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Christianity and Politics: Steve Bush’s misunderstanding of Stanley Hauerwas on democracy

September 28th, 2005 by isaac · 12 Comments

I never thought I’d be in this position. Usually I find myself taking a critical edge to Hauerwas’ work. (Probably because I feel the need to find my own voice, to distinguish myself from someone who has taught me so much. I know too many Hauerwasian mimics). But, I read a piece Steve Bush wrote about Stanley Hauerwas and feel like the uncharitable read misses alot that could be said, alot that I still find useful in Hauerwas’ corpus. Bush takes Jeffrey Stout’s “stereoscopic” line of criticism to argue against Hauerwas (and Milbank). I will leave John Milbank out of this discussion for the sake of clarity, space, and time.

To begin with, I was surprised to see Bush describe Stanley Hauerwas as an “anabaptist theologian” (p.1). I just can’t see how that might be right. I mean, he claims John H. Yoder as an important figure for his way of thinking of about war, and he teaches seminars on Yoder (currently he is doing a seminar where all of Yoder’s and Bonhoeffer’s works are read), and Yoder finds his way into many footnotes, and for some strange reason he attracts a lot of anabaptist students. But I don’t think that makes him anabaptist. If anything, his eucharistic theology makes it hard to see how he would fit into the anabaptist tradition. Although his ecclesial ambiguity makes it hard to figure out where to locate him, I find him more Anglican or Roman Catholic than anything else.

But all that is not that important, at least I don’t think it is. What is important is what Bush is after. He wants Hauerwas to give him an account of the christian life that makes engagment in the “legal, political, and social structures of the larger society” in order to care for the least among us as an “obligation” (p.1). Here is the center of Bush’s argument: “The Hauerwasians and Radical Orthodox theologians are also guilty of a monoscopic political vision, for their focus on the political nature of the church leads them to miss the importance to Christian witness of the political horizon of society” (p.4). I don’t have any interest in figuring out who counts as a Hauerwasian . Rather, I want to investigate what Hauerwas says, and what Bush says Hauerwas says, to see what this “monoscopic political vision” looks like.

The first point Bush brings up is Hauerwas’ Augustinian line about how a truly just society cannot exist outside of the worshiping community of God. Bush quotes Rowan Williams’ read of Augustine’s City of God : Augustine is “engaged in a redefinition of the public itself, designed to show that it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically politcal” (p.6). Hauerwas echos this Augustinian thinking: “Augustine maintained that true virtue is impossible without true piety, which for Augustine is the right worship of the true God” (Performing the Faith ,221). If Bush has a problem here with Hauerwas, I wonder what he wants to do with Augustine. From my read of City of God, it sounds like Hauerwas is just trying to stay faithful to that voice in the tradition. I don’t think you can fault him for that. For Augustine, the church is the locus of a possible truthful politics. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Augustinians should adopt a “dissuasive mood towards efforts to effect social and political change in the national sphere” (p.6). At least, Hauerwas doesn’t adopt that attitude. Yes, Bush provides a quote from Performing the Faith where we find Hauerwas advocating “the small acts of kindness and mercy that are made possible by our convictions that God has redeemed the world” (p. 6 in Bush; p. 235-236 in Performing). But Bush is unfounded at this section to say that Hauerwas is “opposed to attempts to influence societal structures.” That’s not in the text. Maybe Bush has another place in Hauerwas’ corpus in mind, but it can’t be this one.

But this doesn’t mean that Bush is wrong to hear a suspicious tone in Hauerwas when he confronts the “seductive signifiers” (a psychoanalytic term from Jonathan Lear’s Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life ) at work in political slogans. As quoted in Bush’s essay, we can find this suspicion in Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens : “It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself intelligible” (38). But this is not a suspicion about the possibility of engaging in real political change with those who don’t call Jesus their Lord. Rather, Hauerwas is concerned with the ways that there are powerful stories out there (“technologies of desire,” as Gilles Deleuze puts it) that vie for our alliegence. In fact, Hauerwas comments on the above quote from Resident Aliens and makes clear that such a suspicion does not reach into the important “tactical alliances” (that’s Yoder’s phrase from Christian Witness to the State ) Christians make with those who are not Christians for the sake of political witness: “Such a view does not mean, of course, that Christians cannot work with non-Christians to try to make our world less violent and more just” (Performing, 229). If that’s not enough to dispel accusations of sectarian withdrawal from the world, this quote should make clear Hauerwas’ deep conviction about the (“obligatory”?) relationship the church has with the world: “The call for the church to be the church is meant as a reminder that the church is in the world to serve the world” (231). With these texts on the table, it’s hard to see how Bush’s criticism of Hauerwas holds.

