Can a Bridge Be Built between the Christian Political Ethics of
Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas?
The Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics
Howard Payne University 2017
Roger E. Olson
In Part One of this two-part lecture series I explained my love for both Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas and my agreement with both of their general approaches to Christian ethics. For those of you who were not there I will briefly summarize the main points of that talk. First, however, I will repeat my “impossible dream,” as I described it, of uniting the best of these two theologians’ ethical programs. In Part One I spoke of my desire to construct a bridge over which people like I can walk between the types of Christian ethics well represented by Niebuhr and Hauerwas. A different and perhaps better metaphor would be discovering a via media, a middle ground space, which one might inhabit—taking the best of Niebuhr’s ethical approach and the best of Hauerwas’s ethical approach. I mentioned how absolutely Quixotic some experts and scholars would consider that; I acknowledged the difficulties such a project poses. Niebuhr and Hauerwas are usually considered opposite representatives of incommensurate visions of Christian social and political ethics. It is usually assumed that one has to choose between them, that one cannot agree with both of them without being double-minded and even falling into incoherence.
Why is that? Well, to give one simple reason, Hauerwas himself declared Niebuhr not a Christian because of his allegedly compromised, allegedly purely pragmatic social and political ethic. That was stated and explained in Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures published as With the Grain of the Universe. One can only guess what Niebuhr might say about Hauerwas; when Niebuhr died in 1971 Hauerwas had not yet written a book and was virtually unknown. I personally doubt Niebuhr would have declared Hauerwas not a Christian, but I don’t doubt he would have dismissed him, or I should say his approach, to social and political ethics, as insufficient and ineffective.
That guess at what Niebuhr might say about Hauerwas provides a nice segue into the single most important issue seemingly dividing them and their followers. The difference has to do with the ultimate goal of Christian social and political ethics: effectiveness versus faithfulness. In brief, Niebuhr was concerned throughout his career with Christian effectiveness in influencing the nation state, including governments, especially America, to discover and establish justice. Contrary to what both John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas’s mentor, and Hauerwas, however, I do not believe Niebuhr dismissed love as irrelevant to Christian social and political ethics. For example, in his classic 1935 book An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr included an entire chapter on “The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal” in which he spelled out very clearly the role of agape love—perfect, disinterested, equal love as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—for Christian social and political ethics. It is to serve as a purifying if impossible ideal; it may never be achieved especially by nation states. But it serves nevertheless as a critical principle for relative justice. It calls justice to higher approximations to perfect love and injects into rational justice the element of mercy. Still, and nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that Niebuhr’s main focus was on Christian effectiveness in influencing, even helping shape, public policies to make them more just. And he recognized and acknowledged that after Christendom, in a context of separation of church and state, “justice” has to be defined rationally. So, in order to implement justice in public policy, Niebuhr would say, for the sake of effectiveness, a Christian will have to turn to non-Christian sources such as the late Harvard University professor John Rawls and his theory of “justice as fairness.”
Hauerwas, on the other hand, was and is primarily concerned with faithfulness in Christian social and political ethics. He regards Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as something more than a “counsel of perfection,” and “impossible ideal,” or a “critical principle” to keep us Christians from going too far down the slippery slope of compromise with secular philosophies, with “real world politics.” For him, Hauerwas, non-violent non-resistance and active peacemaking form the non-negotiable core, the heartbeat, of Christian social and political ethics. Now it is simply not true, as many believe, that Hauerwas eschewed all Christian involvement in politics, but he did and does warn stringently against Christians compromising the gospel, at the heart of which he sees peacefulness, in that involvement. For Hauerwas, the Christian’s first duty is to faithful discipleship of Jesus Christ including suffering for the cause of peace.
What I have given here and even in Part One of this lecture series are really only thumbnail sketches of Niebuhr’s and Hauerwas’s seemingly incommensurate approaches to Christian social and political ethics. Time prevents a fuller and more detailed explanation of each. I think both have been widely misunderstood even by their own interpreters and disciples. Niebuhr was not a warmonger as some have claimed and Hauerwas does not advocate withdrawal from the rough and tumble world of political engagement as some have claimed. Their first and major difference, however, is one of general attitude toward the basic impulse at the heart of Christian social and political ethics—either effectiveness or faithfulness. And the way each fleshes out his own general attitude toward his chosen basic impulse often brings them into seemingly irreconcilable conflict.
