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States of Exception

A Response to Beiner, by Stanley Hauerwas

Beiner suggests that I want a politics, and by politics he seems to mean what the state does, that is at the service of Christianity. As someone deeply influenced by John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism, that is precisely what I do not want. Of course I should like Christians to be free to try and convince their non-Christian neighbors that war is a bad idea, but….

I am grateful to Ron Beiner for responding to the talk I gave recently at a symposium on Faith and Politics at The Wheeler Center.  He observes that our theoretical differences are so “huge” he doubts that any exchange we might have will be productive.  I hope to show that is not the case.  As one long influenced by his work, and in particular his book, What’s the Matter With Liberalism?, I certainly hope some dialogue between us is not only possible but fruitful.

Beiner suggests that I want a politics, and by politics he seems to mean what the state does, that is at the service of Christianity.  As someone deeply influenced by John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism, that is precisely what I do not want.  Of course I should like Christians to be free to try and convince their non-Christian neighbors that war is a bad idea, but I do not think that amounts to trying to have a state that is at the service of Christianity.  In other words, I seek no special status for the church.  I do think that states that do not impede the free preaching of the Gospel to be more nearly just, but I do not assume that Christians cannot survive states that do not allow for the free preaching of the Gospel.  The irony, of course, is that in states like the United States there is nothing to prevent the free preaching of the Gospel, but the Gospel that is preached is policed to insure that the state is not challenged.

That result, i.e., the result that in liberal societies the Gospel is not preached because Christians do not want in any way to appear subversive, has everything to do with the confusion of the Gospel with civil religion.  One of the things I like so much about Australia is the absence of any strong civil religion.  As a result the church has the possibility of being free in a manner I think almost impossible for the church in America.  My way of trying to help American Christians locate their profoundest loyalties is to observe that they often think they ought to let their children make up their minds about whether they will be Christians or not but they assume that they must be Americans.

Beiner thinks my attempt to help Christians reclaim the church as a polity sufficient to challenge the state fails to acknowledge Locke’s claim that “every church is orthodox to itself.”  Moreover he wants me to be more specific about ”which church” I want.  From his perspective I seem to be but a Christianized form of the Muslim Brotherhood.  I think I understand why he might think I am really the “return of the repressed,” but I think he is overlooking one thing—the church.  The reason I am not a Christianized Islam is because of what Oliver O’Donovan in The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, calls the doctrine of the two.  To be sure the way I understand the “two” is different from O’Donovan’s understanding, my two is not only two politics but two times, but I reference him because he is a conversation partner I think Beiner would find fruitful.

I should like to think I am not “completely dismissive” of liberal narratives about the wars of religion but I do think Cavanaugh has provided a strong case against that overly simplified narrative.  But Cavanaugh’s narrative can give the impression that the church was largely without fault and that the emerging state was the villain – though this impression is not one Bill wants to give.  That Christians fought against one another in terms of loyalty to the state is from my perspective an indication that something had gone desperately wrong.  What had gone wrong was that the church lost any sense that worshipping a crucified savior makes war problematic.

I shall have to leave it to Beiner to determine whether I have wrestled sufficiently with Reinhold Niebuhr.  I do not know if he has read my account of Niebuhr in Wilderness Wanderings or With the Grain of the Universe, but I have tried to make my differences with Niebuhr clear.  I am not “nonchalant about the stern responsibilities” associated with a shared political community, but how I understand what “stern” entails I suspect may be quite different than how Beiner understands it.  For me “stern” is determined by a people capable of saying “no.”  I should like to think that any state that acknowledges people capable of saying “no” has some chance of being of service to a social order in which difference is not repressed in the name of “sustaining a shared political community.”

In closing, let me say again how much I appreciate Beiner’s willingness to be in dialogue.  I hope I have not had a tin ear.

2 thoughts on “A Response to Beiner, by Stanley Hauerwas

  1. My warm thanks to Stanley Hauerwas for his very interesting and helpful response to my critique. Yes, there is the beginning of a real dialogue here, and indeed a fruitful one. That pleases me as much as it pleases Stanley.

    I freely admit that I am not nearly as well-read in theology as I ought to be, and Stanley’s response gives me strong encouragement to read some of the books I ought to be reading. But one of the books cited by Stanley that I *have* read is Bill Cavanagh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. Stanley and I seem to be in agreement that while Bill’s book raises important and provocative challenges to standard liberal narratives about the wars of religion, Bill goes *much too far* in presenting religion as innocent (and also in pretending that we don’t really know what a religion is).

    I agree with Stanley that Christians who take their faith seriously contribute a civic service to all citizens, Christian or not, when particular projects of the state are submitted to a scrutiny that can only be provided by people with very strong convictions. But submitting particular projects of the state to exacting scrutiny is different from withholding loyalty to the state itself as a locus of shared citizenship, and thus impugning the political authority that it needs in order to be that locus of shared citizenship. And here my worry is that Stanley bears out Rousseau’s critical analysis in Bk. 4 chap. 8 of the Social Contract according to which people for whom the Christian Gospel is the immovable center of human existence will be capable only of a very conditional and very qualified experience of citizenship in the modern state. (Rousseau actually put the claim much more strongly than that; but let my softened version suffice.)

    One last observation: I would urge Stanley to stop calling himself a theocrat as a way of provoking and irritating his liberal friends. Theocracy seems to be on the rise in our contemporary world. The last thing that we need (as Stanley himself agrees) is a return to Christian theocracy.

  2. One other quick reply to Stanley: In my critical response to his Wheeler Centre keynote address, I was probably excessively abstract in referring to the stern responsibilities involved in sustaining a shared political community. So let’s make the point less abstract. In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama spoke these words: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” Although three-quarters or so of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, a presidential candidate who said that the U.S. should respond to al-Qaeda by turning the other cheek could not possibly get elected as president. Of course, this doesn’t settle the issue, philosophically, between Christian pacifists and those (surely including Obama) who think that the moral imperatives of the Christian Gospel don’t conjure away the political responsibility of defending the U.S. against its enemies. The point is that even citizens with a strong Christian identity expect people elected to high office to uphold the kind of responsibilities acknowledged in Obama’s Inaugural Address.

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