It’s not that Hauerwas believes that we all inhabit such different (tribalist) language games so “no shared understanding of justice is possible between Christians and non-Christians” (Bush, p.10). The above quote shows that Hauerwas believes Christians should work to make our world less violent and more just. But Hauerwas wants to make sure that concepts like “justice” and “peace” have real content, that they truly mean something more than the empty concepts political power-brokers use to manipulate the populous. He writes, “I do not think justice is a ‘bad idea.’ (I am, however, unsure what it means to call justice an ‘idea’). I do not even think democracy is a ‘bad idea,’ though I am less sure I know what I am talking about when I say ‘democracy’ than when I say ‘justice’” (Performing, p.231). This recogniztion of the way public words are emptied of real political meaning points to the work of theorists like Sheldon Wolin who calls into question what we mean by “politics” and the “political”, and Michel Foucault who shows the inadequacy of conceptions of “government” by developing what he calls “governmentality.”

In a footnote, Bush criticizes Hauerwas for an idealized church whose righteousness exceeds that of something called the “secular” realm. He writes, “When a church-as-polis theologian such as Hauerwas says, ‘the church is a political alternative,’ are we to understand that as an idealized, theological description or a statement of fact about concrete Christian communities?” (p.13, n.19). Bush goes on to call for a thicker description of exemplifications of holy communities, and an account of the church’s culpability. As far as examples go, Hauerwas is notorious for pointing at examples in his works. In Performing the Faith he keeps theory on the ground by making Dietrich Bonhoeffer life speak about concrete Christian communties. Toward the end of the same book Hauerwas gives Mark and Louise Zwick and their Catholic Worker House (p.209) as real communities that exemplify the sort of political alternatives the church has “to offer to a world dying for examples” (p.232). And not to forget Dorothy Day and her begging community at the very end of the book (p.240-241). At the end of With the Grain of the Universe , Hauerwas ends with an argument for “the necessity of witness” and gives the lives of John Paul II, John Howard Yoder, and Dorothy Day as concrete manifestations of the political witness for which he argues. And if that not enough to satisfy Bush’s desire for a “sufficiently thick” descriptions that take “full account…of concrete Christian behavior,” Hauerwas surprisingly turns to the witness of the church and university in conversation!

Now, as far as culpability goes. I wonder if Steve Bush has read Hauerwas’ essay “Self-Deception and Autobiography: Reflections on Speer’s Inside the Third Reich” and “Remembering as a Moral Task: The Challenge of the Holocaust” that one can find in The Hauerwas Reader (pp.200-220 and 327-347, respectively). Both those essays deal with the reality of Christian evil and the need for the church to seek forgiveness from others. There is no smoke and mirrors trick at work that would turn away from the harsh reality of the Church’s sinfulness “in order to delegitimate the secular politics,” as Bush accuses.

It seems to me that Hauerwas, in fact, emphatically does not “miss the importance to Christian witness of the political horizon of society” due to a “monoscopic political vision” (Bush, p.4). But just in case those quotes above have not adequately displayed the way Hauerwas’ ecclesiology must involve a commitment to seek the peace of the nations, here is another quote from one of his earlier works:

“The church can never abandon the world to the hopelessness deriving from its rejection of God, but must be a people with a hope sufficiently fervid to sustain the world as well as itself. That is why as Christians not only do we find that people who are not Christian manifest God’s peace better than we ourselves, but we must demand they exist. It is to be hoped that such people may provide the conditions for our ability to cooperate with others for securing justice in the world.” ( The Peaceable Kingdom , p.101).