Please be patient as I attempt to make this difference even clearer. While Niebuhr did not think war was ever a righteous crusade and while he criticized most wars as unjustified, he did think that in some rare cases even Christians need to support and be involved in armed conflict using deadly force. He thought and argued quite heatedly, during the 1930s, that American Protestant pastors, most of who were pacifists, were playing into the hands of tyranny and despotism, even genocide, insofar as they lobbied for America to stay out of the European conflict between the Allies and the Axis powers. Therefore, to that end of convincing them to change their minds, Niebuhr argued that all human life is tainted by sin, there is no perfection in human life, even among Christians, and because of the way the world is even Christians must occasionally use coercive means to hold back evil. He did not consider that something to celebrate, but he did consider it justified and forgivable in some situations such as crushing the Nazi and other fascist campaigns to rule Europe if not the world and to wipe out world Jewry (as the Nazis called it).
Hauerwas considers that compromise and lack of faithfulness to the revelation of God’s will in Jesus Christ. He calls Christians to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, even more literally than Niebuhr and most Christians have taken it, and form alternative communities, alternative social orders within the world living by entirely different standards of behavior—especially non-violent non-resistance even against the worst evils. After all, Jesus did not use violence or even coercion against this torturers and killers. And he said in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not resist the evil doers.” To dismiss Jesus’s example and clear teaching about peace is, Hauerwas argues, to sacrifice Christian faithfulness to dreamed of effectiveness.
I think it’s important to note that Niebuhr would argue that effectiveness in bringing about justice by almost any means is faithfulness—in this fallen and corrupt world filled with tyrants of all kinds. And I think it’s important to note that Hauerwas would argue that faithfulness in honoring the example and teaching of Jesus is effective in witness to the way of Jesus Christ, a better way than the world’s, and that is the kind of effectiveness we need.
I am still left with a dilemma. When I read Niebuhr I agree almost wholly with him; when I read Hauerwas I agree almost wholly with him. Am I then doomed to double-mindedness, to incoherence, to unintelligible belief and action in Christian social and political ethics? I hope not.
In Part One I suggested one way forward—toward overcoming the seeming incommensurability between the approaches to social and political ethics represented by Niebuhr and Hauerwas and that is to stop back and away from seeing them as personalities and regarding them instead as somewhat extreme and idiocyncratic representatives of types of Christian social and political ethics. What do I mean? Well, to put it bluntly, so it seems to me, Niebuhr and Hauerwas as personalities are overly reactionary which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see any middle ground between them. Niebuhr was obsessed with American liberal Protestant pacifism which he considered almost criminally ineffective as Hitler and Mussolini stormed against Poland and Ethiopia slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians. Hauerwas is obsessed with Niebuhrian “realism” which he considers halfway, if not all the way, down the slippery slope of accommodation to the culture of violence and death. But what if we could look past these personalities and their personal obsessions and look instead at the overall theories they represent? I suspect then we would find common ground between them.
But, some may ask, how can there be common ground or even a bridge between violence and non-violence? Indeed, that’s a good question and one I wrestle with much. However, a close reading of Niebuhr and Hauerwas reveals this to me if not to everyone. Niebuhr abhorred violence and regarded it as at most a necessary evil for which one ought to repent. This reminds me of the fourth century Eastern church fathers John Chrysostom, known as “Golden Mouth” because of his great preaching, whose policy it was, as Patriarch of Constantinople, even during the time of the so-called Christian Roman Empire, to prohibit Christian soldiers who committed violence from communion for a year long time of penitence. He did not condemn them or forbid them from serving in the Roman legions; he simply acknowledged the reality of Christians in the Roman legions and laid upon them the task of penitence if they had to kill someone. Chrysostom was also acutely aware of the sinful compromises every Christian had to make in order to be involved in running the empire, which in his time was primarily done in Constantinople. On the other hand, he spoke out loudly against the emperor and empress when and insofar as they led the empire in ways unnecessarily sinful and immoral. For such outspoken prophecy against corrupt so-called Christian political leaders he was killed.
My point in mentioning Chrysostom is not so much to say he is a bridge between Niebuhr and Hauerwas as to say he embodied in his own social and political ethic aspects of both. For him the burden of peace as well as the burden of simple, honest, servant leadership was laid by Christ on every Christian. And he held them accountable to bear those burdens. On the other hand, he knew that utopia was God’s eschatological gift not to be found in this world and proffered a way of finding forgiveness and restoration for those Christians who found it impossible to lead and live perfectly Christian lives according to Jesus’s example and teaching.
