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Interview with Stanley Hauerwas
September 6, 2002    Episode no. 601
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Photo of Stanley Hauerwas An Interview with Stanley Hauerwas
by Scott McLemee

The first issues of THE SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERLY tested the limits of "academic liberty," as it was called at the turn of the twentieth century, with essays challenging Southern racial policies. It is much harder to get a violent intellectual argument going, nowadays. But this fall's special issue of the journal, published by Duke University Press, certainly tries.

DISSENT FROM THE HOMELAND: ESSAYS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia, criticizes American policy from a variety of perspectives. Among the contributors are sociologist Robert Bellah, Catholic priest and activist Daniel Berrigan, essayist Wendell Berry, and several theologians, including Hauerwas, a Christian intellectual known for his two-fisted pacifism. A professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, Hauerwas is often cited as one of the most influential contemporary religious thinkers.

Scott McLemee writes about the humanities for the Chronicle of Higher Education, where a shorter version of this interview appeared in the issue of September 6.

Q: How would you characterize the gist of this issue?

A: I think the most important argument in the issue is made by Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, when he says, "Things went wrong as soon as the word 'war' was used." Because this was a crime; we ought to have kept it in that descriptive range, which means you try to arrest, you don't try to destroy. B-52s are pretty crude policemen. Michael Howard, the great military historian, says, "In Britain, we would have used the language of emergency, not the language of war." You begin to see how quickly language takes us down the wrong path, if you aren't careful with it. In some ways this issue is an attempt to discipline language about these matters. I mean, how do you know when you "win" the "war on terrorism"?

Q: A number of contributors speak from within religious traditions. Is that going to be disconcerting to the secular-minded reader?

A: The great agony of America is that we won the cold war; what in the hell do we do now? We need to hear from people who somehow find themselves standing outside the "normal" reaction that Americans have to these matters. And "to have a stance outside" means having a different kind of community -- which is what I think the church is. But that also means that some of the debate is internal. The essay by Mike Baxter [an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame] makes clear that the Catholics haven't done well on [responding September 11], except for individual voices

Q: Given that, it seems odd to find an essay by Jean Baudrillard, the postmodern theorist, who interprets September 11 as the Twin Towers committing suicide. Did you have a quota for nihilists?

A: I didn't cotton to his essay very much, quite frankly. Obviously you include people like that because of who they are -- to find out what they say, in the face of an event like this. And what you find out is that they have nothing to say!

Q: The issue includes some stunning images from New York, showing the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

A: That's the work of James Nachtwey. He calls himself an "after-war photographer." He did a book called INFERNO, with pictures he took in Rwanda, Romania, Somalia, Vietnam. I said, "Jim, how can you look at this much suffering and not want to kill somebody?" I mean, I'd want to kill somebody. But he doesn't. When Time magazine came out after 9-11, I saw that his photographs were in it, so I called him up. He lives two blocks away [from the WTC]. He'd heard it and ran out with his camera and started taking photographs. They're haunting. We wanted those images there to show that we're not unaware that people died, that this is a wound, and you've got to talk about the wound.

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Q: Haven't the media done quite a bit of that, by now?

A: The current heroization of the people who died is the unwillingness of Americans to accept the idea that Americans can die as victims.

Q: Is that really a fair characterization of how the dead have been treated? Most of those killed really were victims -- people who happened to be at their offices at a fatal moment. What the media and the public have regarded as heroic are the people who lost their lives while trying to save others.

A: I honor that, of course. Anyone would be stupid who didn't honor that. But to turn these deaths into martyrdom is something done for war-policy reasons, to fuel the desire for revenge. They've made people's deaths mean more than their lives ever could have. I don't like that at all.

Q: The collection contains a long essay by [University of Virginia theology professor] John Milbank, whose notion of Radical Orthodoxy challenges the modernist currents in Christian theology, much as yours does. He suggests that American foreign and military policy embodies the murderous dead-end of Western secular life. The trouble in the world, he writes, "is not 'totalitarianism' pure and simple, but the emptiness of the secular as such, and its consequent disguised sacralization of violence." But while reading that sentence, I found it impossible not to think of the liberation of Kabul -- how joyously people greeted the chance to live with a little secular discretion, after a few years of the not-so-disguised "sacralization of violence."

A: When Milbank writes a sentence like that, he's not thinking about Afghanistan at all. He's only thinking about England and America. And that joy that was seen there was neither religious nor secular, it was just human! People who had been ruled by a bunch of bastards -- which it seems like it's very clear the Taliban were -- suddenly found that the were no longer ruled by the bastards. And getting their hair cut and so on makes them no less Muslim. And I think that Islam has got to find a way to figure out how to condemn the terrible crimes of Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. We haven't had enough voices in Islam saying "No." I think it has a lot to do with Islamic organization. I mean, who in the hell speaks for Islam?

Q: That's a very Hauerwasian concern, in a way -- the problem of how religious community is instituted. In the case of Islam, it sounds like Bin Laden has an easy answer for that -- you reestablish the caliphate.

A: Absolutely right. But again, that's an internal debate within Islam. So I think John would not see [the Afghan] response [to the defeat of the Taliban] as the kind of emptiness that he's talking about. Take a thinker like Reinhold Niebuhr. What shaped his moral vision and that of the post-World War II generations? "Never again totalitarianism." That's what sustained the justifications of liberal democracy: you don't want totalitarianism -- as if those are the only two options. I think what John and I are suggesting politically is that totalitarianism is a too-easy thing to think you are avoiding. There is a kind of darkness at the heart of consumer societies. And they are now confronting other societies [of militant Islamism] that still think there are some things worth dying for. I don't know that this society does. And I think that some of the crisis we confront today in this kind of society is that the military is so much more morally virtuous than the citizenry they're defending.

Q: Given the rest of your thinking, it sounds like the army is the closest thing to a secular organization resembling the church -- an organization that can step into the breach, to mitigate consumer society's individualism and hedonism. An odd conclusion for a pacifist theologian to reach.

Did you like this story? How can we improve our program or Web site? A: I mean, I admire the military! What an impressive community they form! But the society they're defending represents a way of life that undercuts military discipline. They don't know how to negotiate that one.