How (Not) to be a Good American

Stanley Hauerwas

Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.

The question of loyalty to the government of the United States, particularly after 11 September 2001, is not a theoretical issue for me.

For example, a friend wrote me in response to my critical appraisal of the American reaction to 9/11, asking if my refusal to identify with the “war on terrorism” did not require me to disdain all “natural loyalties” that bind us together as human beings. Does my refusal to be “patriotic” mean I am indifferent to the gifts I have received through those that have sacrificed their lives in the wars that have made America such a great country?

I had to reply that if “patriotism” is a “natural loyalty,” then I certainly had to disavow being patriotic.

So it seems I do not measure up to being appropriately loyal to America by those who identify themselves with the political Right in American politics. But the Left is not happy with me either.

For example, Jeffrey Stout once famously claimed that “no theologian has done more to inflame Christian resentment of secular political culture” than I have. Indeed, I am a bit taken aback by Stout’s assessment of my influence. He seems to think I have almost single-handedly convinced Christians in America to give up on democracy. I had no idea a theologian could have that kind of impact, particularly on other Christians.

I am not only bemused but also confused by these assessments of my failure to support America. I am far too conventional to be thought to be outside the American mainstream. Taxes are taken out of my salary every month. I do not like the fact my money is used to support the Pentagon, but I do not know what to do about it.

It is true I do not take national politics as seriously as I once did. I continue to vote even though I am not all that convinced voting is a good idea. My friend and former student, Father Mike Baxter, C.S.C., says, “Don’t vote – it only encourages them.” Yet I was raised a yellow-dog Democrat in Texas and voting is a hard habit to break.

I also have the problem that I am, at least according to some, a “success.” For example, in 2003 I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the literature welcoming me to the Academy, I was informed that the Academy was founded in 1780 by a small group of scholar-patriots led by John Adams. They founded the Academy even before the Revolutionary War had ended, believing that the new republic would have need for new knowledge and ideas. Accordingly, they adopted as the purpose of the Academy: “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

That I am now a member of the Academy must surely mean I am, or should become, a good American. To be anything else would make it appear that I am not above biting the hand that feeds me. In truth, I do not want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I do not think that means I have to lick the same hand.

The divided allegiance of the earthly city

The problem is complicated for me because I am a pacifist. For pacifists, questions of allegiance to the nation are not as urgent as questions concerning the implications of our commitment to nonviolence for our relation to those closest to us.

Commenting on the work of John Howard Yoder, Grady Scott Davis observes that Yoder’s account of Christian nonviolence asks us to forsake “goods attendant” not only for our own lives but those that we love. Davis notes that this seems to run contrary to right reason, but he commends Yoder for “his willingness to embrace this conclusion.”

According to Davis, Yoder rightly does not try to argue that his pacifism meets the common-sense meaning of justice and right reason. Rather, Yoder argues that Jesus initiated a revolution, an “‘original revolution,’ in which the participants acknowledge God’s call by giving themselves over to His providential will.” Such a giving over was made possible because Yoder believed that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God instituted a new politics. In Yoder’s own words, Jesus gave his followers,

“a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it … He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old.”

I believe Yoder’s understanding of the politics that pacifism requires offers a constructive way to understand how Christians can and should serve our neighbours – including the neighbour who may be our spouse and children – in the world as we find it, that is, a world that seems to assume that violence is unavoidable if we are to care for ourselves and one another.

The challenge before those committed to Christian nonviolence, however, is not peculiar to them because they are pacifist. Rather, pacifism represents the tension between church and world that is inherent in Christian practice. Nowhere is that tension better seen than in the account Augustine gives in The City of God of the relation between the city of God and the city of man. That I call attention to Augustine may seem quite odd, given the assumption by many that he represents the defence of the Christian use of violence. But I hope to demonstrate that Augustine shares more with John Howard Yoder than is recognized.

In order to make the connection between Augustine and Yoder, I will use Robert Wilken’s account of Augustine’s understanding of the Christian responsibility for the earthly city in his book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought . I do so because Wilken certainly cannot be counted as someone tempted to identify with Christian nonviolence; but his careful display of Augustine’s understanding of the two cities and their relation I believe not only to be the “real” Augustine, but I hope to show Wilken’s account of Augustine helps Christians discern our peculiar situation in America.