Now let me jump centuries ahead to another Christian who I regard as at least attempting to live in the liminal space between Hauerwas’s seeming perfectionism in Christian social and political ethics and Niebuhr’s realism in the same. He has been largely forgotten, but during his own lifetime—1842-1919—Christoph Blumhardt lived, ministered and worked in Germany in a similar tension-filled “space.” Blumhardt is interesting partly because he fits no known category; he was the only one of his kind. He was a Lutheran pastor, revivalist preacher and evangelist, Christian retreat owner and leader, exorcist, “faith healer,” universalist, pacifist, socialist. He believed in and practiced both spiritual warfare against the invisible powers and principalities that rule this fallen, corrupt world and political struggle against the visible powers and principalities that oppress people. After decades of radical Christian ministry around Europe he surrendered his pastor’s credentials and ran for and won a seat in the German parliament. He had one foot firmly planted in Hauerwasian radical Christianity, leading a separatistic intentional Christian community something like the “church” Hauerwas talks so much about. When German Kaiser Wilhelm declared war on France, Russia and Great Britain in 1914 Blumhardt, on Christian and political principles openly opposed it. He was almost entirely alone. And yet, he did not think the Kingdom of God would ever arrive through human effort and acknowledged the need for Christians to be involved in the rough and tumble world of politics. He joined the Socialist Workers Party and represented them in parliament even though he strongly disagreed with their atheism.
Blumhardt may be a Christian example of a hybrid of a Niebuhrian-type Christian realism in social and political ethics and a Hauerwasian-type Christian perfectionism in Christian social and political ethics. Like Niebuhr he was not afraid to get his hands dirty, so to speak, by borrowing aspects of his social and political ethics from non-Christians. Like Hauerwas, however, he was not afraid to form an almost utopian intentional Christian community dedicated to peace. With Hauerwas, Blumhardt clearly believed the church’s main social ethic is being the church as Christ intended it to be which is why he founded Bad Boll, his Christian retreat center where some of his followers lived permanently while others visited for long periods of time.
Now I would like to turn to my third example of a Christian social and political ethicist who might already have bridged the gap between Niebuhr and Hauerwas, although I make no claim that they would agree with him. Again, if we regard them not as personalities but as representatives of general Christian approaches I think we can recognize in all but forgotten Swiss Protestant theologian and ethicist Emil Brunner a thinker who anticipated the divide and sought to bring the best of both sides together.
Emil Brunner lived from 1889 to 1966 and, unfortunately, is best known now for his famous or infamous debate over “natural theology” with Karl Barth. Brunner really introduced “dialectical theology” to British and American audiences and was better known than Karl Barth especially in the English speaking world until the late 1950s and even into the 1960s when Barth made his one visit to America for a speaking tour. Brunner taught for many years at the University of Zurich as well as at the Christian University in Tokyo, Japan. He wrote dozens of books and a three volume systematic theology titled Dogmatics. His social and political ethic is found in several of his books including Volume 3 of Dogmatics titled The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation. Earlier, however, he wrote a one volume comprehensive Christian ethic entitled The Divine Imperative. In 1943 at the height of World War 2 he wrote Justice and the Social Order and his 1947 Gifford Lectures were published under the English title Christianity and Civilisation in two volumes.
However, the third volume of Brunner’s Dogmatics was published much later, in 1960, and contains many refinements of his earlier social and political views. (It is also dedicated to Christoph Blumhardt!) It is to his scattered reflections on the subject there that I will turn here. I think one can find in Brunner’s mature thought a guide toward linking together the best in both Niebuhr and Hauerwas. No claim is made, however, that Brunner provides a complete or perfect synthesis of the two types.
Hauerwas loves to say that theology always begins in the middle, meaning there is no much sought-after “beginning point” or “first principle” that provides the “place to begin” in doing theology. One always, inevitably begins “in the middle” and works forwards and backwards. So I will begin “in the middle,” so to speak, of Brunner in order to explicate his social and political thought for Christians. The last section of his chapter on “Conversion” in Dogmatics 3 includes this statement: “The man who is really converted to Christ is the man turned towards the world. The end [goal] of conversion is the complete worldliness of the man who lives in Christ, the worldliness of the man whose security is in Christ.” (288) Then, also, “Every believer [in Christ] is interested in the world of the nations, he knows himself called to dedicate himself to the goal of the coming Kingdom.” (288) Brunner makes clear in this context that he does not just mean prayer for the Kingdom or witness about Christ and the Kingdom of God to get people converted spiritually; he makes clear that he also means “active participation” in the work of social and political transformation.
