The Common Good
September 2004

Truthful Testimony

by Jess O. Hale | September 2004

When one of this nation'

When one of this nation’s most provocative theologians publishes his reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, those who count themselves as (lay or ordained) theologians and students of Christian faith in public life can hope for a lively experience. With Performing the Faith, Stanley Hauerwas does not disappoint. As an attorney in public service, I picked up Performing the Faith with particular delight, since I have drawn deeply on Bonhoeffer for a Christologically grounded, responsible faith lived in my own vocation. Similarly, as a Christian in public service I have had lively debates (in my own head at least) over the years with Hauerwas’ "sectarian" communities of Christian discipleship and character. These lively essays will find a welcome audience for those who think of politics in terms of how humans actually live their lives together, instead of in terms of the partisanship of political parties.

Hauerwas’ theological politics engage the world by calling the church to be the church. He contends—correctly, I believe—that Bonhoeffer is a kindred spirit in that brand of politics. Reading Bonhoeffer’s writings in light of the German theologian’s life story, Hauerwas finds a consistency rooted in ecclesiology that extends from Sanctorum Communio through Letters and Papers from Prison. Viewing Bonhoeffer as spiritual kin to John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas notes that Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis came out of a commitment to peace that could not be based on lies and injustice and so Bonhoeffer affirmed the political significance of the visible Christian community. The visible church becomes the testimony of the gospel to the world. By witnessing to the truth, Bonhoeffer performs the faith.

For Bonhoeffer, as his politically engaged life makes apparent, the church’s gift to politics is truthful proclamation of the gospel. It is by the performance of truthful testimony that church serves the world. Telling the truth in our lives together is not sectarian but it is political, because it deals with our lives in community together. In an age of 30-second political advertisements, truthful speech remains as meaningful to democracies as it is to inveighing against totalitarian regimes. Bonhoeffer’s relevance endures.

AFTER BEGINNING with two essays on Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas offers a number of engaging essays that wander through many a theological meadow. He interprets the notion of performing the faith as parallel to performing music; he jousts with Wittgenstein, Jeffrey Stout, John Milbank, and, of course, Yoder; and he meditates separately on punishment and 9/11.

Hauerwas’ essays arise from his emphasis on the contingent nature of our life together and his suspicions about ethical systems disembodied from the church’s underlying stories. They can be demanding and even frustrating to read. He distracts from his argument by including running dialogues with (seemingly) everything he has ever published, as well as with a number of his critics.

I found Bonhoeffer’s disappearance after the first two chapters to be unfortunate. Curiously, the pacifist Hauerwas barely acknowledges, without really explaining, Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler. Many of the subsequent essays could have benefited from explicitly considering aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Hauerwas’ meditations on American identity beg for comparison with Bonhoeffer’s German patriotism, as he actively opposed Nazism during wartime. As Hauerwas contrasted his own "calling attention to peaceable activities, such as raising lemurs, sustaining universities, having children, and, of course, playing baseball" with the crisis-oriented survivalism of some writers, would not a musing on Bonhoeffer’s commitments to friendship and his own engagement to Maria have echoed Jeremiah’s encouraging the Babylonian exiles to "build houses and settle down" and have counted as worthy performances of faith?

For many who fancy themselves political realists or who aspire to be "players" in the political process, the ministry of truthful testimony may be unwelcome. Yet it remains a necessary ministry. In Performing the Faith, Hauerwas reminds us that Bonhoeffer’s politically engaged life powerfully performed that ministry of truthful testimony. Whether one is pacifist or not, a Christian facing a politics of lies and injustice in times of armed conflict and of "peace" needs to remember the daily performances that shape us in the community we call church.

Jess O. Hale Jr. works as an attorney in public service in Nashville and lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

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