I hope that all of the above may serve to help Bush see that his target is misplaced. I don’t see how Hauerwas “stand[s] in a problematic relation to the sort of account of God’s goodness and love” that Bush sketched (p.2), at least not in the ways Bush hypothesizes. A real disagreement may emerge if Bush compares his obligation ethics with Hauerwas’ anti-Kantian character/virtue ethics. Or maybe Bush will find an interesting argument with Hauerwas over eschatology and the kingdom. For Hauerwas (building upon his mentor Julian Hartt) the church is not the eschatological kingdom, yet it is the space where one experiences the foretaste of the kingdom and learns to see that inbreaking eschaton in this world. But for Bush, the church does not seem to have any special claim on the eschatological presence of the resurrected Christ made available by the Spirit. Rather, “the church and world resemble the coming age in some manners and fail to do so in others” (p.8).

Tags: theology

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Bush // Sep 28, 2005 at 9:40 pm

    Isaac, thank you for this extraordinarily careful response. I’ll concede right off the bat that “anabaptist theologian” probably is not quite accurate. I think anabaptistic theologian would, but “methodist theologian” is probably the accurate term. I believe that Yoder is the strongest theological influence on him, and I would defend anabaptistic on those terms, but you’ve convinced me that anabaptist is not strictly speaking correct.

    You cite in your paper passages that H. denies that the church is to withdraw from the world and that H. says the church is to serve the world and witness to the world. I don’t deny any of that. My denial is far more specific: that H doesn’t acknowledge an obligation in certain cases to attempt to influence political processes.

    You cite this passage from ptf: “Such a view does not mean, of course, that Christians cannot work with non-Christians to try to make our world less violent and more just.” H has several passages like this one where he grants permission to Christians to do that, and I acknowledge this at least twice in the paper. Again, my issue is a failure to say that in many cases Christian should work with non-christians to try to make our world less violent and more just.

    If you wish, I could translate the language of obligations to the language of virtue/faithfulness along these lines: Is it the case, for H, that a virtuous/faithful Xian is such that the Xian would (not just might) in certain cases attempt to affect political structures.

    You accuse me of being too harsh on H for suggesting he is to tribalistic to acknowledge a shared conception of justice, but then you quote the very passage from PTF that I had in mind when I raised that point. Due to H’s reliance on macintyre, it’s clear that he doesn’t think liberal democracies can sustain a shared conception of justice.

    Finally, in regards to the “church is a political language” bit, H should say, “Dorothy Day’s church is a political alternative” (you and H mention a collection of individuals, but individuals are not churches), but that is far different from saying the church is a political alternative.

    And, just to be clear for your readers, whereas I do borrow the terms “stereoscopic” and “monoscopic” from Stout’s Ethics After Babel, I use the terms quite differently from him, so I wouldn’t want anyone to attribute my use of the terms to him.

  • 2 Eric Lee // Sep 29, 2005 at 9:51 am

    So, is the main issue the difference between could and should?

  • 3 isaac // Sep 29, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    Steve, thanks for engaging me. Before I clarify what I tried to say in my post, let me tell you that I get where you are coming from now. I heard your man Dr. Cornel West speak tonight at North Carolina Central University. I am a fan of his work, but seeing him in person makes it all the more compelling. He gave me chills when talking about the call to prophetic Christianity in the midst of a world lulled to sleep by Constantinianism. And he moved me to tears when he powerfully recited passages from Amos, Isaiah, and Micah. So, I totally support what seems like your adaptation of Dr. West’s work to your particular evangelical context. A passage from Prof. West’s newest book, Democracy Matters, comes to mind given what you have been saying: “Theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s prophetic ecclesiasticism and John Milbank’s radical orthodoxy—the major influences in seminaries and divinity schools—are so fearful of the tainting of the American empire that they call for a religious flight from the public square” (p.161).

