Theology Without Witness?

*As a veteran leader on campus and an alumni at the time of the panel, I voiced my strong objection to holding a panel about war that did not include voices of those who had been to war. You can read my correspondence to then-dean Richard Hays here, to which he never responded. 

In a November 4th panel at Duke Divinity School, well-known pacifists Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas, Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 9.43.06 AMand Amy Laura Hall reflected on war, violence, and a Christian alternative they preferred to call nonviolent “commitment” (Hauerwas) or “reconciliation.” (Hays) You can watch the hour-long panel via iTunesU (it does require a download though). The panel’s moderator, local news anchor David Crabtree, noted that not only did the date chosen for the panel fall on Election Day, but that it also fell precisely one week prior to another particularly American holiday; Veterans Day. Veterans and soldiers were not a primary subject, though, with Hays emphasizing in his welcoming remarks that the panel on pacifism was not meant to present both sides of the issue at hand. I think Hays meant to refer to people, which is the animus of Christian faith, not issues. Specifically, the panel was not meant to present non-pacifist persons, who were confusingly (and inaccurately) conflated with military personnel past or present, as though soldiers cannot be pacifists (a series at Centurions Guild overlapped the panel, in fact, & troubles that problematic assumption).

Hays took time to discourage any notion that Christian soldiers or veterans hear the panel’s remarks as a “criticism or attack.” Instead, the purpose for the panel was to “talk about how scripture & Christian theology informs how Christians ought to think about issues of war.” He went on to elaborate specifically that there needs to be a clear distinction between questions of “what is or should be the normative Christian theological teaching on how the church positions itself in relationship to war and violence” on the one hand and “what is the church’s pastoral response to veterans and how do we wisely and compassionately deal with” those who have served in armed forces on the other. He understood their task at hand to be strictly theological, not pastoral.

The problem is that Hauerwas, one of the panelists there to speak (and under whom I am grateful to have studied), taught me and many other students to be profoundly suspicious when anyone suggests that theology and ethics be sharply distinguished, as though we can believe one thing in our mind and testify to something else entirely with our bodily behavior. In fact, Hays never seemed to substantiate his claim about a clear distinction, continuing on to contradict himself by repeatedly remarking that Jesus both taught and lived what he believed, and insisted his followers do likewise. For example, in reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5, Hays reminded his listeners that Jesus rejected violence, “he taught love of enemies. He lived it out.” Teaching and witness are synonymous in this claim he makes about Jesus, he implies that abstracting pedagogy from practice contradicts the testimony of scripture. How then, can we make sense of Hays’ earlier claim that theological teaching and an ministerially responsible reply should (or even can) be distinguished?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too upset. After all, the strawman constructed itself, with Hall’s stated impetus of the panel (the need for a properly nuanced pacifist argument in public spaces) being ironically crammed into a mere 50 minutes between three theological powerhouses and a TV news anchor. What seems to be lacking in the pacifism she, Hays, and Hauerwas profess in their lives and with their lips is a degree of ecclesial modesty. Ever the bull in the China shop, Hauerwas provocatively illustrated this privation of reserve in his response to an early question by a student veteran, who asked what pacifism meant specifically for theologians at a place like Duke Divinity, already known for its pacifism. In order to illustrate his reply that the relative ease of pacifism didn’t necessarily make it wrong, Hauerwas described telling his young son what to do in class, in 1969, after then-president Nixon began a bombing campaign over Cambodia. “Raise [your] hand in class when Nixon’s name [is] brought up and ask ‘Oh, you mean the murderer?’” He acknowledges wanting his son’s life to be hard, but the problem is that any violent reaction to such an inflammatory comment would not have been a response to someone being pacifist or Christian, but to someone being an asshole.

Biography as TheologyWhatever teaching moment that might have been possible was bulldozed by belligerent rhetorical exhibitionism. Were Hauerwas to pause a moment and consider the implications of his illustration, he might have realized that the people indicted by his illustration were not just presidents, but those who pull triggers and release bombs, several of whom were in attendance. Besides being willing to divorce ethics from doctrine, the Duke flavor of pacifism fails to display much regard to or sympathy for the lives and stories that make the thing we call “war.” Being pacifist seems more determinative than being at peace with fellow Christians, like those that Hays revealed a concern for offending.

Even if what Hays suggested were true, that scripture and theology informs how Christians think, scripture and theology do not alone constitute the Body of Christ. How Christians ought to think specifically about issues of war must be based, therefore, on those lives that can give us a particularly Christian account thereof (que another plug for the soldier saints series at Centurions Guild). After all, any scripture without Matthew 8, Luke 7, or Acts 10 is not canonical. Any theology at all morally proximate to the thing we call war is utterly incoherent if it is ignorant of the stories containing the ecclesiological density capable of narrating and embodying the harrowing return from the hell thereof. Being a Christian (pacifist or otherwise) requires soldiers being sought out, seen, heard, and embraced as living members of Christ’s body, for that is what they are. The stories of Christian soldiers and veterans can be, have always been, and must continue to be fully integrated into the theology and ethics of the Church. Is it ecclesiastically responsible to be the bull in a china shop when it’s already filled with broken potshards?

To be clear, I consider myself deeply committed to the convictions that each of the panelists articulated. Not only have I studied under both Hall and Hauerwas, but I have also most often deeply appreciated their wise words. But preaching and teaching is not all words, as Francis of Assisi implored his followers, “Preach always. Use words when necessary.” Any discussion of violence or pacifism in a properly Christian context is inadequate if it does not attend pastorally to all involved – from the commander-in-chief on down – who participate in war (which, as tax paying citizens, includes most “pacifists”). To think of our convictions as being separable from their method of delivery before a classroom or a congregation, to think that one can be a pacifist without first and foremost being a person who believes by behaving in accord with the life that Jesus exemplified in his own, is a huge mistake. And it is one too many Christians have been making for too long, pacifist or not.

2 thoughts on “Theology Without Witness?

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