Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Pacifism of "Hannah's Child"

Stanley Hauerwas is a most colorful person, and last month I had the joy of seeing him again and of chatting some with him. I also purchased his latest book, which he graciously autographed. The book is Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010), the title coming from the fact that Hauerwas was born after his mother prayed a prayer similar to that of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in the Old Testament. That fact also significantly shaped his life.

In 2001, Time magazine pronounced Hauerwas (b. 1940) the “best theologian in America.” Upon hearing that news, Hauerwas quipped, “‘Best’ is not a theological category.” (One of my Thinking Friends reminded me of that after I posted my list of “top ten” Christians, and I replied that Hauerwas was probably right.) 
Hauerwas is a theologian, but even more he is a Christian ethicist. Since 1984 he has taught theological ethics at Duke University. He is also the author of numerous books, mostly in the field of Christian ethics. One of his most significant books is The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (1983).

Last fall, esteemed blogger Bill Tammeus posted “Pondering Pacifism Today” on his weblog. (As many of you in the Kansas City area know, Tammeus is the former Faith columnist for the Kansas City Star and now writes a daily (!) blog called “Faith Matters.”) In his Nov. 11 posting, he makes reference to Hannah’s Child and to having heard Hauerwas speak in Kansas City last year.
After stating that “Hauerwas identifies himself as a pacifist,” which he has clearly done for a long time now, Tammeus then writes, “I wanted Hauerwas in his memoir to explain clearly why he’s chosen pacifism. He doesn’t. And I contend that it’s not painfully obvious why those of us who are followers of the Prince of Peace should automatically adopt pacifism as our position.”
It is true that Hauerwas doesn’t explain much about why he is a pacifist in Hannah’s Child. But he does state clearly, “I am a pacifist because John Howard Yoder convinced me that nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable” (p. 60). Then later he writes, “Yoder forced me to recognize that nonviolence is not a recommendation, an ideal, that Jesus suggested we might try to live up to. Rather, nonviolence is constitutive of God’s refusal to redeem coercively” (p. 118).

John Howard Yoder (1927-97) was an outstanding Mennonite theologian, the author of The Politics of Jesus (1972), and widely known as a radical Christian pacifist. He is also known for being a mentor of Stanley Hauerwas. They were faculty members at the same time at Notre Dame before Hauerwas moved to Duke.

Yoder’s pacifism, which was so influential on Hauerwas, is set forth, among other places, in The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (2009), edited by Glen Harold Stassen and two others. That was the book Yoder was working on when he suddenly passed away the day after his 70th birthday. Stassen, a friend whom I also chatted with at the Society of Christian Ethics meeting in New Orleans last month, wrote the introduction, which is subtitled “John H. Yoder’s Christological Peacemaking Ethic.”
You might not be convinced to be a pacifist if you study Yoder’s writings. But Hauerwas became a pacifist largely because of Yoder’s influence. So I recommend that Mr. Tammeus and others who have similar doubts about Christian pacifism read Yoder’s work. 


  1. For people who want an easy to read but well argued introduction to Christian pacifism, I highly recommend "What Would You Do?" by John Howard Yoder.

  2. I have great respect for pacifism, but I am not a pacifist myself. I try to model my approach on the standard "slow to anger and quick to forgive." I have noticed that in most practical situations this has me on the same side with the pacifists. In particular, I believe most, if not all, of the wars the United States has fought in my lifetime have been mistakes. We have repeatedly tried to force a quick fix rather than patiently developing a good solution.

    As we contemplate this, on the other side of the world, the people of Egypt are in a crisis of change, and no one knows how it will end. Unfortunately, we know more about how it began. Mubarak is "our" bad guy, bought and paid for with billions of dollars. Yet many are casually declaring what "we" should do about the situation, as if it were ours to decide. "Make my day!" may make a fun movie, but it is hardly a sensible way to manage the real world, whether Christian or otherwise. Only patience will find the way to democracy between the twin dangers of autocracy and theocracy. The best we can do is pray that our diplomats are quietly nudging all parties in that direction. The people of Egypt deserve nothing less, for they are children of God.

  3. Hear Hear, Craig.

    Although I am not much a fan of a poorly informed democracy leads to malice. Sometimes a benevolent dictatorship seems to be a sweeter evil.