    During Dr. West’s powerful address, I couldn’t help but think of this conversation and wonder more and more about why you read Hauerwas so differently, why you don’t see what looks to me as a much more compelling account of political responsibility than an “obligation.” The thread I tried to point to in Hauerwas’ stuff seems to me to be an account of the church that must serve the world as a fulfillment of its very nature. For Hauerwas the church exists to serve the world. That is what the last (bold) quote I included in my post communicated so clearly, or so I thought: “[The church] must be a people with a hope sufficiently fervid to sustain the world as well as itself…. It is to be hoped that such people may provide the conditions for our ability to cooperate with others for securing justice in the world.” The church’s being, its constitution, is tied to a flourishing world. This sort of link between ecclesiology and God’s redemption of the world sounds like it runs much deeper than your search for “an obligation.” And before you follow with an accusation of Hauerwas’ stark church/world divide, let me point to another quote: “neither Yoder nor I have assumed the boundary between church and world is impermeable. Not only is it permeable, but something has gone wrong when the church is not learning from the world how to live faithfully to God” (PTF, 231-232). At this point I have a hard time figuring out how you can still say that Hauerwas’ political theology is “monoscopic”—by which I take it you mean that Hauerwas turns the church in on itself in order to figure out what it means to be political. If anything, Hauerwas’ politcal theology fits quite well with what you name as “stereoscopic”—that is, the church must cultivate ways to listen to all that is non-church in order to learn new ways to be faithful.

    Now, back to your comment about what you percieve as Hauerwas’ linguistic tribalism. First, I don’t think it holds given that, as we see from those passages I just quoted, Hauerwas thinks that non-churchly things teach the church about faithfulness. That means there is communication going on inbetween the two linguistic cultures. To use Wittgenstein, the distinct language games share a multitude of family resemblances because they operate in the same form of life. Hauerwas cares so much about the way concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ are emptied of meaning because he worries that these words operate in public discourse as propagandizing slogans that a lot of times paper over important disagreements. It’s at this point that Hauerwas thinks the church should have something quite democratic to offer “democracy”—that is, if the church operates under the “rule of Paul.” He writes, “When I read and began to understand Yoder, I thought I was beginning to see how the church could make a genuine contribution to American political life by being ‘itself’, that is, a community that refuses to come to judgment without hearing the voice of the ‘weakest member’” (PTF, 227). The reason why Hauerwas is skeptical about slogans like ‘justice’ is because he believes every voice must be heard, even the weakest voice. And slogans force an assumed agreement before honest conversation takes place. For Hauerwas, ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ are not static; they are always discovered in the conversation where every voice is welcomed to the table. These are the same sorts of moves Dr. West makes: “Do we now live in a postdemocratic age in which the very ‘democratic’ rhetoric of an imperial America hides the waning of a democratic America?” (DM, 8 ). And echoing Sheldon Wolin, Cornel West writes, “The first grand democratic experiment in Athens was driven by a movement of the demos…. In this sense, democracy is more a verb than a noun—it is more a dynamic striving and collective movement than a static order or stationary status quo” (DM, 68). These are the same moves Hauerwas makes when he says that concepts like ‘justice’ serve to mask our eyes from the realities of injustice. Hauewas calls into question whether or not we can be sure what we mean when we say ‘justice’ or ‘democracy’ because he wants to shake up our concepts enough so that a conversation ensues where we discover from the “weakest voice” what justice looks like. This is not anything close to a “monoscopic” tribalism.

    And lastly, the passages I pointed to in Performing the Faith that talk about Dorothy Day and the Zwicks are about their communities. I wonder why this doesn’t count for you as concrete manifestations of the “church” as the sort of politics for which Hauerwas argues? Jesus says, “wherever two or more are gathered.” I think groups of people in their particular houses qualify. And, the argument of With the Grain of the Universe culminates in the Mennonite church that produces John Yoder, and the Roman Catholic Churhc that produced John Paul II and Dorothy Day. Why doesn’t the account of the way a particular church acted as a politcal alternative through Dorothy Day and her house(s) count?

