Book Review: The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas

Having read Hauerwas’ autobiography last year and declared it to be one of my books of the year, I was keen to read more of what he wrote. The two stand-out books that seemed to define his theological thinking were Resident Aliens and The Peaceable Kingdom.  Subtitled A Primer in Christian Ethics, I understood this to be his exposition of pacifist theology.

From the start, it struck me that this was quite a “dense” book. Though it’s not incredibly long, it is tightly argued and quite technical in places, where I admit I didn’t quite understand the detail of his argument, and in some places even the general direction of the argument was lost on me. This is largely because I have never formally studied moral philosophy. Though I have thought about it, and even written about it some time ago in a series of blog posts I have yet to finish, I am certainly no expert, as Hauerwas clearly is.

Some of the confusion may come about because at times Hauerwas conflates, or at least uses interchangeably, the terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ whereas I see the former as foundational (the bricks) and the latter as what is constructed from them (the house). The opening part of the book is very one of moral philosophy rather than theology. His opening contention is that ethics cannot stand on its own, but must be defined within a specified paradigm, in this case the paradigm of christian ethics. In this respect, it is most certainly not a book of apologetics. His discussion of ‘qualified ethic’ and of the nature of ‘agency’ rather passed me by, so I cannot comment much on this.

As he eventually gets into a theological discussion, he seems to show a slightly Bultmannian viewpoint that we can’t really know anything about Jesus, but that the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, are solely reflective of the early church’s view, though contradictorily, he also places emphasis on the church’s declaration of the death and resurrection.

Crucial to his argument is the notion that the Church should not necessarily adopt a social ethic, but that it should be a social ethic in and of itself. This he sees as a fulfilment of the primary role of the Church, which is simply to be the Church.

The whole book is littered with quotable vignettes, which I very much enjoyed and largely agreed with. They shouldn’t, however, be taken out of context of this very tightly argued thesis. In this respect, it reminded me quite a lot of the structure of Moltmann’s The Crucified God. So if you found that accessible, this should be no problem. If, however, you struggled at times with that, then do expect to find this a little bit stodgy in places.

Hauerwas has set out here to give his own view, rather than an overview of lots of different areas of christian ethics. As such, there are a limited number of other voices that are heard, most notably those of John Howard Yoder and the Niebuhr brothers. The culmination of the book looks at these latter two and how they differed in nonviolent reaction to a provocative situation. The background to this is that Hauerwas proposes, rightly in my view, that ethics is not a case of “what to do if…?” but that it is a whole way of being which guides in every day mundaneness as well as the edges of human experience.

Hauerwas proposes that in choosing nonviolence in the face of violence, that there are different kinds of pacifism. He calls for a patient kind whereby, nomatter how impatient we may be, or feel ourselves to the victims of injustice, we should not seek justice by violent means. Rather that recognition of God as Lord of the world, we should wait for divine justice.

For me, I struggled with this. I know Hauerwas is a great admirer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but here he veers away from Bonhoeffer’s idea that inaction in the face of evil is itself evil. One other point that struck me was Hauerwas’ take on the language used in human rights, that we ask all people to conform to a minimum level of behaviour in respecting the rights of others, but that implicit in that is a threat of violence against those who would choose to violate the human rights of others. In which case, just how humane are the enforcers of the human rights?

It’s certainly food for thought, and though I would largely agree with the drift of the book, some parts of his reasoning were not clear to me and other bits of reasoning I might disagree with in their precise details. There is little here by way of direct confrontation with the ideas of ‘just war’ – rather, this is an alternative proposal. So if you are a ‘just war’ proponent and want to read Hauerwas attempt to counter such a viewpoint, this is not the book for you. But if you want to read one theologian’s thoughts on a nonviolent, just and thoroughly ecclesiological ethic, then this is the right book to read.

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