Then, in his chapter on “Sanctification” Brunner continues that theme. For him true sanctification means a universal hope for humanity for the coming of the Kingdom of God which embraces “all mankind.” (296) “All individualism,” he wrote, “as a religiosity directed to the salvation of one’s own soul is a contradiction of the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.” (296) Now that might not sound especially surprising, but the next sentence is almost shocking: “What is at stake [in true Christian discipleship] is the realization of the ‘theocractic’ purpose of God in the world, a purpose which has been revealed in Jesus Christ.” (296) The question that naturally arises, especially for those of us who live in and appreciate separation of church and state, is what Brunner might have meant by “theocratic purpose of God in the world.” Let’s move on and find out.Later in the same chapter on “Sanctification” Brunner claims that true Christian discipleship is always bound up with “the will to assert God’s Lordship in the world.” (302) What that means, Brunner explains, is that “To assert the love of Christ in the world means to show it to our neighbour [sic] in his involvement in structures of the world which operate according to their own laws.” (302) Then, “And just because the world is bound by law in this manner, this will never be directly but always only more or less indirectly possible.” (302) What does this mean? It can only mean that the Christian, in his or her political involvement, must step out of any perfectionism and adapt the love of Christ to the conditions of the laws that bind the structures of the world which are never themselves based solely on the love Christ showed and taught.
But let’s look further into this political ethic of Brunner’s. Please excuse a rather lengthy quotation here:
Christian love accepts the task thus given of reshaping itself and does not let the alien character of the world deter it from realizing this indirect manifestation of love in the world, even when the world repeatedly misunderstands this manifestation because of the reshaping it has undergone. Only in relation to the person of my neighbour [sic], in immediate personal relation to him, can love assert itself directly, as it were without concealment. But this must not be a reason for limiting neighbourly [sic] love merely to the field of “personal relationships’; quite the contrary. The energy with which Christian interest penetrates into the world and expands in social and even political activity is the measure of the power and purity of love, that is, of its dependence on Christ. (302)
Brunner is here cautiously laying the foundation for what he says later in Dogmatics, Volume 3, about “The Christian in the World.” There he unpacks his understanding of what it means to be “in the world but not of it.”
For him the “world” is “humanity estranged by sin from God.” (314) It is especially the structures of life fallen under the control of sin, corrupted from their original purpose as created by God but still vital for human survival and flourishing. Government is one of these. Brunner rejects three traditional Christian approaches to relating Christian living “in but not of the world.” One is withdrawal. Another is explicit theocracy—government controlled by a church. A third is Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” theory in which a Christian lives by two conflicting ethical principles. Brunner does not give his alternative view a name but spells it out.
First, according to Brunner, we must understand the autonomy of the world and its spheres and structures of life. Of the Christian who seeks to serve Christ in the world but not of it he says “the autonomy of the world is always and everywhere a frightful reality which, when it…confronts him, impresses the individual [Christian] with a sense of his own impotence.” (319) In other words, it is not “putty in his hands.” The Christian cannot simply change the world into the church, nor can the church do it. Furthermore, according to Brunner, it is “quite simply [impossible] to act according to the commandment of the Sermon on the Mount” in the world. “The policeman or the judge cannot obey the word about turning the other cheek or about not judging without neglecting his duty as a policeman or a judge.” (319) Life in the world “cannot be brought into harmony with this rule of love.” (319)
However, Brunner goes on to say, “this does not mean that this law of the world is not accessible to influences exercised by the Ekklesia; that the State, for example, must be accepted just as it is and that there is no critical principle by which all secular institutions can be measured, and by which, even if they cannot themselves become Christian, they can at least be improved, made more humane, more serviceable to mankind.” (319) Notice the emphasis in this quote on the influences of the Ekklesia, the church, on the state. For Brunner, not only the individual Christian but the church as a whole is called by God to exercise influence on the state to make it more humane, more serviceable to humanity.
