Spring 2018 Semester Highlight: Stanley Hauerwas' The Peaceable Kingdom

Now that I’ve completed another semester, it’s time for another series of “Semester Highlights,” as I’ve decided to call them. This semester (Spring 18’), I had a seminar class on systematic theology, two Greek classes, and I finished up my internship at CSNTM.[1] It is likely the most academically demanding semester I have completed so far—due in part to taking Greek 4 simultaneously with Advanced Greek Grammar.

Systematic Theology

The theology class I completed this semester was seminar style, by which I mean that there was little formal lecturing. Rather, throughout the semester, each student was responsible for preparing a 45 minute presentation and then fielding questions. This was the second of a pair of advanced standing theology classes. For the first class I presented on Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. This semester, in keeping with my desire to read the influential thinkers who may not be required reading, I chose and presented on Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

This is not a long book, but it was more dense and nuanced than I expected. Hauerwas is a top-level thinker. He received his advanced degrees from Yale and then taught at Notre Dame before becoming professor at Duke (now emeritus). He is an ethicist—an area in which I have been interested for some time. Everyone is interested in ethics right now because contemplating war, citizenship, nations, boarders, violence, etc.—it is all squarely in the realm of ethics.

There is No Absolute Ethic

Hauerwas begins by arguing that “ethics” by itself is nothing—it always requires a modifier. The ethics that he proposes is “Christian Ethics.” As Christians, we have a history and a biblical narrative in which to fit our individual histories. Universal ethics cannot work because then the modifier, such as “Christian” is only part of a justification for preconceptions, “Christianity is defended not so much because it is true, but because it reinforces the ‘American way of life’” (12). Institutions guilty of this do not distinguish between being a good American and a good Christian. Hauerwas is arguing that ethics must be Christian, it should not be transferrable to those outside the church, “Christian ethics can never be a minimalistic ethic for everyone but must presuppose a sanctified people wanting to live more faithful to God’s story” (97).

When it comes to cooperating with those outside the church on social projects there is a temptation to reduce our ethics to “natural law” and downplay that which is essentially and exclusively Christian. Hauerwas suggests the opposite,

Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community. Such a claim may well sound self-serving until we remember that what makes the church the church is its faithful manifestation of the peaceable kingdom in the world. As such the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic (99).

The church is where the story of Israel and Jesus is told, “there is literally nothing more important we can do. But the telling of that story requires that we be a particular kind of people” (100). The church is to be patient amidst a violent world and care for the orphan and the widow even if the world tells us it does not make a difference—we must show the world what peace and justice looks like.

The Church and the World

The church also “helps the world understand what it means to be the world…How could the world ever recognize the arbitrariness of the divisions between people if it did not have a contrasting model in the unity of the church?” (100). The “most painful divisions afflicting the church are these based on class, race, and nationality that we have sinfully accepted as written into the nature of things” (100). The church is a polity to such an extent that “as Christians we are at home in no nation. Our true home is the church itself” (102).

Narrative v. Rules

Hauerwas notes that it is easy to forget that not all societies have been built upon rules and that not even the Ten Commandments can serve as an absolute ethic or basis because even they were placed within a story and a context. Rather, for the Christian, ethics should flow from “a narrative that tells of God’s dealing with creation” (25). Even doctrines are stories, Hauerwas says, “or perhaps better, the outline of the story” (26).

Part of each individual Christian’s narrative must include learning to be a sinner, “We must be trained to see ourselves as sinners…Indeed, our sin is so fundamental that we must be taught to recognize it; we cannot perceive its radical nature so long as we remain formed by it” (30-31). Our sin is believing that we can be the author of our own history and act as if we are not characters in God’s story.

On Being Historic

There are two kinds of history we all have: 1) That which we were born with ([dis]abilities, [dis]advantages, life circumstances), and 2) that which we shape and form in our own story. Therefore, my history is the story I make out of what I was given. “To be historic means that I must be capable of making a succession of ‘events’ a narrative—not just any narrative, but a narrative that is sufficient to give me a sense of self” (36). Freedom is mistakenly associated with choices, rather, freedom is the ability to act true to one’s character. Agency, then, is not the ability to act, “but rather to show how I am not without the resources to make my life my own” (39). For Hauerwas, agency is the ability to “inhabit our character” (40).

