On Being Particular

One of the foundational elements, or so it seems, of much of Western thinking is the claim to universality — that ideas, principles and values are only morally legitimate if they apply to all human beings equally in all times and in all places. Kant was hardly unique in this (as he tried to distinguish universal Christianity from particular Judaism) — such was the result of many centuries of Christian thinking. Such universalism clearly informs medieval natural law theory, for example.

For good social democrats and secular humanists, the idea of the universal allegedly does away with all of the scandalous things that derive from particularism — racism, slavery, nationalism, militarism, all the abuse of human beings somewhat grounded in the “we are chosen and you are not” or “by dint of culture/civilization/technology/values, we are entitled to dominate or exclude you.” (Most conservative American Christians are good liberals in this regard.) I find this assertion both troubling and untrue, mostly because it ignores how universalism also entitles and empowers. “No one is free until everyone is free.” That may sound like liberation, but when it’s said by the powerful, it is an amazing justification for empire.

And universalism is an amazing justification for empire.

I don’t think it’s any stretch to say today that liberal nationalism is the world’s ruling ideal. It claims to be universal, and is claimed by many of adherents to be universal. By that, it is the direction history is inexorably taking humanity (and is morally superior to all previous social and governing arrangements), it is how all of the world’s people either desire to live or would desire to live if they could, and it supposedly leaves room for national and individual autonomy of sorts, for some amount of local difference. What liberal nationalism isn’t, at least in the eyes of its firmest believers, is a form of empire.

This is the last essay I’m going to write from Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas believes it is imperative for Christians to abandon the conceit of universalism — and along with it, empire — and embrace the very particularism of God. In doing so, he spends so quality with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. Hauerwas writes:

Sacks acknowledges that his refusal to abandon the distinctive perspective of Judaism means some will brand him a “tribalist.” Yet he argues that the very universalism that many assume to be the antithesis to the resurgence of tribalism, or worse terrorism, is an inadequate account of the human condition. A global culture may bring about much good, but from Sacks’ perspective, such cultures, particularly when they take the form of empires, do much harm because they fail to be capable of acknowledging difference. That Sacks should distrust the universal pretensions of empires is not surprising, for, as he observes, Judaism was born as a protest against empire. (p. 118)

Hauerwas examines the narrative many Christians (and more than a few Jews) tell about the Tower of Babel, noting that “for Sacks, Babel represents a turning point in history. For after Babel, God, who had first made a covenant with all creation, chooses to call out one people that they may be a witness to God’s will for all people.” (p. 118) Judaism is itself a very particular endeavor, a message addressed to a very particular people.

Let’s examine this in the light of the Decalogue, the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness. Throughout Christian history, the Ten Commandments (or at least the second table) have been seen as a kind-of universal natural law for all humanity. Things most people believe, more or less, and that are therefore somehow written on human hearts or somehow inscribed on human souls. (That this discussion took place in medieval Christian Europe should give some pause to these claims.) The Ten Commandments are good rules for living, then. Rules all people can and should follow. Because they just make sense.

But do they? If they make sense, why did Israel’s God wait to give this teaching to Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after yanking Israel out of Egypt? Aren’t these good rules for Egypt, too? In fact, if they were good rules for humanity, a guide to righteous and upright living, why didn’t God just sit down with Pharaoh and tell him “Inscribe these on stella across your land, so that all the people may know how to live.” I don’t much like asking this kinds of questions. But I also believe the story of scripture tells us something, and we don’t have the story I outlined above. We have a very different story. God gave this teaching to a people God had just formed, formed in trauma,  a people God had just rescued and redeemed (but in a way none of them had asked for).

The Ten Commandments are not a teaching given to all humanity. They are not meant to be posted in classrooms and in front of country courthouses. They are not universal guides to living upright and good, moral lives. God did not give the Ten Commandments to all humanity. God gave them to Israel, and by dint of our being grafted into Israel through Jesus Christ, to the church. They are an attempt by God to show those of us who have been called to be God’s people what it means to live in relationship with the God who called us and gathers us. And with each other. It is not our adherence to the teaching that makes us God’s people; the calling and gathering by God comes first.