So, to recap, for Brunner the individual Christian ought to work in the world and serve in whatever secular vocation he or she finds himself or herself in for Christ which means living and working with both idealism and realism. The idealism means putting love into effect wherever and whenever possible; the realism appears in realizing that the Christian cannot perfect the world and must work with it and within it as it is. Also, for Brunner the church ought to influence the world, especially the state, to bring it as much as possible into conformity with the love of Christ by making it more humane and serviceable to humanity.
My special interest lies in the church and political ethics and action toward government. While Niebuhr and Hauerwas wrote about much else, that, broadly meant, seems to lie at the center of their attentions and their differences. Brunner seems to me to take a “both-and” approach to the attitudes and approaches advocated by Niebuhr and Brunner, but I admit that in order to flesh that out in practical terms I have to add words to anything Brunner wrote. I think I am faithful to his intentions, however.
First, there is obvious tension and even conflict between the social order, including government, of the world and the Kingdom of God. They are never the same. The principle of the latter is love; the principle of the former is justice. Justice in the world is always at least partially retributive which conflicts with love. In the world justice also always includes the possibility of coercion. And it is impossible to be directly involved in the world, especially in the sectors of the social order that governs it, without having something to do with violence.
Second, the Christian and the church must not withdraw into a “safety zone” of pure love apart from the rough and tumble world of social order policy making and enforcement. The Christian and the church may draw a “line in the sand,” so to speak, at overt violence and decline to use deadly force, but anywhere it is involved in the world it cannot remain innocently pure. The structures of the world depend on violence; being in the world, even if not of it, means some of that stain of violence that sustains the social order, keeping it from falling into anarchy, seeps onto the Christian, corrupting him or her.
Third, the Christian and the church can only influence the world with love, especially in the world’s social structures where public policy is created and enforced, indirectly—as witness of the “better way” Jesus articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. They cannot intend or hope to control the world, turning it into the Kingdom of God.
So what could Brunner have meant by “the theocratic purpose of God in the world?” Is there a possible meaning of that, in light of everything else he says, that both Niebuhr and Hauerwas could agree with? Obviously Brunner did not mean a theocratic purpose of Christians or the church. First, almost without doubt, he was speaking there teleologically and eschatologically—as referring to God’s ultimate purpose for the world—to bring it to his Kingdom and his Kingdom to it. Second, possibly without very much doubt, he was speaking of Christian service and action in the world helping anticipate the Kingdom of God by helping the social orders of this world become more humane and serviceable to humanity—all humanity.
This kind of talk worries Hauerwas, perhaps mainly because of what he perceived to be Niebuhr’s pragmatic accommodations of Christ’s love to the realities of the world in justifying Christian use of coercion and even deadly force. And yet, in his most recent book The Work of Theology, he adamantly asserts that he never advocated Christian withdrawal from the world or from involvement in politics. There he says that he never advised Christians to abstain from partisan politics or even military service. The only thing a Christian cannot do, he says, is participate in violence. Brunner does not disagree, although I think it’s debatable what he thought about that. Blumhardt, on the other hand, was opposed to war; he was a pacifist. But my point is that if Hauerwas believes a Christian, indeed the church, can rightly be involved in politics even prophetically, then he is not that far from Niebuhr! And if Niebuhr thought that Christian use of violence is always at best only necessary and never righteous he is not that far from Hauerwas!
Are we making some headway toward uniting Niebuhr and Hauerwas? I don’t know, but I think possibly so.
Now that I reflect back on these matters in light of Brunner, it seems to me that I was “set up,” as it were, to agree with both Niebuhr and Hauerwas by first reading Brunner. I devoured Brunner in seminary in the 1970s—along with numerous other evangelical and Baptist students. He was our liberator from fundamentalism. Then, during my first year of doctoral studies at Rice University under Baptist theologian and philosopher of religion John Newport I read Brunner more deeply. It always seemed to me, and still seems to me, that Brunner’s deepest ethical impulse is a unity of faithfulness and effectiveness in Christian involvement in the world. But, in good Protestant fashion, and I’m not always sure how Protestant Hauerwas is, Brunner, like Niebuhr, believed in something akin to total depravity and justifying grace. In other words, faithfulness in the world is effectiveness and vice versa—up to a point, up to a line that cannot be crossed. He is not as clear as Hauerwas attempts to be about where that “Do Not Cross” line lies. For Hauerwas it is coercion and violence. But, no doubt Brunner would simply say that coercion and even implication in violence is unavoidable in Christian life in the world unless one becomes a hermit monk living in a cave somewhere.
