Hauerwas on War, Sacrifice and the Alternative to the Sacrifices of War

The ABC’s outstanding Religion and Ethics site has recently posted a stirring three-part reflection on war by Stanley Hauerwas:

Here are some tasters:

  • ‘I think the language of sacrifice is particularly important for societies like the United States in which war remains our most determinative common experience, because states like the United States depend on the story of our wars for our ability to narrate our history as a unified story’.
  • ‘I think it is a mistake to focus – as we most often do – only on the sacrifice of life that war requires. War also requires that we sacrifice our normal unwillingness to kill. It may seem odd to call the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill “a sacrifice,” but I will argue that this sacrifice often renders the lives of those who make it unintelligible. The sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill is but the dark side of the willingness in war to be killed. Of course I am not suggesting that every person who has killed in war suffers from having killed. But I do believe that those who have killed without the killing troubling their lives should not have been in the business of killing in the first place … Killing creates a world of silence isolating those who have killed’.
  • ‘Awarding of medals becomes particularly important. Medals gesture to the soldier that what he did was right and the community for which he fought is grateful. Medals mark that his community of sane and normal people, people who do not normally kill, welcome him back into “normality.” [Lt Col Dave] Grossman calls attention to Richard Gabriel’s observation that “primitive societies” often require soldiers to perform purification rights before letting them rejoin the community. Such rites often involve washing or other forms of cleaning. Gabriel suggest the long voyage home on troop ships in World War II served to give soldiers time to tell to one another their stories and to receive support from one another. This process was reinforced by their being welcomed home by parades and other forms of celebration. Yet soldiers returning from Vietnam were flown home often within days and sometimes hours of their last combat. There were no fellow soldiers to greet them. There was no one to convince them of their own sanity. Unable to purge their guilt or to be assured they had acted rightly, they turned their emotions inward’.
  • ‘Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. No sacrifice is more dramatic than the sacrifice asked of those sent to war, that is, the sacrifice of their unwillingness to kill. Even more cruelly, we expect those who have killed to return to “normality”’.
  • Hauerwas also cites from Carolyn Marvin’s and David Ingle’s book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag: ‘In the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill, for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for’. To which Hauerwas comments: ‘This is a sobering judgment, but one that cannot be ignored if Christians are to speak truthfully to ourselves and our neighbours about war. I think, however, Christians must insist that what is true is not what a society thinks is worth killing for, but rather that for which they think it worth dying. Indeed, I sometimes think that Christians became such energetic killers because we were first so willing to die rather than betray our faith. Yet the value of Marvin’s and Ingle’s claim that truth is to be found in that for which you are willing to kill is how it helps us see that the Christian alternative to war is not to have a more adequate “ethic” for conducting war. No, the Christian alternative to war is worship … The sacrifices of war are undeniable. But in the cross of Christ, the Father has forever ended our attempts to sacrifice to God in terms set by the city of man. We (that is, we Christians) have now been incorporated into Christ’s sacrifice for the world so that the world no longer needs to make sacrifices for tribe or state, or even humanity. Constituted by the body and blood of Christ we participate in God’s Kingdom so that the world may know that we, the church of Jesus Christ, are the end of sacrifice. If Christians leave the Eucharistic table ready to kill one another, we not only eat and drink judgment on ourselves, but we rob the world of the witness necessary for the world to know there is an alternative to the sacrifices of war’.

One comment

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.