And because God makes us God’s people, we cannot be “ungathered” through our own efforts. Whether we adhere to the teaching or not does not unmake us God’s people. Scripture clearly tells the story of consequences for failing or refusing to adhere to the teaching of God (conquest and exile), but none of that undoes God’s calling as us God’s people. The Bible is also clear that as time goes on, and as God’s people live in and with the consequences of things, God continually comes to meet them, and to change how the promises of God are realized in, for and with God’s people.

But God’s people Israel-Church never, never stop being God’s people. God won’t have it.

That, however, is not how empire works. Or human universalism. Unity and gathering are not the product of God’s work, but of human work. Hauerwas writes that the Christian answer to Babel is traditonally Pentecost:

Christians there have gone into the world with missionary zeal convinced that they possess the truth that all people desire even if they have not yet realized it. The political form this presumption took is called Constantinianism, which has taken many different forms, but [Ernst] Troeltsch’s claim for the inseparability of Christianity and Europe is as good an example as one could want for one of its most recent incarnations. 

It is, or course, hard to know which came first, that is, the presumption that the Christian faith represents universal knowledge that only needs to be explained to those who are not yet Christian, or the politics of empire. Either way it is now clear that Christian presumption of universality either as knowledge qua knowledge or as politics is — or at least should be — over. This does not mean I believe the Christian faith is not true, but that what it means for it to be true cannot be secured by a theory of truth more determinative than the faith itself. (p. 120-121)

Pentecost doesn’t undo what God did in confusing human speech at Babel. Rather, it changes what difference means. Difference, when we approach neighbors in love and vulnerability, becomes a way for Christians to know and encounter neighbors. “Pentecost has restored Babel not by mitigating the diversity granted by Babel but by creating a people who have learned how to be patient, how to be at peace, how to listen in a world of impatient violence.” (p. 132)

Christians will do ourselves or our neighbor little good by trying to convince those who do not share our story that we also can be liberal cosmopolitans. Rather, we must by what we are: the church of Jesus Christ. For if that church is not the anticipation of the peace God will for all people then we are without hope. To sustain that peace, to care for the stranger when all strangers cannot be cared for, to know how to go on in the face of our suffering, the suffering of those we love and the suffering of those we do not know, is possible because we believe God abandons no one. Our belief in God’s persistence takes the form of a story which receives us as strangers and destines us to be friends. 

The Christian word for universality is “catholic.” Indeed that way of putting the matter can be misleading because it gives the impression that “catholic” is another way of saying “universal.” But catholic is not the name of a logical category or philosophical position. It is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition. Indeed the very presumption we can identify something called the world depends on a people who have been separated from the world to be of service to the world. What the church offers is the patience and the humility learned through the gospel, which teaches us how to live at peace although we cannot write the history of humankind. (p.130-131)

The church “is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition.”I think I’m going to leave it there.

Why Justice is a Bad Idea (-OR- What the Justice of God Really Is)

One of the many controversial things Stanley Hauerwas has said and written is “justice is a bad idea.” It’s a statement I have emphatically agreed with ever since I first read it, especially as a critique of progressive protestantism. In War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Hauerwas does the best job of explaining very simply what he means by the above statement and more importantly, what he thinks God’s justice actually looks like:

[M]y suggestion that justice is a bad idea was meant to call into question abstract accounts of justice often associated with liberal political theory, which assumes a just social order is possible without the people who constitute that order being just. My worry about appeals to justice in advanced capitalist societies has been that such appeals can blind us to the ways our lives may be implicated in fundamental forms of injustice. 

However, my deeper worry about appeals to justice has been theological. Reinhold Niebuhr, in the interest of making Christianity politically responsible, argued that in matters of politics Jesus must be left behind, because the political work necessary for the achievement of justice requires coercion and even violence. For Niebuhr, “justice” names the arrangements necessary to secure more equitable forms of life when we cannot love all neighbors equally. Good Barthian that I am, I worry that justice so understood becomes more important that the justice of God found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (p. 100)

Hauerwas then draws heavily from Dan Bell’s essay “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice,” noting that if Jesus is the Justice of God, then Christians cannot help be be passionate for justice because “we are in agreement that God does justice and so should we.” However:

… [Bell] thinks such agreement is part of the problem, just to the extent that the Christian enthusiasm for justice distorts our reading of Scripture. He is particularly critical of an approach he characterizes as “social justice advocacy” for how its adherents approach Scripture. For according to Bell, advocates of social justice read scripture for values and principles they think crucial to motivate Christians, in Bell’s words, “to get off their pews, leave the stained glass bliss of the congregation and its liturgy behind, and go out into the world to do justice.” 

