Postscript: A Conversation with Stanley Hauerwas on Peace and War after Scriptural Reasoning

Q: Please describe your relationship with Peter Ochs, his work on the “return to scripture,” and what you know of the scriptural reasoning project.

A: We were in Dayton, Ohio. A philosopher there thought it a good idea to have a conference on narrative and theology. I thought it a good idea to show up at the conference. There was a guy there named Peter Ochs. I had not expected a Jew to show up at this very Catholic place. But there Peter was. I was immediately drawn to him because he was just so smart. But we got into a terrific argument at dinner. It was about prayer in public schools and why I should support it. Later I reprised that argument in an essay called “A Christian Critique of Christian America” that now appears in Christian Existence Today . Peter was shocked that I did not support prayer in public schools. I said, “Why should I want Christianity confused with state sponsorship, because it’s just bad for my faith?” Peter asked why he should care about my faith. He argued that having pagans pray might at least remind them they are creatures, which might help prevent them from becoming murderers as it happened in Nazi Germany.

After that exchange I think Peter and I both wanted to let this budding friendship grow. We interacted through correspondence. I remember a wonderful conference Peter had arranged at Drew in which Michael Wyschogrod reminded me that the Jews are a stiff-necked people, but they are God’s people. I remember he and Peter pressed me on why Christians thought they could be free of keeping the law.

I’m not sure when I became aware of the Peter’s beginnings with Scriptural Reasoning. I do what Peter asks me to do and have been a member of sessions at the AAR. I’ve never been as active as I probably should be because I feel I have a great deal on my plate already. But I thought from the start, “This is a wonderful expression of who Peter is; because of his extraordinary generosity he brings us together to discover what it means to read in common.” Of course, reading in common by no means ensures we will have agreement. But at least we might be lucky enough to discover disagreements. That Peter saw early on the importance of having Muslims in the conversation displays his extraordinary hospitality. David Burrell and Peter Ochs have led the way for so many of us on these matters.

Q: What kind of judgments might you make about the role that scripture plays in your own moral reasoning concerning just war and pacifism?

A: I’d like to think that the role scripture plays in my own moral reasoning is really a question about the role of the work of Yoder in how I think. I think with John’s thinking with scripture. I know people often think that I’m not appropriately “scriptural,” but I often think that John did the basic exegetical work. Moreover, you must remember that John did not think that you could isolate a position called “pacifism” and then support it by supplementing or justifying it with scriptural verses. That is to go at the matter backwards. Rather, his account of Christian nonviolence is constitutive of how the scripture must be read Christologically. Too often Christians forget that the gospels have to be read retrospectively in the light of the Resurrection and the Ascension. So Christian nonviolence is not something that can be separated from discipleship made possible through cross and resurrection. Moreover, once you’ve made those hermeneutical moves, then I think it is clear that passages in the scriptures come to life because they are illumined by the Christian disavowall of killing.

So moral reasoning is not to be isolated from scriptural reasoning. Or conversely, scriptural reasoning is practical reasoning. Of course I think Matthew 5 and the command that we forgive enemies is a text that supports the commitments of Christians to nonviolence, but it cannot be singled out in and of itself as decisive. I find those who argue for just war are rarely engaged in scriptural reasoning. Often they assume that scripture in general defends justice and if you want justice you are going to have to, from time to time, use coercion and possibly even kill someone. But rarely is the scripture engaged concretely in support of just war. Therefore, by insisting on close scriptural reading, there is some hope of resisting abstractions like “justice” which is then used to justify war. Of course, you have to take on one challenge at a time regarding ways to read scripture in support of nonviolence.

Crucial for reading scripture nonviolently is that the eschatology of the Gospel not be lost. When this is lost, you lose the fundamental relation between church and world that is the necessary presupposition for reading scripture as a Christian. The most important thing I need to say about these matters, however, is that reading itself is the practice of non-violence just to the extent it requires a posture of patience before the text.

Q:In what ways do you think Peter Ochs’s work in general and/or the practice of scriptural reasoning in particular makes a practical and real difference for thinking about questions concerning war and peace?

A: I think there is a danger in interpreting the work of Scriptural Reasoning in large “good guy terms” that doesn’t do justice to the significance of the practice itself. By “good guy terms” I mean that we celebrate what wonderful people we are because we respect one another sufficiently to be reading scripture together in the same room. Such a perception is to give a humanistic and cosmopolitan narrative to the activity that I think betrays anyone who has been shaped by Peter’s understanding of scriptural reasoning. Those insights, and I’m not sure that calling them insights is the appropriate term, I think draw profoundly on the depth of Peter’s Jewishness and his ability to see that depth in Christians and Muslims. The depth about which I speak is his understanding that we are people dependent on a narrative that can only be known through a people’s memory across time. So scriptural reasoning does not begin with abstractions but rather with the actual practice of texts shaping the possibilities before us.

Scriptural reasoning is, therefore, an act of trust, and in particular, trust in God. Trust takes time and creates time. We cannot anticipate what we will learn from scriptural reasoning for thinking about peace because scriptural reasoning, if it’s done well, will be one of the places we are enabled to see peace.