War and the American Difference:
Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity ?
by Stanley Hauerwas
Baker Academic, 224 pages, $19.99
It is hard to think about the future of warfare without being terrified. The new weapons of war—nuclear, chemical, biological—will only get more lethal and more widely available. And the testimony of the world’s madmen and mad states suggests that once they possess such weapons, they will soon use them, or try to enslave the world’s free societies with their threats of mass killing.
We are in the middle of this drama, and we cannot know how it will play out. Serious statesmen will debate whether the only way to avoid a new age of high-tech killing fields is preemptively to undermine or overthrow the world’s most unsavory and power-hungry regimes. Preemption will likely mean preemption by force.
And so we are thrown into the moral dilemmas of war, with ever higher stakes and difficult decisions that must be made by our often ill-equipped political leaders. To think about the future of war should invite us all to bend our knees, look upward to the divine, and hope that humanity can be spared a self-inflicted apocalypse. We should pray, too, for sober leaders and courageous soldiers who might secure as much tranquility of order within history as our imperfect humanity allows.
Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most distinguished and surely most interesting Christian thinkers of the modern era, has been in the middle of this moral and theological fray for decades, arguing in various ways that being a Christian means never killing others in war. His new collection of essays, War and the American Difference , is his latest effort to show what it would mean to abolish war, and what it would mean to really live as Christ lived, and to live in the faith and knowledge that Christ’s coming has changed everything. In fact, the central argument of the book is that war has already been abolished, because in Christ we have a way—the only way—to live in peace in the face of the world’s evils.
The essays are provocative, cutting, and filled with interesting nuggets of existential insight into the condition of man and the meaning of faith. And Hauerwas is, in general, charitable to his opponents, be they Martin Luther, C. S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Paul Ramsey. But the larger argument—that we can live as if war has been abolished and that faith in God requires that we live that way—is morally unconvincing and at times morally perverse. And his claims about America as a nation addicted to the sacrificial system of killing and dying that is war, as ìneedingî September 11 and the wars that followed to sustain its identity, are at times offensive in the extreme.
In Hauerwas’ view, America is the great exemplar of the modern project, understood as the belief that each individual should be the free and autonomous author of his own story. This requires a relentless effort to overcome natural death, since human mortality is the stark and unavoidable reminder that we are not the ultimate authors of our own story. But the American version of modernity is uniquely defined by two special errors: the illusion that modern freedom and Christian witness are reconciled in America and the belief that America’s wars are redemptive, replacing the truly redemptive sacrifice of Christ with the blood sacrifices of soldiers who kill and die from one American generation to the next.
These two errors become one error: American patriotism becomes a false form of Christian piety, and killing for the nation becomes a dark and devilish project of killing for God. ìWar,î as Hauerwas puts it, ìis America’s altar.î
Central to this American self-definition is the blood sacrifice of the Civil War, which became a form of total war once it acquired a divine purpose and had ìbecome for both sides a ritual they had come to need in order to make sense of their lives.î American moderns have no answer to death, no way of living well with death. In peace, they lose themselves in the trivializing seductions of the market.
But this is not enough. So they need war to give them a sense of nobility and heroism and purpose; and they need war so that the current generation can honor, with its own death-accepting and other-killing blood sacrifice, the death and blood of their fathers and fathers’ fathers who died in war. September 11 came at just the right time, giving us a moral purpose: a blood sacrifice that renews and sustains what it means to be an American.
This redemptive understanding of war means we thirst for war, since without war we cannot ìnarrate our history as a unified story.î And yet, for all our noble talk, we are still death-haunted beings without a true faith in Christ, which means we fight our wars using ìmassive force to eliminate the need for American soldiers to be killed.î
This whole line of argument seems to me rather unfair to America—and seems like a clear case of allowing one’s theology to get in the way of careful historical and political analysis of why (and how) Americans fought in the past and why (and how) we fight today. War and the memory of war do indeed have an important place in America’s history and identity, but war is certainly not our ìaltar.î
There have indeed been times when we have used massive and terrible power against terrible enemies; and yet, right now, brave American soldiers endure great risk to themselves in an effort to avoid killing civilians. And while the history of America’s wars is hardly a story of moral perfection, it is, by human standards, a mostly heroic story of doing the right thing and doing it for the right reasons.
For Hauerwas, there is no such thing as a just war, since Christ is the embodiment of justice, and the revelation of Christ is that men should not and need not kill the other we are called to love. He believes the tragic necessity of war is an illusion. It is the denial of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, which we have replaced with the blood sacrifices of modern war. The only answer—for him, the only Christian answer—is to ìsacrifice the sacrifices of warî and to see the truth that the new reign of peace has already come. As Hauerwas writes, in what is probably the clearest and most powerful statement of his theology of nonwar:
We are fated to kill and be killed because we know no other way to live, but through the forgiveness made possible by the cross of Jesus we are no longer condemned to kill. A people have been created who refuse to resort to the sword, that they and those they love might survive. They seek not to survive, but to live in the light of Christ’s resurrection. The sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We can now live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.
In the end, my biggest problem with the book—and the particular Christian eschatological vision that underlies it—is that Hauerwas never tries to imagine what real life would look like if we adopted his ethic. He describes powerfully and realistically the horrible realities of war. But he makes no effort to envision what history would become if sane states and sane leaders loved their enemies unto death, leaving the world to concentration camps and suicide bombings, to well-armed and deluded men who would kill our children and make us all slaves of their power within history.
If Hauerwas is the realist he claims to be, let him at least be realistic and honest about what will likely happen if love is our only weapon against those who believe that sending young girls to the gas chamber is rational or that nuclear war against Israel might bring about the new reign of God on earth.
Perhaps, in the eyes of God, Hauerwas’ pacifism will be forgiven as an honest error: an irrational way of confronting evil but one that at least recognized without illusions that evil is real. And perhaps Hauerwas is the truer interpreter of what the Christian gospels really teach—I hope that he is not, but I (a Jew and surely no theologian) am in no position to judge.
But if Hauerwas’ political theology is the true political theology of Christianity, then Christianity is a form of eschatological madness. And most Christians I know are not mad; indeed, they are, in general, the best hope for preserving a decent, God-seeking, free society in the face of the politics of death, desperation, and domination.
No lesser a Christian than Martin Luther understood our predicament: Anyone, he wrote in ìOn Temporal Authority,î who tried ìto rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and the sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword”or the need for either” . . . would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures; but I would have the proof in my wounds.î
I do not believe that Hauerwas sees America’s enemies as harmless, tame, and gentle creatures. He is too smart for that. But either he believes that loving them (combined with our unilateral disarmament) would change them or that dying under their sword would be the only right way to live. Such arguments make even less sense today than they did in Luther’s age, for the sword has been replaced by the nuclear bomb.
And while it may be that, in the end, only God can save us from ourselves, we should bear the burdens of trying to protect history—and the sweetness of life that can exist within it”from those who would make it a graveyard of the innocent.
Eric Cohen is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor-at-large of The New Atlantis .