Such an approach, Bell notes, presents justice as an external standard to which Christianity is accountable. Indeed, it is assumed, and therefore it is also assumed that justice can be understood apart from Christian theologian convictions and practices. Human rights, for example, are defended in a manner that renders irrelevant what Christians believe or do not believe about God. Such a view of justice, as well as the approach to Scripture associated with justice so conceived, Bell argues, is determined by the modern political context. 

That context, moreover, is one in which the church is assumed to be apolitical and, therefore, not relevant for determining how to know as well as do justice. Such a view of justice thus reinforces the politics of modernity, in which “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state.” Desperate to show the social relevance of the church, Christians ironically underwrite in the name of justice an account of social relations that presumes a privatized account of Christian convictions and the church. (p. 101-102)

Hauwerwas is also very critical of how Jesus is used in the “social justice advocacy” approach:

Jesus is relegated to being a motivator to encourage Christians to get involved in struggles for justice. Even if Jesus is thought to have practiced justice in his ministry, he is appealed to as a symbol or example. What really matters is not Jesus, but justice. This understanding of justice not only displaced Jesus, but also displaces the Jews as crucial for determining what we mean by justice. Social justice advocates often direct attention to the call for justice made by the prophets, but the justice for which the prophets called is often assumed to be universal in a manner that has no particular or intrinsic relation to the Jewish people. (p. 102)

This does a fairly good job of summing things up. The problem he — and I — have with justice talk is threefold:

  1. Justice is an abstract idea unmoored from the concrete practices of liturgy and daily living.
  2. The calls for justice in scripture are abstract an universal — God is speaking to all humanity — rather than God speaking to a very particular people in a very particular place in very particular circumstances.
  3. Justice as understood is heavily reliant on the exercise of state power and state violence (or at least appeals to state action) to reorder the world in a more”just” way.

Hauerwas spends a couple of paragraphs dealing with the more theologically conservative approach that Bell calls “justice as justification,” which centers God’s saving act on the individual who either accepts or rejects God’s saving work in Christ. But his strongest critique is of liberal or progressive Christianity.

I will not spend much time detailing Hauerwas’ critique of rights language, especially the language of human rights. In his Gifford lectures, Hauerwas destroyed my libertarianism by describing the rise of individual rights not as resistance to the state, but as emanating from the expanding power of the state. Every right is actually a claim, and when the nation-state has a monopoly on force, coercion and violence, every claim empowers the state to act as the agent of the claim. More individual rights means more state power! (I’ve read the argument elsewhere, and I agree with it.) Hauerwas notes that human rights as constructed are not significantly grounded in either scripture or canon law (despite constant attempts to plant them there) and in any case, are universalized in a way to make the secularly intelligible in a way that makes the story of God encounter with God’s people in scripture irrelevant.

So what is justice for Hauerwas? Does he even have a vision of justice? He does. Jesus is the justice of God. Citing Bell again, Hauerwas states clearly:

[A] text like Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a universal or secular vision of justice. Rather, they summon us to participate in God’s redemption by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. Such is the way, Bell suggests, that we learn what it means for Jesus to be the justice of God. (p. 115)

We who are church, as the body of Christ in the world, are God’s justice, insofar as we are joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. We are called not just to do, but to be God’s justice. In the debate over national health care and the insurance mandate, for example, rather than lobby for state policies, it would have been better for the church — if the church were honestly concerned about healing the sick — to actually care for the sick, rather than demand the reorienting of society in ways we believe to be more “just” (including demands for the exercise of state power, which always includes the possibility of state violence).