Wilken argues if we are rightly to understand Augustine, we must begin by noting that though Augustine never identifies the city of God with the church, it is nonetheless the case that for Augustine the church must be a “community that occupies space and exists in time, an ordered, purposeful gathering of human beings with a distinctive way of life, institutions, laws, beliefs, memory, and form of worship.” If you lose this sense of the church in Augustine, it is too easy to turn Augustine into an apologist for the liberal regimes that provide a place for the church only to the extent the church is willing to accept its relegation to the “private.”

Wilken argues that in order to understand the relation between the two cities, we must see the significance of Augustine’s contention that peace is the end for the city of man as well as the city of God. “The peace for which the city of God yearns is a ‘perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God’.” Such a peace is possible for the church because the church is constituted by right worship, that is, where true sacrifices are made to the One alone worthy of such sacrifices.

Accordingly, the greatest gift the church gives to the worlds in which she finds herself is a glimpse of what the peace of God looks like. Without the church, Augustine doubts whether the politics of the city of man even deserves the description “politics.” Augustine says:

“It is we ourselves – we, his City – who are his best, his most glorious sacrifice. The mystic symbol of this sacrifice we celebrate in our oblations, familiar to the faithful … It follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient City according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination; so that just as the individual righteous man lives on the basis of faith which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbour as himself. But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no ‘association of men united by a common sense of right and by a community of interest’. Therefore there is no commonwealth; for where there is no ‘people’, there is no ‘weal of the people’.”

Peace, the telos of any city, is not to be had short of the true worship of the true God. Yet Wilken quite rightly calls our attention to Augustine’s contention that Christians must try to achieve the peace of the city of man, imperfect as it is.

Augustine goes so far as to suggest that the Christian may find he must take on the office of the judge. The office of the judge, moreover, may require the torture of innocent people in order to determine guilt or innocence. Wilken notes that the fact that Augustine could consider that Christians might be judges – a thought Origin could not even entertain – may well have depended on Constantine’s legalization of Christianity. Yet whatever advantages may have come to the church through the Constantinian settlement, those advantages did not tempt Augustine to be any less insistent that the only true peace to be found in this life would be found in the church.

Accordingly, Wilken’s account of Augustine’s understanding of the relation between the two cities is quite different from that made so prominent by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr argued that in this time before the end time – when we cannot distinguish between the cities given their mixed character – Christians must take up the work of the earthly city in order to achieve the lesser good.

Yet what a Niebuhrian account ignores is Augustine’s view that the church provides the context for Christian discernment about the Christian role in the earthly cities. To be sure, citizens of the city of God must “make use of earthly and temporal things,” but it is equally true that “the customs and practices of society can be embraced as long as they do not misshape the souls of the faithful or detract them from their ultimate goal of fellowship with God and with one another.”

Augustine says the Heavenly City, the City on Pilgrimage in this world, calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens speaking all languages. Accordingly, she takes no account of any differences in customs, laws and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved. She does not annul or abolish any of these customs or institutions just to the extent they provide for earthly peace unless (and this is the unless that Niebuhrian interpreters of Augustine so often ignore) these institutions are a hindrance “to the religion which teaches that the one supreme and true God is to be worshiped.” Wilken observes that Augustine supports this unexpected sentence a few paragraphs later by citing Exodus 22:20, “Whoever sacrifices to any god save to the Lord alone will be destroyed.”

Augustine does not “solve” the problem of how Christians are to negotiate their divided loyalties. Rather, Augustine creates the problem of how Christians are to negotiate the worlds in which we find ourselves. Yet Augustine does provide an account of how such a negotiation is to be undertaken. He does so, according to Wilken, not, as often assumed, by offering a theory of political life. Rather Augustine:

“shows that God can never be relegated to the periphery of a society’s life. That is why [The City of God] discusses two cities. He wants to draw a contrast between the life of the city of god, a life that is centered on God and genuinely social, and life that is centered on itself. Augustine wished to redefine the realm of the public to make place for the spiritual, for God. As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has observed, the City of God is a book about the ‘optimal form of corporate human life’ in light of its ‘last end’. In Augustine’s view, ‘it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political. The opposition is not between public and private, church and world, but between political virtue and political vice. At the end of the day, it is the secular order that will be shown to be “atomistic” in its foundations’. A society that has no place for God will disintegrate into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-aggrandizing interests that are destructive of the commonweal. In the end it will be enveloped in darkness.”

