The coronavirus pandemic raises cutting questions about Christian hope and human society. Plough editor Peter Mommsen sat down – virtually – with Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School to discuss how people of faith should respond.
Plough: This year for the first time in centuries most churches around the world were closed for Easter. What is the church when the church doors are shut? How can we be the people of God if we’re socially distanced?
Stanley Hauerwas: I don’t know that the doors were shut. My wife, Paula, and I are communicants at The Church of the Holy Family, an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; we attended church virtually on Easter. After our own service, we “went” to a Mass in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You see a bishop in Sioux Falls saying the Mass with one other person, and you’re reminded that God is present in that simple act in a way that binds Christians together even as they’re separate.
God’s altar was not empty on Easter. The resurrection assures us that it was not. That’s what I have to say about that.
Imagine this state of affairs continuing for a long time. What is lost when we depend on these social technologies – the ones we’re using right now, Stanley – rather than meeting face-to-face, as the embodied fellowship? That’s something I think about with my own community, the Bruderhof, where we’re also not meeting together physically.
One of the ironies of the current situation is we’ve discovered through the threat of the virus that we are inextricably interrelated, and the means to deal with the virus requires, ironically, the naming of a social gesture that embodies a kind of loneliness. We can’t get within six feet of one another. Usually, our bodies are means of being together; we touch each other to remember that we’re not alone. Now, we don’t have that.
And that loneliness is, I think, an exaggerated form of something that is deeply embedded in modernity. Even many of our usual, pre-virus modes of social behavior have embodied the assumption that we can make up our own lives in a way that we need not share with others. That’s a form of loneliness that, even before this crisis, prevented us from being part of a common people.
Christians, of course, believe that we’ve been made part of a common people through what God has done for us in the calling of Israel and the person and work of Jesus Christ. So there is for Christians a tension between who we’re called to be and the method of trying to deal with this pandemic. I think there is no choice other than to be separated, no other choice than not to share our bodies, if we are to be of service to one another, but there is a deep irony to it too.
Most painfully, as we speak many people are dying alone without anyone physically near them.
I’m the guy who wrote a book called Suffering Presence; I argued that the first moral duty of people who are committed to being with the sick and the dying is not to look for a cure, but to be present. We may not be able to do much to make you better but we refuse to let you die alone. That strikes me as a very deep commitment that somehow we need to find a way to embody in these circumstances. We must not let people die alone.
You’ve written a lot about the virtue of patience. In some way, we’re all learning a dose of patience right now.
We are. In The Peaceable Kingdom, I argue that hope and patience are central Christian virtues. We’re an eschatological people who must learn to live between the times with hope, but our hopes can be tyrannical if they are not schooled also by patience. Hope and patience are necessarily correlative virtues.
One book that impressed me a lot was The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by the Mennonite historian Alan Kreider. Perhaps drawing on your work, he writes about how patience was such a key part of the early church’s mission – rather than running programs of evangelism or outreach, they simply lived out their hope with patience. Evangelism and outreach are difficult to do right now, when love to neighbor demands that we just stay home.
Right. Patience is a very demanding virtue that has been lost in modernity, with our commitment to progress. We have a social order built on impatience.
Some Christian leaders have charged that those who have closed the church doors are being overly subservient to the secular power and unfaithful to their calling. Do you worry about what this means for religious liberty and the primacy of the church down the road? Is this setting a bad precedent?
Who knows? One of the temptations in this context is to assume you know what to say to questions like that. I think that the closing of the churches is tragic but necessary and that it needs to be seen as a gesture and witness of neighbor-love, to each other and to non-Christians. We recognize that we’re under a common danger, and that makes necessary a common way of life. We must share with non-Christians the burden of not meeting together. Of course, in bearing that burden as Christians, though it may look the same, in fact we are enacting a different narrative.
This pandemic certainly seems in some ways like a biblical plague. Should we see the pandemic as apocalyptic in the literal sense, as an unveiling of truths about the church, about the world? If so, what has it revealed that we ought to pay attention to?
People are saying, “Things will never be the same”; we have to discover “a new normal.” I’m not sure we had ever discovered an old normal – the language of normality seems quite misleading. The real “new normal” happened in the resurrection. Christ was raised from the grave, and that changed everything. We’ve now had two thousand years of trying to understand that change and learning to live faithfully to it.
Does that mean that Christians can be flippant about death?
No. We aren’t flippant about death, but our understanding that it has been defeated allows us to not pretend that it doesn’t exist. America is a society in profound denial of death. We need to learn to be a people who don’t deny it, who don’t expect a technological fix for it. Americans seem to believe that if we just get good enough at medical advancements, we will be able to get out of life alive. But we are people destined to die. How that destiny binds us together in a common life is a challenge that we have to meet: to learn to live such that we have lives constituted of goods that death does not defeat.
Probably that truth has come home to different people in different ways. For me one of the ways was seeing a photograph in the news of Hart Island in New York City. Long trenches were being dug for those who are dying in New York hospitals whose families can’t be found or can’t afford burial; the coffins are being stacked in those trenches, and buried reportedly by prisoners from Rikers Island.
I think a lot about how this pandemic makes us aware of policy decisions we’ve made that we have not articulated, that we haven’t admitted to ourselves. For example, what do we do with the elderly? We put them in retirement homes. I’ll be eighty this summer. All that our society asks of the elderly is, Leave us alone.