For Hauerwas, the best example he can find for how justice is actually done is in Hans Reinder’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics:

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability rights for creating new opportunities, as well as institutional space, for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us, and they want us to share our lives with them. In short, they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (p. 115)

God has not created, or even called for a theory of justice, Hauerwas writes. Rather, “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” We are God’s justice when we cross boundaries, when we meet strangers and make them friends, when we share our lives with people and welcome them into our lives. That, and not abstract ideals or a partisan political program, is justice. And we’re not called to make others do the work when we are unwilling. Or to rewrite the rules of society so it will somehow be “easier” to do this. We are called to do this very hard work ourselves. And without any regard to the rules or structure or order of the society in which we live.

“War is America’s Altar”

Stanley Hauerwas spends a couple of chapters of War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity dealing with the role of war in the American national and religious identity. He begins with an evaluation of just war theory and “realism,” particularly the approach to Christian governance espoused in the 20th century by Reinhold Niebuhr. (Niebuhr is never one of Hauerwas’ favorites, and in his Gifford Lectures, Hauerwas is heavily critical of Niebuhr’s failure to have an ecclesiology — Niebuhr sees no role for the church as bearing God or witnessing to God’s presence in history in a world of nation-states.)

After briefly evaluating Augustine and Martin Luther, Hauerwas writes:

Reinhold Niebuhr understood himself to stand in this “realist” tradition. In 1940 in his “Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” Niebuhr explains why he left the Fellowship of Reconciliation: he did not believe that “war is merely an ‘incident’ in human history” but rather that it “is a final revelation of the very character of human history.” According to Niebuhr the incarnation is not “redemption” from history as conflict because sinful egoism continues to express itself at every level of human life, making it impossible to overcome the contradictions of human history. Niebuhr, therefore, accuses pacifists of failing to understand the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” From Niebuhr’s perspective, pacifists are captured by a perfectionism that is more “deeply engulfed in illusion about nature than the Catholic pretensions, against which the Reformation was a protest.” 

“Just war” proponents argue that war is justified because our task as Christians and as citizens is first and foremost to seek justice. Paul Ramsey understood his attempt to recover just war as a theory of statecraft to be “an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Ramsay saw, however, that there was more to be said about “justice in war than was articulated in Niebuhr’s sense of the ambiguities of politics and his greater/lesser evil doctrine of the use of force.” That “something more,” Ramsey asserted, is the principle of discrimination, which requires that war be subject to political purpose through which war might be limited and conducted justly, that is, that noncombatants be protected. 

Yet it is by no means clear if just war reflection can be yoked consistently to a Niebuhrian realism. Augustine and Luther’s “realism” presupposed there was another city [the church] that could at least call into question state powers. For Niebuhr, realism names the development of states and an international nation-state system that cannot be challenged. Niebuhrian realism assumes that war is a permanent reality for the relation between states because no overriding authority exists that might make war analogous to the police functions of the state. Therefore each political society has the right to wage war because it is assumed that doing so is part of its divinely ordained work of preservation. “Realism” therefore, names the reality that at the end of the day in the world of international relations, the nations with the largest army get to determine what counts for “justice.” To use Augustine or Luther to justify this understanding of “realism” is in effect to turn a description into a recommendation. (p. 23-24)

Which is my primary complaint with Martin Luther, who describes well but proscribes poorly in his essay on the use of temporal power and what Lutherans (and others) have come to call the “two kingdoms” theology.

Hauerwas then deals a little with international law and the nation-state order, which now requires that governments undertake war with just intentions.

This means that a war can be undertaken only if peace, which is understood as a concept for a more “embracing and stable order,” be the reason a state gives for going to war. The requirement that the intention for going to war be so understood as an expression of love for the enemy just to the extent that the lasting order be one that encompasses the interests of the enemy. (p. 25)

Which leads to a wonderfully snarky comment from Hauerwas:

And pacifists are said to be unrealistic?

And Hauerwas begins to get down to the centrality of war, particularly total war, in the context of American democracy. He focuses heavily on the Civil War because it became the moral template for how Americans understood themselves and what war did for, to and with them.

