Local Church as Radical Witness

STANLEY HAUERWAS’ new book War and the American Difference is not the first volume that he has written on the theme of war, but it’s the first one he’s released post-9/11. Although the Duke Divinity School professor frequently writes on topics of war, peace, and violence, this new volume is perhaps his clearest account to date of the church’s witness in a violent world. Like most of Hauerwas’ previous work, this new collection of essays is not for the faint of heart—or mind. Although the reading gets somewhat dense at times, it is ultimately rewarding, a beacon of Christ’s peace in an age of endless war.

Readers who are familiar with Hauerwas’ work might be tempted to put down the book after the first few essays, which rehash themes that have characterized his work for more than a quarter-century. In these early chapters, Hauerwas explores thorny questions such as the nature of “America’s God” and why war is a “moral necessity” for the United States, peppering his writing with provocative statements such as “America is an extraordinarily wealthy society, determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world.”

Although the first of the book’s three parts reiterates familiar themes, Hauerwas begins to take a new and intriguing turn in its second part. In the essay “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War,” Hauerwas uses Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s research on soldiers’ resistance to killing in combat to bolster his argument that “the greatest sacrifice of war is not the sacrifice of life, great as such a sacrifice may be, but rather the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill.” We were made not to kill, but to be in communion, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus war and killing have been rendered unnecessary. In this part of the book, Hauerwas also offers keen reflections on the anti-pacifist work of C.S. Lewis, a piece that will be of interest—and challenging—to the many evangelical fans of Lewis’ work, and on the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., which he argues was not incompatible with John Howard Yoder’s concept of “pacifism of the messianic community.”

It is the book’s third part, however, that makes this work excel. In this final section, Hauerwas turns to reflecting on the question of what it might look like for the church to be the church, a culture that embodies an alternative to war. Hauerwas has, of course, emphasized this point in his work over the last several decades, but what is different here is that the direction he points us is decidedly local and particular in a way that has previously only been alluded to in his work. Perhaps the finest essay in the whole collection is “A Particular Place,” in which he channels both Wendell Berry and his theological muse John Howard Yoder in emphasizing that our response to the violence of Constantinianism should not be anti-Constantinianism, but rather faithfulness in church communities defined by “locality and place.” He continues in the same vein in the book’s final essay, in which he argues that although the church is called to be everywhere, it does so in a way that is attentive to the particularities of each place in which it gathers.

I have long appreciated that Hauerwas’ work cuts across the grain of the violence of our times, but what makes War and The American Difference extraordinary is its insistence that the different way of Christ is embodied primarily not in the White House, the halls of Congress, or even in the church in the universal and abstract sense, but rather in our local and particular church communities that embody Christ’s reconciliation in the contours of our daily life together. Indeed, Hauerwas’ message here of God’s grassroots transformation of our violent world is one of hope and one whose peaceful means befit its ends!

C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books (EnglewoodReview.org) and is presently co-writing a book titled Slow Church (forthcoming from IVP Books).

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