What does all this have to do with the question of divided allegiance for Christians in that state called the United States? At the very least, it reminds Christians that we in fact have a divided allegiance.

Surely one of the great betrayals of Christians in America to America is confusing America with the Kingdom of God. Christians have done so because we assume that America is a democracy and democracies are less coercive than other forms of political organization. Allegedly democracies are the limited form of government that some claim is incipiently present in Augustine’s understanding of the two cities. So Christians now assume that democracies can ask us to make sacrifices that are unproblematic because they are uncoerced sacrifices.

I do not think you need to be a pacifist to think there are problems about such an assumption. Augustine gives you all you need to recognize that the sacrificial system called “democracy” remains for Christians problematic just to the extent we fail to recognize that America names a sacrificial system.

Can patriotism be Christian?

In an article entitled “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Alasdair MacIntyre observes that there is a deep tension between the dominant account of morality in our culture and patriotism. In order to act morally we believe the agent must as far as possible assume a position abstracted from all social particularity and partiality.

My way to put this understanding of morality is to point out that we believe you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. We call this “freedom.” The primary expression of such freedom is to be found in the assumption that we should not be held responsible for decisions we made when we did not know what we were doing. The only problem with this view of the moral life is it makes marriage and the having of children unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? Moreover, you will never get the children you want.

According to MacIntyre, patriotism is constituted by an alternative moral perspective. Patriotism, he writes:

“requires me to regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government that ruled over that place at that time, who my parents were and so on, as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is – at least insofar as it is the virtue of patriotism that is in question. Hence, the moral standpoint and the patriotic standpoint are systematically incompatible.”

It is, therefore, the central contention of a morality of patriotism that a crucial dimension of my ability to live well is lost “if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country.”

MacIntyre observes that liberal social orders, such as the United States, cannot help but regard patriotism so understood as morally problematic. Liberal social orders and the corresponding accounts of moral rationality require me to assume that I act morally not as a parent, farmer, or American, but only when the principles of my action can be justified by my assumed status as a rational agent qua rational agent.

America names that peculiar country in which the cause of America, understood in the language of patriotism, and the cause of morality, understood in liberal terms, came to be identified. MacIntyre observes that the history of this identification could not help but be the history of confusion and incoherence. “For a morality of particularist ties and solidarities has been conflated with a morality of universal, impersonal, and impartial principles in a way that can never be carried through without incoherence.”

More troubling (at least for me) than incoherence is such a conflation of patriotism and liberal universalism cannot help but result in violence – a violence all the more virulent because our violence allegedly is not self-interested, but rather perpetrated in the name of ideals allegedly all people share. Young people in American armed forces may think they are serving in the military as part of their obligations to their families and local communities; but in fact those parochial loyalties are being used in the interest of an empire that lacks the means to acknowledge it is just that, an empire.

The decade-long war in Iraq is an obvious example of American arrogance cloaked in the pretensions of a universal cause. In many ways it would be a moral advance to attack Iraq because America needs and wants their oil. But Americans cannot go to war out of self-interest. We can only go to war for American ideals of freedom and democracy which makes it all the more difficult to conduct war in accordance with just war commitments. The higher the ideals invoked to justify a war, the more difficult it is to keep war limited.

For example, once Iraq had been defeated, we now think “we” – that is, Americans – must make Iraq a democracy. On what possible grounds can that assumption be justified? What could it possibly mean for Iraq to institutionalize a separation between church and state? Islam has no idea it is a church or a religion. To ask an Islamic society to “privatize” religion is to ask Muslims to be something else than Muslims.