I think the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with them being American. In particular, American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I want to suggest that democratic societies, or at least the American version of democracy, are unable to set limits on war because they are democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans, war is necessary to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart. (p. 27)

Hauerwas then reviews how pastors and preachers on both sides of the Civil War saw the war as both an atonement for sin but also as a blood sacrifice necessary if the American people were “to inherit their providential destiny.” (p. 30) Such ideas became enshrined in the few short words of the Gettysburg Address, which Hauerwas describes as “chilling” (and rightly so):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Which prompts Hauerwas to write:

A nation determined by such words, such elegant and powerful words, simply does not have the capacity to keep war limited. A just war that can only be fought for limited political purposes cannot and should not be understood in terms shaped by the Gettysburg Address. Yet after the Civil War, Americans think they must go to war to ensure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “freedom.” Whatever may be the realist presuppositions of those who lead America to war, those presuppositions cannot be used as the reasons given to justify the war. To do so would betray the tradition of war established in the Civil War. Wars, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar. Confronted by such a tradition of war, the attempts to justify war using just war considerations, no matter how sincerely done, cannot help but be ideological mystifications. (p. 32-33)

War, then, in the American context, is a continual redemptive sacrifice, a sacrifice that redeems the world, that redeems America. It is purpose. It is meaning. It may be the only real shared meaning Americans have.

Finally, Hauerwas notes that while there was ink about the need for the Civil War before and during the conflict, a conflict that would redeem and remake the nation (simply consider the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), the war itself — and its outcome — provoked almost no theological reflection either by the winners (many of whom wandered away to other causes) or by the losers.

In his book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Mark Noll asks why the Civil War, in contrast to past wars, produced no “deep theological insights from either elites of the masses.” At least one of the reasons may be be, as Noll amply documents, that religious thinkers in America assumed the people of America had a covenantal relationship with God. America was identified with the ttibes of Israel in which is was assumed that the federal union “created a higher bond than the bond constituted by the unity of all Christian believers in the church.” This was combined with the confidence of the Enlightenment that the common man was capable of reading Scripture without guidance from any authority, which meant that it was a simple matter to read God’s providential will for political events. The war did not force American Christians to deeper theological insights because the war was, for America, our church. (p. 33)

The closest one can come, I think, to a re-evaluation of the war theologically is the speed with which abolitionists disappeared, and with it any real commitment to racial equality (aside from its use to punish the occupied Confederacy as Reconstruction wore on), which suggests to me that the commitment to civil and social equality was pretty ephemeral to begin with. (I recall reading somewhere that many religious abolitionists were of an apocalyptic mindset to begin with, and when the war ended not with the creation of New Heaven and New Earth but with Ulysses Grant sending the defeated rebel soldiers home with their horses so they could plant the next crop amidst the ruins of their towns and cities, was fairly much of a let-down.

But the importance even today of the Gettysburg Address in explaining the Civil War — indeed, most American wars since — shows that the war prompted almost no theological reflection. Not then, and certainly not since. The Civil War became the central sacrifice, the central liturgical act, in the religion that is The United States of America. And it must be understood that way.

* * *

Next time, I’m going to skip a few chapters. There’s a couple of I’m going to skip because I don’t think they add much. Hauerwas does some of his best writing on the subject of justice in this book. And he spends a very silly chapter defending Martin Luther King in what I consider to be a very un-Hauerwassian way (yes, that would make me an Hauerwassian against Hauerwas).

America’s God, America’s Church and America’s Culture of Death

I have been reading Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, and I am going to post some reflections of my own over the next few days.

A little background. I love Stanley Hauerwas, and his thinking about church has significantly influenced my thinking about church. I first learned about him in 2004, I think, when he was interviewed by Salon.com regarding his opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. (Again, I think it was in Salon.com, because it might not have been.) As a theologian, I am interested in what it means to be church, especially church in the world, and my ideas about church as parallel alternative to but in the world are heavily influenced by the many years I spent as a Muslim in the United States — as a member of a religious minority which could not demand or expect that the greater culture of the society in which it lived reflect the values of a majority of plurality of the community. So, given the world would not bend to our understanding of what God wants for God’s people (and trying to get it to bend was pointless, either because no one listened or violence was the chosen means of communicating), what does it mean to be faithful?