The Role of Jesus in Ethics

For Hauerwas, to be perfect like God is perfect, we must follow the man who God sent “to be our forerunner in the kingdom. That is why Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual—Jesus of Nazareth” (75-76). Two warnings from Hauerwas are in order. 1) He warns that one cannot become virtuous by copying a virtuous person, but by learning from another how to be virtuous in the right manner. Therefore, no one becomes virtuous on their own, but only from within a community bent on growth. 2) The disciple is not an “initiator of the kingdom, we are not called upon to be God’s anointed. We are called upon to be like Jesus, not to be Jesus” (76). The command to imitate began not in the NT, but with Israel in the OT where one of the functions that the offices of king, priest, and prophet served was to be a “visible exemplar to show how to follow the Lord” (78).

Jesus is the ultimate exemplar. What kind of example did he live?
  • He was not a “military messiah,” he served the authorities by confronting them, and then moving on without asserting his own authority over them (81).
  • On the cross Jesus demonstrates “God’s way with Israel” in that he became vulnerable to death. Israel was allowed to disobey, and it was God’s habit to continually call her back with love and grace.
  • Jesus shows how God Rules:
    • The kingdom is established by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
    • Jesus offers the possibility of ethics previously considered impossible. “He actually proclaims and embodies a way of life that God has made possible here and now” (83).
    • Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom is present insofar as his life reveals the effective power of God to create a transformed people capable of living peaceably in a violent world” (83).

  • Jesus demonstrated that God’s kingship and power “consists not in coercion but in God’s willingness to forgive and have mercy on us” (85).
    • Therefore, God wills that men and women should love their enemies and forgive one another.
    • “Jesus challenged both the militaristic and ritualistic notions of what God’s kingdom required—the former by denying the right of violence even if attacked, and the latter by his steadfast refusal to be separated from those ‘outside’” (85).
    • In Jesus we see that this way of living is a possible and present possibility. So, “it’s just not practical” is a false claim that denies what Jesus demonstrated.
    • There is no indication that the Sermon on the Mount presented an impossible ideal for which we should not strive (85).
  • Jesus’ calling of the disciples demonstrates that followers of Jesus are to become “dispossessed.”
    • The disciples were to make a radical break with security and possessions “for no other purpose than to share in his ministry” (86).
    • “Discipleship is quite simply extended training in being dispossessed…To become followers of Jesus means that we must, like him, be dispossessed of all that we think gives us power over our own lives and the lives of others. Unless we learn to relinquish our presumption that we can ensure the significance of our lives, we are not capable of the peace of God’s kingdom” (86).
    • Possessions are a source of violence because others desire what we have, or we realize we do not deserve what we have and “seek self-deceptive justifications that mire us in patterns of injustice which can be sustained only through coercion” (86-87).
    • By giving up everything we have, even the self, we find that what “Jesus offers is a journey, an adventure.”
  • “It is only by God’s grace that we are enabled to accept the invitation to be part of the kingdom. Because we have confidence that God has raised this crucified man, we believe that forgiveness and love are alternatives to the coercion the world think necessary for existence” (87).

The Resurrection Establishes a Kingdom of Forgiveness and Peace

Because Hauerwas is not an evangelical, it might surprise some to see that he implicitly rejects liberation theology. For some, Jesus’ life and ministry proves that God is on the side of the oppressed and it is the job of Christians to infiltrate the political realm and change the world through activism. For Hauerwas, however, “We can rest in God because we are no longer driven by the assumption that we must be in control of history, that it is up to us to make things come out right” (87). Jesus’ resurrection promises a coming time when there is peace among creation (Isa. 11:6-9). It is only in a community of forgiveness, then, that there is peace. This is because the community finds its history in God’s story instead of trying to fit him into their sinful history. In a forgiven community, fear of the other is finally soothed. “Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other” (91).