Well, I need to move on here—to my own proposal for uniting Hauerwas and Niebuhr however uncomfortable that unity might be.
I see myself as a citizen of two “worlds,” two “kingdoms,” two “cities.” I think every Christian should and most do. Only a very few find it possible to withdraw from citizenship of the world entirely and that only by living as hermits or by living in intentional Christian communities that are self-sustaining. I am not sure either one of those attempts, however, ultimately succeeds in being pure and unstained by the world.
For better or for worse I am an American. Sometimes I’m proud of that and sometimes I’m ashamed of it. For me it’s always an ambiguous identity. But it is part of who I am. I’m not sure that I could ever escape it no matter what I tried to do. And I don’t want to escape it. I suspect that’s true of Hauerwas, too. Whatever he says about the grave dangers of patriotism, he is an American.
For better or for worse I am a member of the Christian church. Sometimes I’m proud of that and sometimes I’m ashamed of it. For me that also is always an ambiguous identity. But it is part of who I am. I’m not sure I could ever escape it no matter what I tried to do. And I don’t want to escape it. I suspect that was true of Niebuhr, too. Whatever he didn’t say about the importance of the church for Christian social action, political ethics, he was a churchman.
Only for better am I a member, a citizen, of the Kingdom of God, the City of God, which is not the same as America or the church. The Kingdom of God is my primary citizenship. What is it? Many Christians mistakenly identify the Kingdom of God with heaven; it’s not heaven. The Kingdom of God is God’s rule and reign wherever God’s will is being done. Before Christ returns it is event, not institution or territory. But it is also people among whom that event of the will of God done, however imperfectly, stirs and transforms.
My first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God and my second loyalty is to the ekklesia, the true church which is the people of God being transformed by fellowship with Christ among ourselves, his followers, into Kingdom people. I do not think those two identities and loyalties can ever be separated. As a citizen of the Kingdom of God and as a citizen of the church, my charter for social and political ethics is the Sermon on the Mount and the way of Jesus the Messiah, his example of life within the world. Unlike the Essenes, for example, he lived among the Israelites and regarded himself as also one of them.
But, finally, my citizenship and loyalty is also, even if less so, to America. Yes, to the world, to all of humanity, but because I am formally a citizen of the Unites States, I will say “to America” for now. That is where the rubber hits the road in this conversation about Christian social and political ethics.
So the “starting place,” even if with Hauerwas “in the middle,” in this conversation is with these three citizenships. I hope most of you can identify with what I am saying here. You may substitute some other nation state for “America,” because you were born there and not here and retain that identity. All well and good; my point will ultimately be the same.
From Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have learned the distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate” in ethics. Here, my ultimate loyalty is to the Kingdom of God and the church. Ultimately, my energy, my concentration, my focus, must be poured out into making the church what it is called by its Lord to be. That is, with Hauerwas, the first, the ultimate, but not the only focus of my Christian social and political ethic. I agree with Hauerwas, perhaps against Niebuhr, but maybe not, that the main task of the church is simply to be the church—an alternative community and social order within the world, a city set on a hill, a light to the nations, living out peacefulness and peace-making in a world of violence.
With Brunner, however, and also with Blumhardt and perhaps also Niebuhr, I have a penultimate citizenship and loyalty and that is of and to America. Can Hauerwas really reject that—even for himself? I don’t think so. Why worry about the church being the church and thereby being a witness to the world, which for him means primarily America, if you don’t identify as a citizen of America and don’t feel any loyalty to it? I agree with Hauerwas that we Christians must strongly distinguish between our ultimate loyalty and and our penultimate loyalty, between the Kingdom of God and America. But I sincerely doubt that he really means it when he suggests that changing America to make it more just is not our business as Christians. In fact, in many places he suggests otherwise by calling for prophetic speech from the church toward America about war, for example.
These three citizenships and loyalties form for me a hierarchy with the Kingdom of God, virtually inseparable from Jesus Christ himself, at the top and the church below that and America below that. To the extent possible I seek to unify, bring into coherence, these three loyalties. I exercise every reasonable effort to bring the church into alignment with the ideals of the Kingdom of God. One thing that means for me is a church where worldly status means absolutely nothing and preferential treatment is given to the weak, the powerless, and the poor. To the extent possible I exercise every reasonable effort to bring America into alignment with the ideals of the church as it reflects the Kingdom of God—but without expecting the two or three to merge and become one. That will not happen by my or our efforts.