And I think Hauerwas does the best job of most theologians I have read today of trying to answer that question faithfully. As an American, Hauerwas calls into question the relationship between church, state and culture that tries to make sense of what is what. At least that’s what I think he’s trying to do. But I think it’s better to let Stanley speak for himself:

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination. (p. 15)

This is important, but probably not quite as true as Hauerwas says it is. American Protestantism inherited much from English & Scottish Protestantism, both Anglican and Calvinist forms, and both struggled with the Catholic inheritance and a deep and profound fear of Rome and Roman rule. (English Catholicism had this even before Henry VIII decided to start divorcing and killing his wives.) Anti-foreign fear in Anglo-American culture has at its base anti-Catholicism dating back almost 1,000 years (the English church was fairly autonomous, and at times very anti-Rome), and Anglo-American racism has at its core anti-Catholic sentiment. But, back to Hauerwas:

So constituted, America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. (p. 15-16) 


Protestantism came to the land we now call America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that being American and Protestant meant having faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process, the church became American; or, as [Mark] Noll [author of America’s God] puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.” As a result, Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist, because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. Religious people on both the Right and Left share the presumption that America is the church. (p. 16, emphasis mine)

Who does God speak to when God speaks? Most American Christians, whether they be of the Right or the Left, appear to assume that God is speaking to either the nation-state — to the United States of America — or to the entire world. And so salvation is for the nation/world, and prophetic judgement is for the nation/world. Thus God cares that America allows for abortion and open homosexuality, or God cares whether Americans have health insurance. It’s why when pastors speak of public repentance, they call upon the nation to repent. Because The United States of America is God’s people.

I think this is done to avoid the scandal of particularism, which offends moderns with their allegedly tolerant universalism. But particularism is not a scandal in scripture. Particularism is how God works in the world. God calls Israel and Israel alone, gives the teaching to Israel and Israel alone, sends Jesus to Israel and speaks to the world only through Israel. Hauerwas deals with particularism and universalism in greater depth in a later chapter, and so I’m going to set this down for another day. Let’s go on.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continue to shape that way Christians, and in particular Protestant Christians, understand their place in America. Yet I think we are beginning to see a loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common-sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. It it to this subject I now turn. 

I believe we may be living at a time when we are Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumptions in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the Religious Right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but ensure that the faith sustained is not the Christian faith. 

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches they go to do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their personal and communal lives. The church is expected to reinforce that those who come to church have done so freely. Its primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. 

Let me try to put this in a different register. America exemplifies what I call the project of modernity–the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story. This is what Americans mean by freedom. The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Americans presume they have exercised their freedom when they get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television. The same presumption works for choosing a president, and once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So freedom requires a kind of resignation. (p. 16-17)

I was Hauerwas had expanded a little bit on the Protestant unintelligibility. But I think this is what is really happening when liberal and conservative Protestants have the kind of stupid argument that Ross Douthat has had with Diana Butler Bass on the pages of the New York Times recently. I’m going to have mull this over a bit, because this statement strikes me as intuitively correct, but I cannot really say why yet. Anyway, back to Hauerwas.

The narrative that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. It produces people who say things as, “I believe Jesus is Lord–but that is just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial for sustaining democracy. For in order to sustain a society that shares no common goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common other than avoiding death, there must be people who will avoid any conflicts that might undermine order, which is confused with peace. So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity of avoiding conflicts that cannot be resolved.  

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us by engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe that we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church and why we are called “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but challenge a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to write my own life story. 

But forming a church that is capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to the task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume there is no essential tension between being Christian and being an American. As a result, Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned. (p. 18)

What story gives us meaning? Hauerwas highlights here the complete incompatibility of the Christian story and the American story. One story will dominate, and in our world, it has been the story of American that has subsumed the Gospel story.

Finally, Hauerwas describes briefly why American culture is a culture of death, and it is a description that’s bigger than abortion or health care or tolerance. It goes back to which story forms your life.

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. “Freedom,” as understood in American culture, names the attempt to live as though we will not die, and lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others. (p. 19)

I’m not going to comment much more on what I’ve posted here. I think Hauerwas’ naming the “culture of death” is spot on, and is bigger than any partisan claims as to what constitutes a “culture of life.” Since a culture of life lives fully in reality of death, knowing that in the promises of God made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death no longer has meaning or power over our lives.

More later.