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Response to Hauerwas

[At the ‘Amidst the Powers’ conference, I was invited to issue a five minute response to Stanley Hauerwas’ plenary, which was on the topic of war, its concomitant sacrifices, and the Christian alternative.  This is what I said.]

First, of all let me say thank-you to the organizers of this conference for providing me with the opportunity to respond to Dr. Hauerwas. Secondly, let me say thank-you to Dr. Hauerwas himself for presenting us with a lecture that honestly confronts the realities of our war-torn world, from the perspective of the Christian faith.

As I find myself largely in agreement with what Dr. Hauerwas has said, I would like to spend the bulk of my response proposing one possible way of filling out his understanding of how the existence and worship of the Church brings an end to war. I would like to propose that embodying God’s preferential option for and with the poor is a practice that reforms the habits of our imagination and offers us the moral equivalent of war, so that war becomes superfluous to the narration of our life together.

However, before I pursue this thesis, I feel that it might be useful to emphasise that Dr. Hauerwas’ remarks are just as relevant to those of us who live in Canada as they are to citizens of the United States. It is important to emphasise this point because, ever since Lester B. Pearson, Canadians have tended to view their international military exercises not as acts of war but as an essential element of peacekeeping. Thus, while we may view the US as a war-mongering nation, we have tended to view ourselves as a peace-loving people, engaging in peace-building activities around the world. Unfortunately, this view is entirely false. As has been well-documented by independent journalists, media critics, and various non-governmental organizations, the language of ‘peacekeeping’ is all too often an ideological gloss used by the Canadian government to disguise overt acts of aggression and war. Thus, for example, in 2004 when Canada was instrumental in overthrowing the democratically elected Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (in order to continue a brutal class war against the people of Haiti) operation “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was created and Canadian soldiers were sent in with a UN peacekeeping force. Now “Responsibility to Protect” sounds a great deal more admirable than operations like “Desert Storm” or “Shock and Awe” but the actions taken and the end results are the same. The same should be noted of other Canadian military exercises – from the Balkans to the Horn of Africa, our so-called peacekeepers have have been used to exploit local conflicts in order to advance the interests of the Canadian government and various transnational corporations. These are the same interests that Canadian forces are serving in Afghanistan today. Therefore, when we residents of Canada listen to Dr. Hauerwas speak of the moral practice of war, we should be looking at ourselves and not at our neighbours to the South.

Having said that, I return to my suggestion that embodying the preferential option for and with the poor is the way in which the worship of the Church puts an end to war. Dr. Hauerwas has argued that the worshipping Church, existing as a social ethic, offers us an alternative to war and its concomitant sacrifices. This, I think, is an excellent point to make, but we must ask ourselves: how does the Church exist in this way? This is a question Dr. Hauerwas does not address in much detail, although he does touch upon the importance of being shaped by the liturgy and of living in a manner that is consistent with participation in the Eucharist. Again, another important point to make, but without filling out the concrete details of what it might look like to be shaped by the liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular, we risk continuing to live inadvertently contradictory and compartmentalised lives. Thus, while I’m sure that Dr. Hauerwas does not wish to divorce the spectacular from the real, or the spiritual from the political, the manner in which he addresses this topic risks allowing the listener to engage in this divorce and think that he or she is acting as an agent of peace by partaking of the body of Christ on Sunday – even though he or she goes on to support acts of war and violence simply by participating in middle-class life from Monday to Saturday – for war is not simply a force that gives us meaning, amongst other things it gives us the stolen resources and the bloodied but cheap goods upon which our daily lives depend.

Therefore, I would like to fill out Dr. Hauerwas’ conception of the worshipping Church as a social ethic be making explicit that this requires members of the Church to embody God’s preferential option with the poor. This, after all, is what true catholicity requires – the unity of the Church only takes place when the confessing members of Christ’s body (the churches) are united with the crucified members of Christ’s body (the poor). It is in this practice of concrete economic and political solidarity that the Church comes to embody a moral practice that is equal to the compelling, fascinating, and perversely beautiful moral practice of war.

Now there are many stories I could tell to illustrate this thesis – I could speak of acting as a human shield in front of a young drug dealer and the gunman hired to kill him, of giving the clothes off my back to a woman who was stripped naked by her pimp, of hosting sex workers at our home for dinner, and of allowing an old bank robber to find sanctuary on our couch – and all these things would try to express the intimate bond created amongst those who pursue this trajectory, not to mention the passion, beauty, and genuinely cruciform sacrifice to be found in such people and places. However, much like war veterans mentioned by Dr. Hauerwas, those who try to live this way, often find it difficult to speak of their experiences in normal, even Christian, communities. Such stories are too alien, too easily romanticised and perverted by both the teller and the listener, to mean much to those who do not share in them. Indeed, I suspect that the listener only comes to know the compelling nature of such stories, when he or she chooses to move into those narratives and personally embody them.

Therefore, I believe that Dr. Hauerwas’ plenary needs to be complimented with an invitation – come, taste and see that the Lord is good and to be found in the company of ‘the least of these’. For I know this much to be true: members of the Church cannot come to the table of the crucified Christ if they are not also sharing a table with the crucified people of today. To try and do so is, as Paul says, to eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.

Thank you very much.

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  1. Dan,
    Where can I look for more info on the Haiti-Canada issue? I’ve never heard of this before? Do you have any web sources – for and against?