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!

Towards the end of the book, Hauerwas acknowledges that he has neglected entirely what most people assume to be the center of ethics, namely, what to do and not do. The reason he has not focused on this is because Hauerwas’ ethics are not based on rules, regulations, or guidelines, but rather on learning to become the kind of person who makes virtuous decisions. His focus is the development of character, as opposed to test case scenarios and discussion—the latter he calls “quandary ethics,” which he rejects. Being asked to choose between X and Y is to have assumed too much.

But at last he relents and offers the example everyone wants from him considering his defense of nonviolence. When someone is confronted with a nonviolent ethic, the standard response is to ask, “But what would you do if…” where the dots are filled with an impossible scenario in which the only right answer appears to be violence.

Hauerwas notes, however, that this requires a deterministic and mechanical way of seeing the world and what is possible. It assumes that circumstances and the attacker are preprogrammed like a machine to do precisely a single thing and that you as the holder of two buttons may choose one of two options. We need to be more creative than this, Hauerwas pleads. There is never a single variable. The future can never be perfectly known. Additionally, these quandaries assume that “it is my righteousness and my welfare” that are the overriding considerations” (124). For one could choose to sacrifice his or her welfare in order to refrain from violence. Specific to Christianity is that dignity of enemy and attacker is affirmed and, therefore, “relativizes the value of self and survival.”

The Skill of Description—The Example of an Attacker

I think it is clearer, now, how a virtue ethic is also one that seeks to be better at describing a situation and the options available. We are only “forced to make” decisions when “we have no satisfactory description” (125). Determinism is defeated by employing “descriptive skills provided by a truthful narrative to see the ‘situation’ in a new light” (125). To help the reader, Hauerwas borrows an illustration from J. H. Yoder in which there are various outcomes when facing an attacker:
1)     The attacker achieves his or her goal.
2)     You are martyred and used as a special witness and a monument of the power of God. “The death of that Christian disciple makes a greater contribution to the cause of God and to the welfare of the world than his staying alive at the cost of killing would have done. For ever after it is looked on with respect. Why not accept suffering? Jesus did” (125).
3)     Look for a way out. Perhaps through a “natural” way out “such as a loving gesture, even if it is unlikely, disarm the attacker emotionally. Or there might be a ‘providential’ way out, assuming that whatever happens will work for the ‘good for them that love the lord’” (125).
4)     You could attempt and succeed in killing the attacker.
5)     You could attempt and fail in killing the attacker.

This example is given to “enliven our imaginations” and “to show that it is logically preposterous to assume that in such situations we can only choose between the first and fourth options” (126). Even on the scale of war, describing a situation in truth keeps possibilities available, on the other hand, “By assuming that it is my business to prevent or to bring judgment upon evil, I authorize myself to close the door upon the possibilities of reconciling and healing” (Yoder qtd. in Hauerwas 126). Providence should remind us that what we decide is part of a continuing story. Martyrdom may serve God’s plan (the story). Providence is beyond our discerning and manipulating. Remember that the one who is in control of providence is the one who died for his enemies—we cannot know if an attacker will have a change of heart.


This was a challenging book to work through. I think it is important to read books like this to ensure that our inherited beliefs are tested and accepted, not assumed. I agree with Hauerwas in many places and with many of his conclusions, though I am not certain I arrive by way of the same theological work. Some of my ethical conclusions arrive at the same place as Hauerwas, but it is less for theological and philosophical reasons as it is for my conviction about what the text of Scripture teaches. Everything Hauerwas writes is provoking and good for sharpening one’s thoughts, even if in disagreement. The Peaceable Kingdom was published in 1983 and proves Hauerwas to have been prophetic in his critique of the relationship between conservative Christianity and politics. Yet I doubt he is taught in many conservative schools—we would do better to read our critics, sometimes they’ve nailed it.

[1] They recently received a $100k matching grant, check it out