So what does that mean? What does it look like to even attempt to bring the ideals of the Kingdom of God and the church conformed to the Kingdom of God to bear upon the social order of America? As Brunner said, it cannot be done directly but only indirectly. What does that mean?
With Niebuhr I agree that justice is the closest approximation to perfect love under the conditions of sin and that means in the context of secular America. Brunner would agree. What would Hauerwas say? I suspect all he could say is that within the church love and justice are one and the same. But what about the state, the social order, the government? He admits that there they are not the same which is why Christians must have minimal involvement there. Yet, he says now that he has never forbidden Christians from being directly involved in politics and even government—up to that vague line of exercising violence.
What if Hauerwas were drafted to be a U.S. Congressman? I know it’s a crazy question, but play along with me. Imagine a North Carolina Congressman died and the governor appointed Hauerwas to fill the vacant seat in Congress until an election could be held. And imagine that, for whatever reason, he accepted the appointment. Then what? I doubt that Hauerwas thinks there are no Christians in the U.S. Congress. So what would Hauerwas do? He could not draft and promote bills to abolish poverty and war based on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. So he might just look around to see if there are any philosophies useful for creating public policies that are more humane and serviceable to humanity. But then he would be doing exactly what he has criticized Niebuhr for doing so many times! He would be reaching outside the sphere of Christ and the church, outside if not away from the Sermon on the Mount, indirectly, if not directly, to manage human history—something he has said is God’s business.
Now, you might want to sweep away my hypothetical situation as unthinkable and therefore irrelevant, but I suspect it’s not as unthinkable as that. After all, there are, or have been, good, reflective, Christ-following Congressman in the past if not in the present. I will mention Mark Hatfield of Oregon, an evangelical Christian who served in the U.S. Congress for many years between 1967 and 1996. Hatfield spoke and wrote often of his agonistic feelings about being a Christian in public office. He knew well that he could not escape all taint or compromise with the fallenness of the world while serving in the U.S. government. Hauerwas has never said that a man like Hatfield seems to have been—primarily loyal to the Kingdom of God and the church—cannot remain Christian and serve in public office in government. He has warned about its dangers and pitfalls, but he has not said it’s impossible.
So, one necessary building block of the bridge between Niebuhr and Hauerwas, a bridge still on the drawing board, would be an agonistic attitude toward direct involvement in politics—more than Niebuhr seemed to encourage but less, perhaps, that Hauerwas seems to encourage. Sometimes Hauerwas’s personality and prophetic style of speech, including writing, gives the impression that he has nothing but disdain for Christians who go into public life for the common good of America. But he says himself that he has never forbidden it; I suspect he only wants to encourage Christians with that calling to experience the agony more than the ecstasy of such power.
Another necessary building block of the bridge, should it ever be built, would be injecting love and peace as much as possible into all public policies and decisions regarding the poor and the enemy. Hatfield, for example, argued vehemently against war in Vietnam in the 1960s; he wanted to pressure the aggressive communists of North Vietnam and their Chinese supporters using economic sanctions rather than violence. One might think that his advocacy for that tactic paid dividends in some later potential conflicts such as our current one with Iran over nuclear weapons. Some Christians in public policy decision making offices use the secular philosophy of John Rawls, “justice as fairness,” “maximizing the minimum,” to inject some element of Christian love into economic justice—as an alternative to the prevailing Social Darwinism of much American economics.
Finally, another necessary building block of the bridge, should it ever be built, would be knowing when to stand down and move away from public office and taking a strictly prophetic stand toward government. This Niebuhr did not talk about which favors Hauerwas, and yet I could imagine scenarios in which Niebuhr would definitely call for a Christian to give up, resign, and simply prophecy against government. One historical example of such a Christian comes from before either Niebuhr or Hauerwas. William Jennings Bryan, unfortunately best known for his role in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennesss in 1925, was actually a progressive politician who worked in government for many years on behalf of the poor and for peace. He resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State when the president got Congress to declare war on Germany during World War 1.
I do not pretend to myself or anyone that I have already designed the perfect bridge to unite the ethics of Niebuhr and Hauerwas, but I will continue working on the design as I continue to find much that is powerful and convincing and even prophetic in both of their social and political ethics. My dream is, if nothing else, to bring them together someday in heaven (or perhaps purgatory) for a hopefully constructive and fruitful conversation leading to agreement about the fundamentals of Christian involvement in the world.