  2. Does working your ass off towards a relatively stable lower-middle class lifestyle for the sake of a family member with mental illness count as opting with the poor? I think there are more people than we know of trying to perform just such a task so that some people do not need to be drastically ‘opted with’.
    Honestly wondering about your thoughts.

  3. “Thus, while we may view the US as a war-mongering nation, we have tended to view ourselves as a peace-loving people, engaging in peace-building activities around the world. Unfortunately, this view is entirely false.”
    You’re not worried that you’re exchanging one dualistic pole for another? Canadians have NO interest in peace and have never engaged in peace-building activities around the world?

  4. The Canadian self-image is too often one of simplistic contrasts between Canada and the US: The US is violent, Canada is peaceful, the US is racist, Canada is tolerant, the US destroys the natural environment, Canada protects it. You don’t need to go very far to disprove any of these assertions, but they have a powerful hold on the Canadian psyche. I think Dan is trying to provide a corrective, to shake us out of a self-satisfied daze.

  5. Dr. Stackhouse,
    Fair enough, I understand your concern. However, I think that it is easily put to rest.
    I am not saying that “Canadians have NO interest in peace and have never engaged in peace-building activities around the world” (NB: this blog links to a handful of Canadians — both individuals and institutions, who are quite committed to the work of peace). In fact, I would be quite surprised if anybody at the conference thought that I was saying that.
    Rather, what I am arguing is that the international military exercises in which Canada has participated are (at worst) completely antithetical and disinterested in the work of peace or (at best) only secondarily concerned with peace-building (despite the rhetoric employed). Hence, I point you to the examples I mentioned in this entry — Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Afghanistan. One does not have to dig too hard to find out what was (and is) really going on in those situations.
    That said, I should perhaps point out that a desire to avoid extremes is, itself, an ideologically-interested position!

  6. I do not desire simply to “avoid extremes.” I believe that Jesus is Lord. That’s extreme.
    I desire to help you and others like you–who have valuable things to say–to say them better, and by “better” I mean both “more truly” and “more persuasively.”
    It’s fun to say “that is entirely false.” But I think it is neither accurate in this case nor persuasive to anyone who might be open to hearing from your point of view and doesn’t currently share it. Of course I think that self-interest, let alone mere realpolitik, figures in Canadian peacekeeping. And it’s worth saying such things in the face of Canadian self-congratulation.
    But I don’t think the career of Canadian peacekeeping should be written off as entirely cynical, as if it has done no good and as if everyone involved in it has been either a hypocrite or a dupe. And when you say “that is entirely false,” you haven’t left yourself much room for this kind of qualification, have you?
    I am vexed about political talk that aims only to rally the faithful and makes no evident attempt to convert the open-minded. I still see you as someone who can do the latter (as I hope you will) but is still enjoying the former too much.
    So I’m going to stay after you a little while longer, Dan, because I believe in you and what you could do for the Kingdom beyond what you are already worthily doing. I can’t help Stanley Hauerwas, but maybe I can help you!

  7. What about the cooercion that has been forced upon the Iclandic peoples at the hands of Canadian loggers and fur trappers? The church has virtually remained silent about this.
    One of the reasons this is so, and I would have challenged the conference speaker on this point is that we do not have an epistemology of cohesion. Instead, we resort to the old, worn out, methodical ways of teleological and in-didactic reasoning. I don’t mean by this that I agree with the new-school Anabaptists or the radical anti-foundationlists. I’m merely drawing attention to our lack of cohesion in our reasoning.
    Dr. Stackhouse, you can probably appreciate this considering your Kuyperian roots.

  8. Dr. Stackhouse,
    To be honest, the reason I speak is to neither ‘rally the faithful’ nor ‘convert the open-minded’. Rather, in my speaking, I am trying to (as honestly as possible) confront the reality of our current situation in order to try to determine how those shaped by the Christian narrative might respond to that reality. In doing so, I am also trying to encourage all people — be they ‘the faithful’ the open-minded, the close-minded, the unfaithful or anybody else — to take concrete, Spirit-empowered, historical action in solidarity with the crucified Christ and the crucified people of today.
    However, it is entirely up to the listener as to how he or she might choose to respond to what I say. Further, I am suspicious of force in its many forms, so I’m not particularly interested in using rhetorical tools to manipulate my audiences in order to persuade them. I’m simply striving for honesty.
    Speaking of which, I do think that my original statement (taken in context) is accurate. I don’t think that I’m being unduly cynical about any of the Canadian military exercises that have taken place in the last, oh, forty or fifty years (I suspect that one could extend that time frame back to Canada’s origin, but these more recent years are the ones with which I am most familiar). Of course, I’m open to you proving me wrong, but I have studied up on this topic so you’ll need to show me more than what one might find in the mainstream media.
    So, do you see another benefit of stating things this way? It forces those who think otherwise to actually dig into the facts of the matter at hand. Consequently, even if they conclude that I am overstating my case (although I don’t think I really am, I as said in my above comment), they will also probably realise just how awful our military history is.
    Grace and peace (and I won’t give up on you, if you won’t give up on me!),
    PS – On an unrelated topic, I watched a documentary on the origin of AIDS and it reminded me a lot of yourself and Niebuhr on the topic of Christian realism and compromise (given that the AIDS pandemic likely resulted from the production of the Polio vaccination). I’d like to chat some more on this theme with you when I get back to Vancouver.

  9. Thanks for your courteous response, Dan. I don’t think we’re quite connecting on a couple of key points, alas, so let’s put it on the agenda for our next conversation.
    Looking forward to it,
    John Stackhouse