The Peaceable Kingdom – Stanley Hauerwas

I’ve just finished another one in a long line of books I’m set to plough my way through. Last year I was given Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and William Willimon, and Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child, both of which I read very quickly. This year for my birthday I was given The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. I got a little more stuck in one or two places due to some fairly dense language and concepts, but thankfully this wasn’t the case through the whole book.

What struck me most forcefully was undoubtedly Hauerwas’ central contention which is that ethics, not to mention every part of Christian life and discipleship, can only fruitfully be understood through the narrative of our history as a people of God. He begins with the claim that every ethic must include a qualifier, including and perhaps especially, ‘Christian ethics’. He raises the contention against the backdrop of a systemic view that there is somehow a ‘universal ethic’ from which we can derive our complete moral code. Apart from the problems with this latter view, it quickly becomes clear that as Hauerwas sees it, there is no clearer way to develop an ethical standpoint but through narrative – through the history that is tied up in the qualifier ‘Christian’.

Thus the question becomes, not ‘what I ought to do?’, but ‘what sort of person ought I to be?’ We become the people that we are through the stories that we tell and the histories that we appropriate.

That was the most forceful point, for me, and it was a welcome note of challenge especially to legalistic evangelical approaches to morality. The chapter that most captivated me was his chapter on Jesus in the middle of the book, describing Jesus as the presence of the peaceable kingdom itself. The following chapter on the church – ‘the servant community’ – was similarly wonderful, and brought some of the abstract themes he had been dealing with into wonderful clarity.

For a book with this title, it is manifestly far from being an introductory ‘primer’ in any classical sense, as Hauerwas makes clear. And while its central ethical concern is with peace, it still feels less like a treatise on non-violence (Hauerwas’ preferred term) or pacifism (a word he seems to prefer to avoid), and more like a general reflection on some of the debate that has gone on over this subject. Perhaps the most forceful chapter on the subject is the last one, in which the reader is brought face to face first of all with the debate over ‘doing nothing’, and also with the stark reality of the chaos that a radically peaceful stance can create in a world obsessed with keeping order. This last most manifestly hits us in tragedy, and we are faced with the difficult task of accepting tragedy as a necessary part of living in this world as peaceable people. It is a profound chapter, but not, as I have said, a completion of any treatise on pacifism. I think Hauerwas says as much. We need more books like this, that make us stop and think – or as Hauerwas adds in his postscript to the second edition, ‘to make the brains of those reading the book hurt’. He helpfully highlights again one theme in this postscript which he insists be seen as important but which few have recognised in their reviews of the work: that of our being ‘out of control’. Realising that we are out of control – that God is God and we are not – ought to free our imaginations to discover how we can live in this world, he says (and in words much better than I can find).

I expect it’s a book I’ll be returning to, alongside John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.

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