "best theologian" in 2001. So it's natural that Hauerwas starts his own memoir with it, slightly tongue in cheek. He may not be America's "best" theologian, but he certainly is among its most influential.

A Methodist who now attends a "peace" oriented Episcopal church, Hauerwas is the chief popularizer of the growing neo-Anabaptist movement among today's Protestants and Evangelicals. He is the premier disciple of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who reinterpreted the Cross of Jesus Christ into primarily a rejection of all violence. If Yoder was the architect of the modern neo-Anabaptist surge, Hauerwas is its most effective evangelist. In surely a divine irony, Hauerwas was acclaimed by Time just in time for 9-11, which enhanced his rejection of all military force, no matter the provocation, not to mention nearly all things pertaining to the American "empire."

In a recent lecture, Hauerwas readily admitted, logically, that widespread pacifism may in fact increase violence in world, but such is the cost of faithfulness. Here is the chief problem for Hauerwas and his growing band of ardent followers in Christian academia and among the clergy. Defining Christianity chiefly as a pacifist sect ignores 95 percent of Christian tradition and places nearly all churches, except Mennonites and Quakers among a few others, as agents of error. It also makes Christianity chiefly a philosophy for insulated clerics and academics. Lay people who live in the real world will never, and should never, abandon mainstream Christianity to follow the Yoder-Hauerwas re-interpretation of the faith. Neither will non-clerics ever agree to shun all military and police power, no matter the ensuing chaos, in pursuit of an abstract theory. 

By all appearances, Hauerwas, who has spent his whole adult life in academia, is joyfully indifferent to the real world implications of his principles. And interestingly, perhaps as a relief to some, his memoir does not dwell with any length on his theology or how he came to it. It is instead a fairly entertaining personal remembrance, starting with his working class childhood in a small Texas town. His parents were faithful Methodists of a sort, though his mother was contentious, and his bricklayer father ardently profane. Hauerwas himself is renowned for an inherited proclivity for profanity, though surely the shock value of serious cussing, even on a seminary campus, in year 2011 is minimal.

Besides the cussing, Hauerwas also inherited disciplined work habits, especially from the bricklaying he began with his father while still a boy. Long days of soaking perspiration in Texas heat, hauling bricks by hand, surrounded by rough talking working men, and disregarding the racially segregated water pails, all were deeply formative for Hauerwas. So too was the absence of indoor plumbing. His father periodically had to relocate the family outhouse, leaving previous outhouse locales to fuel an ever more lush lawn. Hauerwas also absorbed a penchant for earthy camaraderie. He is renowned for cultivating zealous friendships among his colleagues and a devoted following among his students. Modern neo-Anabaptists likely would be far fewer had they depended on the intensely introverted Yoder, rather than the more exuberant Hauerwas.

Remarkably, Hauerwas rose from his modest roots to attend Yale and later to teach at Notre Dame, followed by Duke. He actually helped elevated Yoder, who was 13 years older, from relative obscurity at a Mennonite school to join the faculty at Notre Dame. The summit of Hauerwas's career was probably his delivering the prestigious Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2001. He shed his conventional Protestant liberalism not long after Yale, and he began to define himself as a critic of liberalism, by which he primarily meant modernity, capitalism, and nationalism, especially devotion to America. Of course, this form of establishment liberal Protestantism that he rejected has long since dissolved into post-modernity. So Hauerwas now chiefly rails against conservative Christians and enthusiasts for American democracy, all of whom purportedly have succumbed to idolatry when judged by the clarity of the Yoder-Hauerwas school.

Since their rise in the wake of the Reformation, Mennonites and other Anabaptists have traditionally been at least semi-separatists, avoiding public service, while usually not criticizing the government or those who serve it. Modern followers of the Yoder-Hauerwas school, in contrast, are quite loud in their denunciations of both. Amusingly, despite their rhetoric against coercion, violence, and "Caesar," they often are strangely comfortable, even enthusiastic, for the functions of big government outside of police and military. In a 2008 panel with his friend and debating partner, the late Richard John Neuhaus, Hauerwas, if I understood him correctly, admonished Christians to prioritize government health care over pro-life advocacy. Ever the contrarian, Hauerwas has been traditionally been pro-life, though doubtless discomfited by alliance with pro-life conservatives. Hauerwas also is ambivalent about homosexuality and same-sex marriage: "I hope and pray for the day when Christians can be so confident in their understanding of marriage that we can welcome gay relationships for their promise of building up the body of Christ." He does not explain how he theologically arrived at a position so at odds with the universal church, of which he is at least a rhetorical champion. Instead, he merely references his stance based on a friend of his and his wife's.