The incoherence MacIntyre suggests is at the heart of the American project makes it impossible for Christians to be American patriots. Christians, certainly Catholic Christians, cannot and do not believe that America represents what is truly universal. The Christian word for universal is catholic. Moreover the universal church is not constituted by ideals such as freedom, but rather for Christians universal names the connection across time and space between real people united by a common story. The office of the church that holds the particular responsibility for sustaining our unity is called bishop. That office, moreover, is only intelligible to the extent the bishop helps diverse Eucharistic assemblies to share their stories with one another so that the church becomes the one mighty prayer for the world. Indeed, it is my view that the reason our world thinks it has no alternative to war is the disunity between Christians.

Patriotism – at least, MacIntyre’s understanding of patriotism – can only be a possibility for Christians if we are determined by a more parochial loyalty than our loyalty to country or people. Christians, by being Christian, are not asked to deny being Ugandan, Texan or, even American. However, what it means to be a Ugandan Christian and what it means to be an American Christian present quite different challenges. How those challenges are negotiated, though, requires that a church exists that is at once more parochial and, thereby, more determinative than what it might mean to be Ugandan or American. Christians in Uganda and America rightly want to be of service as a Ugandan or an American. But you have an indication that such service is in tension with our being Christian if it means being American takes priority to the unity forged between American Christians and Ugandan Christians by the church.

The forging of such connections is peace. That is why I find it odd for pacifists to be criticized for being politically irresponsible or disloyal. To be committed to Christian nonviolence should not prevent those so committed from trying, even in America, to make our relations with one another more just.

I think, however, the way Christians committed to nonviolence as well as Christians not so committed best serve this land called America is by refusing to be recruits for the furtherance of American ideals. Let us rather be parochial people. For the only way we will be saved from the temptations to serve the universal ideologies of the empire is through the concrete relations which make our actual lives possible.

The lives of the people who worship at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have first claim on me. Whatever loyalty that abstraction called “the United States” may have will need to be tested by the effect it has on what I owe to those that worship at Holy Family and how what I owe to them puts me in contact with Christians around the world.

How to serve the common good: The role of the university

Let me now to return to the criticism made by those on the Left and Right concerning my alleged failure to support America. For thirty years, I have taught and worked in a very secular university. I have tried to be as good a citizen as I can be in the life of the university. I have served on university committees, which means I often work with those who think theology is just a step above witchcraft. Indeed, in the current university, witchcraft often is thought to be more interesting and respectable than Christianity. Yet I continue to think universities should and do provide the space and time for the rational deliberations necessary to explore the convictions that shape our lives.

The kind of analysis MacIntyre provides of the incoherence of moral and political ethos of America is the kind of work I believe the university can and should make possible. I should like to think that I am serving my Christian and non-Christian neighbours, neighbours who are American, through my work in the university. I try to remember, however, that honest crafts men and women are probably doing more important work for the common good.

I suspect calling attention to my service in the university will not satisfy those who think I am not loyal to America or that I fail to work to make America a more just society. They may be right about that, but at least such a judgment is not about me but about how you understand the role and importance of the university as an institution for the furtherance of our common good. I think the work of the university is crucial for any attempt for our being able to live in peace with one another.

I confess I worry that the university too often is willing to sell itself to the interest of the State Department and the Pentagon, but at the very least the university is constituted by commitments that make it possible to criticize such sell-outs.

I have often used the trope of being a Texan to distance myself from the desire for the universal so characteristic of our time. I am well aware that the “Texas” to which I appeal is imaginary, but there are still places in Texas where you can eat a chicken-fried steak. Eating chicken-fried steaks may not be a sufficient form of resistance against the lure of the universal, but you have to start somewhere.

To be a Christian is to be trained to care for one another through the building up of a common life by engaging in the time-consuming and time-creating work of the everyday. The work of the university is often pretentious, promising more than it can deliver. But I also think the university can be an institution that not only helps us live at peace with ourselves and one another, but is peace.

My commitment to the work of the university may not satisfy those who think I am not sufficiently grateful for what I have been given. All I can say is I am doing what I have been given in the hope I may be able to give back in some small measure the gifts I have received from those who call themselves Americans.

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