In James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, Stanley Hauerwas is quoted as follows:
It is alleged that by definition a pacifist must withdraw from political involvement. ...I refuse to accept such a characterization because it implies that all politics is finally but a cover for violence. That seems to be not only empirically unsupportable, but normatively a view that no Christian can accept. Rather than disavowing politics, the pacifist must be the most political of animals exactly because politics understood as the process of discovering the good we have in common is the only alternative to violence. What the pacifist must deny, however, is the common assumption that genuine politics is determined by state coercion. (Essay II, Ch. 7, Ft. 12 =Kindle Ed., Location 4610)
Let’s go to the “empirical” question first. Again, my standard source for this is Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. All social and political interaction is about the acquisition of goods. For most of human history, most of the the time war was the preferred strategy for such acquisition. Only recently, with the rise of capitalism and the world economy, has peace become the preferred strategy for gaining the desired goods of existence.
But the core fact remains: politics, whether done by war or peace, is about “getting the goodies.” That is “the good” all humans “have in common”. Aristotle, at the beginning of Politics, put the foundation of the state in the family, and says: “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants,....” And the only way of allocating those “goodies” is by “coercion,” sometimes by violence, sometimes by law, sometimes by the harsh regimen of “the ways things are”.
Even traditional pacifists understood the underlying continuity, as documented in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first use of “pacifism” is recorded in 1902. A use in 1935 says: “Pacifism does not renounce the struggle, but carries it on with the more effective weapons of non-violence”. Two years later, “Pacifism is not simply a negative policy of refusing to fight. It is a constructive policy of showing that there are more powerful and better ways of opposing your enemies.”
So pacifism does not renounce the political struggle—a struggle intrinsically about the acquisition of the goods of life—but claims a new, a more “constructive policy” of fulfilling that task. This fundamental insight is confirmed by Gat, as well as other analysts, such as Geoffrey Blainey in The Causes of War: “War and peace are not separate compartments. Peace depends on threats and force; often peace is the crystallisation of past force (p. 173, see also pp. 287-8, 293, inter alia).” Peace is simply another way of achieving what war attempts to achieve. The choice between peace and war is a question of means, not ends.
Now to Hauerwas’ claim that “no Christian can accept” the assumption that all politics is about violence or coercion. Let me anticipate the argument that coercion can be separated from violence. What makes violence coercive is that it attempts to compel someone else to participate in one’s own quest for goods. For most of human history, violence has been the preferred means to this goal. Therefore, even if coercion is nonviolent, because it is about getting these goods, it remains political, and politics remains about goods and the power to acquire those goods.
Gandhi was nonviolent, but only because he used psychological coercion, by using the Christian morality of the British occupiers against them. His actions, and the moralized reading of the Bhavagad Gita he used to justify it, remained about getting the goods.
So how could Hauerwas claim that there is a normative Christian claim that “politics [is properly] ... the process of discovering the good we have in common”; and without this normative understanding of politics, there is no “alternative to violence”? What is his evidence, either that this is how Christianity views politics, or that this view has normative power? More fundamentally, how did Hauerwas know that there is an alternative in “the good we have in common” to violence, which therefore gives us another option? Very strangely, given his reputation and alleged theological posture, he does not refer to a specific Christian theologism, but a generic human good.
Hauerwas’ move here is similar to that of Kant’s claim that humans have absolute worth, which I analyze here. Kant said that humans must have absolute worth, because otherwise nothing has absolute worth. However, he failed to show that something must have absolute worth. Likewise, Hauerwas assumes that there must be an alternative to violence, without demonstrating—either empirically or normatively—that such an alternative exists.
Nor can Hauerwas claim that Christianity offers such an alternative, which therefore requires a positive assessment of “politics understood the process of discovering the good we have in common.” Human existence is about getting the goods. We are enslaved to these biological, psychological, and sociological imperatives. Whether violence is employed or not, there is politics, and politics is about coercion.
Christianity claims to transcend these imperatives. But this transcendent is eschatological: the Christian hope is that the victory anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus will usher in a new heaven and a new earth. This eschatological change is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which Paul claimed makes the fundamental forces of existence subservient to Christ. In Galatians 4:9, he warns the Galatians against returning to the slavery of the “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (ESV). In Colossians 2:8, Paul (or a disciple) seems to have a similar idea in mind when he warns against “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world.” Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (v. 15).” Christians are now being led in the “triumphal procession” with Christ, like soldiers following their general in a victory parade (2 Corinthians 2:14 ESV).
So the imperatives have been brought to heel. They have been humbled. But no where does Paul suggest that Christ has put a new politics in their place. These imperatives are politics, and if Christians are not be to mastered by them, they must master them—in Eucharist, Word, sacraments, “spiritual disciplines” and “spiritual gifts;” in short, the “elementary principles” and “elemental spirits” of existence can only be mastered in the sacramental, liturgical, and moral practice of the faithful community.