Hauerwas is very candid about the roller coaster of his married life. His first wife, whom he wed as a student, was mentally ill and often professed her love for other men. They had one son, to whom Hauerwas has always been very close, partly because they were both survivors of her many psychotic break-downs. Hauerwas endured the marriage across more than two decades, until his wife insisted she was pursuing another man, to which Hauerwas did not object, offering a generous divorce settlement. She later died a sad and lonely death. 

As a middle-aged man, Hauerwas found more satisfying love with a somewhat younger woman he met while at Duke. She is an ordained United Methodist who was a school administrator, and their 20-year marriage has been very happy. Despite his hellish first marriage, Hannah's Child is full of warm remembrances of rewarding friendships across more than 50 years as a student and teacher.

Frustratingly, the memoir is too brief about Hauerwas's transition from a Texas Methodist to an Anabaptist pacifist. He recalls that while at Yale he was befuddled by the anti-Vietnam War movement, thinking it "rather odd to protest the war by getting high and screwing." He has always "stood in awe" of pro-war Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr but realized he had been "seduced" by Niebuhr. While teaching at Notre Dame, Hauerwas was "stunned" by some pamphlets of John Howard Yoder. He realized the Anabaptists had "been right all along," and eventually blurted out to his friend, church historian Robert Wilken, "In fact, I am a pacifist." He combined a "strange brew of Catholic and Anabaptist resources to provide an account of Christianity that for many people would seem so compelling and beautiful." Yoder's vision of "living out of control" contrasted starkly with Niebuhrian realism, which "shuts down the imagination." Interestingly, Hauerwas also came to "love" the work of pro-Just War theorist Paul Ramsey of Princeton, whom he enthusiastically befriended.

Hauerwas recounts Yoder's somewhat odd though passing personal downfall. Yoder, who was married, began "experimenting" in the 1960s with unconsummated intimacies with various Mennonite women, arguing that such touching was nonsexual and spiritually beneficial. The various women eventually discovered each other and exposed Yoder, whose Mennonite congregation disciplined him in the 1990s across 4 years. Hauerwas helped persuade his friend to submit to his church's process. Finally reconciled with the flock in1996, Yoder died a year later.

Post 9-11, Hauerwas was on a panel at the University of Virginia, where he derided the U.S. response. His friend Robert Wilken, a professor there, denounced the treason and stormed out. Wilken later asked Hauerwas if he disdained "all natural loyalties." Hauerwas responded affirmatively, asserting that all baptized Christians must. Wilken and Hauerwas served together on the board of First Things, where the "Americanism" of editor Richard John Neuhaus was a "bit hard to take." Hauerwas's second wife was aggrieved by his association with "neoconservatives." He resigned from the magazine board after it editorialized that pacifists could offer no relevant counsel on military force. But he remained friends with Neuhaus and Wilken, both converts to Catholicism, noting that church's magisterium better understands how "economic liberalism is antithetical to the formation of communities capable of caring for one another in the name of the common good."

Although a champion of "the church" as the definitive human community, Hauerwas has migrated across several denominations, barely church going at Yale, later attending a Lutheran church, attending Mass and partaking of the Eucharist while at Notre Dame, then attending a socially conscious Methodist congregation in South Bend, becoming angry at a "church growth" Methodist church near Duke, and eventually settling on a "peace" Episcopal church. He laughingly calls himself a "high church Mennonite" but admits he has "never had a home in a particular ecclesial tradition." He and his current wife abandoned a weekend home because it interfered with their intense church involvements.

Hauerwas notes he often cries at church, though he is uncertain why. "I simply cannot get over what a surprising and wonderful life God has given me," he concluded. Hauerwas's drive to turn American Protestants, or at least many of their clergy and academics, into pacifist Anabaptists may not be laudable. But its partial success is a tribute to his gregarious charm, amply revealed in Hannah's Child.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.