Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Hauerwasian Christian Legal Theory

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Hauerwasian Christian Legal Theory

Article excerpt


In early 2003, Stanley Hauerwas wrote a column in Time magazine sharply criticizing the impending Iraq War. (1) According to Hauerwas, an American invasion would flagrantly violate the principles of just war theory. "Bush's use of the word evil comes close to being evil--to the extent that it gives this war a religious justification," he wrote. (2) "For Christians, the proper home for the language of evil is the liturgy: it is God who deals with evil, and it's presumptuous for humans to assume that our task is to do what only God can do. Advocates of 'just war' should be the first to object to the language of evil because that characterization threatens to turn war into a crusade." (3)

Some have found this and other similarly tart-toned public statements doubly puzzling. First, in the theology for which he is famous, Hauerwas emphasizes the church as a "community of character" whose principal objective is to "be the church" by eschewing violence and fostering virtues such as faith and hope. (4) Yet, despite his own pacifism, Hauerwas purports to interpret a theory he rejects, just war theory. Second, despite his insistence that the church's responsibility is to be the church, not to make society more just, Hauerwas has very publicly engaged in this and other policy debates.

The first puzzle is easily dismissed. Holding a particular view has never been a criterion for engaging its adherents. One does not need to be a feminist to write about first- or second-wave feminism, or a minority to write about Critical Race Theory. Non-Christians can and do critique Christian just war theory, so surely the views of a pacifist Christian are not out of bounds.

The second puzzle appears to be more well founded. But it has proven to be a distraction precisely because of its apparent plausibility. Critics have repeatedly interpreted Hauerwas's church-centered theology as precluding public engagement. Just as repeatedly, Hauerwas has denied that his theology is

"sectarian"--that is, that it calls the church to isolate itself from the world--and has insisted that the church has a public role to play. (5) Hauerwas and his critics have spent so much time debating the issue whether he is sectarian that they invariably obscure the more important and interesting question of what Hauerwasian public engagement should look like.

Hauerwas has not helped matters, of course. He has played rope-a-dope with his critics, offering vague answers and sometimes quixotic suggestions when pressed. Asked what kinds of abortion laws the church should advocate, for instance, he suggested that the "church is not nearly at the point where she can concern herself with what kind of abortion law we should have," because the church has contributed to a political liberalism that makes abortion "intelligible." (6) In response to America's bombing of Libya during the Reagan administration, Hauerwas suggested that perhaps the church should immediately send a thousand missionaries to the scene of the fighting. (7)

My goal in this article is to develop a more complete account of public engagement in Hauerwasian theology--and more precisely, since this is a symposium about law, Hauerwasian Christian Legal Theory. (8) Throughout the discussion, I will distinguish between two kinds of public engagement, which I will refer to as "prophetic" and "participatory." Christian engagement is prophetic when it criticizes or condemns the state, often by urging the state to honor or alter its true principles. In participatory engagement, by contrast, the church intervenes more directly in the political process, as when it works with lawmakers or mobilizes grassroots action. Prophetic engagement is often one-off; participatory engagement is more sustained.

This distinction brings the principal quandaries for Hauerwasian public engagement into clear view. First, because they worry intensely about the integrity of the church, Hauerwasians are more comfortable with prophetic engagement than the participatory alternative, a tendency I will call the "prophetic temptation. …

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