  • 4 Steve Bush // Sep 30, 2005 at 7:32 am

    1. In regards to your last point, I’m very happy to grant that particular congregations qualify as a ‘political alternative’ if the congregation is living in the spirit in such a way that it exhibits a counter-cultural lifestyle that warrants the application of that term. But that doesn’t mean, as a generalized statement, that “THE CHURCH” (universal) is a political alternative. It means that particular congregations are, and others (most) aren’t.

    2. It seems like you’re assuming that “serve the world” means actions for social justice for H. But it doesn’t. For H, the church serves the world by being the church. And that, for H, means primarily eucharist, pacifism, and truthful speech.

    3. “It is to be hoped that such people may provide the conditions for our ability to cooperate with others for securing justice in the world.”: H insists that being a christian involves eucharist, pacificism, and truthful speech. He hopes it involves partnering w/ others in tasks of justice. I’m faulting him for not insisting on all four. Hoping that christians try to affect positive change in the world isn’t going to cut it in a culture (and church) characterized by hedonism, greed, narcissism, and apathy. We need churches that are insistent on this matter.

    4. I agree that “justice” and “democracy” function in practice as ideological masks of particular (class and ethnic) interests and I treat what George W Bush means by “democracy” with utmost scepticism, but whereas wolin and west are willing to flesh out a notion of democracy that has substantial content, H is not. I can only refer you back to the passage in PTF that we have both referenced, in which H says he doesn’t no what justice and democracy mean so he tries to ‘talk about justice without talking about justice.’ West talks about justice. West and Wolin talk about democracy. I don’t think its so hard to talk of such things if you want to.

    Thanks for your remarks.

  • 5 graham // Oct 2, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    Can I go slightly off the point – and perhaps be a little petty – by noting that Hauerwas calls himself an anabaptist? I think the label is most fitting for him, even if he does phrase it as “high church Mennonite” more often.

  • 6 Steve Bush // Oct 3, 2005 at 6:49 am

    Graham, can you give a reference? I don’t remember his self-identification as anabaptist, but obviously that helps my case!

  • 7 Eric Lee // Oct 3, 2005 at 8:11 am

    Isaac, just in case you didn’t see it, I wrote a response to you and Steve back on the ThinkTank site. I saw that you were interested in some of my previous comments, so, there you go.



  • 8 isaac // Oct 7, 2005 at 5:01 am

    Friends, this conversation has exploded over at generous orthodoxy thinktank (look here and here and here ) and I just don’t think I can keep up. There is never enough time to have all the conversations I want to have. Anyhow, the comments are great and the discussion is definitely worth jumping into. Looking at the direction of the comments, I think I’ll throw my lot in with Eric (but Anthony has great stuff to say as well). I like his style.

  • 9 Eric Lee // Oct 7, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Heh, thanks. The recent Scotus tangent doesn’t necessarily seem to be very helpful, let alone useful, but, “we digress,” I guess. In regards to the main points being made, I’ve discovered through y’all that everything is much more nuanced than at first glance and that can be contained in a single paper or even super lengthy blog conversations.

    Kevin Hector’s latest “consolidation” post is great.

    After conversations like these, I always feel like I know even less than I used know, and even then, I didn’t think I knew much to begin with! Somehow, if minisculely (is that a word?), I feel like I’ve gotten to know some people better. That’s kinda fun.

  • 10 blip » an excess of stanley hauerwas: against Hector’s against // Oct 12, 2005 at 3:23 am

    [...] I tried to excise myself from the conversation with Steve Bush and the folks over at Generous Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t resist another conversation (look here and here for other conversations). In summary, this is still my question for Steve Bush—it’s part of a comment I posted in one of those long conversations at Generous Orthodoxy : [...]

  • 11 graham // Nov 21, 2005 at 1:38 pm

    Sorry, Steve. I’ve only just seen your response to my comment. My comment was referring to the line where Hauerwas says, ‘When I described myself as a “high church Mennonite” many years ago I was not kidding.

    However, I’ve never found that ‘many years ago’ quote.

  • 12 isaac // Apr 13, 2006 at 8:23 am

    If you want to read more of this discussion, check out a later post where I picked up this subject again when I had more time: Hauerwas and rhetorics of excess.