That’s an indication that we are living in a technologically advanced civilization that is dedicated to efficiency and that has lost the tradition of wisdom. The elderly should be held accountable for helping us become articulate about how to live. That we think their primary task is to return to childhood robs them of responsibility and us of the kind of wisdom that we need to live well. If in a hundred years, Christians are identified as the people who don’t kill their children or kill their elders we will have done well. Terrible things can happen in the name of compassion.
In order to live well, we require people of wisdom who have insight about the goods that make life livable. In craft traditions, there are those who know how to respond to particular challenges in, say, building a house. The answers to those challenges are not always there in a book, but are there in a person who learned how to respond. We must understand ourselves to be people who depend upon others who have learned how to live wisely. The world needs grandparents.
There’s been a lot of talk about medical ethics in the last few weeks, particularly in regard to triage. In Italy, for instance, the medical authorities in the most affected areas determined that they weren’t going to offer ventilators or ICU care to people above a certain age cutoff or to people with disabilities.
The question becomes, what kind of criteria you use to shape your decisions. I take it in Italy they were making the decision based on whether medical intervention would do nothing but keep them alive for a short period of time. That’s a reasonable set of criteria – but they are extraordinarily painful. A physician will say their first task is to keep a patient alive, but that’s not always possible. So it may be that their task is to help a patient know how to die. That asks a great deal; it usually turns out to be nurses who will perform that kind of extraordinary presence for the dying.
Is there a Christian way to die?
Our deaths are an extension of our living. That doesn’t mean that Christians do not fear death, but rather that we can die in a manner that says that we trust the God who has made us; we trust him in and through death as we trusted him in life.
One thing this pandemic has brought out is the limits of individual autonomy – we’re in this together, and the need for solidarity is glaringly obvious. You’re known as a critic of liberalism, especially liberal individualism. Quite apart from the coronavirus, postliberalism is now an increasingly popular position among both Christians and others, represented by thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher on the right, and Pankaj Mishra and Nancy Fraser on the left. What do you make of this? Do you feel vindicated? What is the value in what’s being called the “postliberal moment,” and what are the dangers?
I don’t have a theory of the state. The postliberals, both of the right and of the left, want a theory of the state. I just take the political world in which I find myself as a reality that has to be negotiated. You don’t find Deneen and Dreher quoting me very often! But I, like they, have been deeply influenced by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. His critique of liberalism is not just of a political theory, but also of a way of life that is extraordinarily deficient. I’m very concerned with how liberalism has developed over the last two centuries, how it has produced people who are inarticulate about what makes life worth living.
There seems to be a split, too, between postliberals who are more localist and communitarian, aimed at cultivating the virtues, and those who are primarily about politics. In these discussions, it’s often assumed that the state is where the real action is; the idea of wielding state power is what gets people’s juices flowing. Christians, too, fall for this. It’s way easier to get excited about a political campaign or a policy solution than to think about what our calling as Christians is.
I think that’s very much the case and that’s why patience is so important. Politics so often looks for the quick solution. There isn’t always a quick solution. Patiently living with each other makes it possible for people to discover a common good. In that sense, the kind of localism you mentioned was highlighted by the Catholic social encyclicals in a way that I think makes them very relevant, and the family is, of course, the most local social group of all. The social encyclicals understand that the family is what is capable of bringing life into the world in a morally constructive way. That’s at the very heart of politics.
There is a certain school of postliberalism that’s been drawing special attention: the Catholic integralism represented by people like Adrian Vermeule at Harvard or Sohrab Ahmari at the New York Post. As an Anabaptist magazine, we are naturally not very enthusiastic about restoring the Holy Roman Empire or about any use of the power of the sword to promote Christianity. But I can understand, too, the desire of many for a clear moral anchor when it comes to questions of public justice. Your thoughts?
The Bruderhof, of course, are called sectarian. If you want to know what sectarians really look like, look at Catholic integralism. It’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of having any kind of concrete possibility of enactment. The Bruderhof in some ways is an integralist community, and it’s here and now: it’s about the best one we can get in the world in which we find ourselves.
I’ve teased some of these folks by saying, I’m an integralist too. I believe in Anabaptist integralism, the kind where you don’t kill anyone.
That’s exactly the right thing to say. What was the response?
Bemusement. In these conversations, people often get to the point where they will nod along and agree that there is something in the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ way that is fundamentally incompatible with killing people – and then they’ll say, But. The conversation will snap right back to defending this or that use of lethal force, almost as if it were possible to bracket Jesus out.
Power is extremely seductive. And of course, power is necessary in order to produce more nearly just societies. So the kind of question is, what kind of power.
One well-known New Testament scholar told me that when he thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he just couldn’t take the leap.
Well, I simply want to understand better what the leap looks like. If you want to be a Just War guy, fine! But be consistent – apply your own criteria. Many people in the Just War tradition seem to hold that on the whole, war is a terrible thing, but sometimes we have to do it, and we decide whether to do it based on whether it meets the criteria of justice, and maybe four out of six of those criteria are good enough to give us the go-ahead. If that’s how you’re thinking about it, I’m not sure you’re thinking seriously about war. Partially just is not just.
And if a war is not just, what is it? Why don’t we call it World Slaughter I, World Slaughter II? To call something a “war” is legitimating discourse: it gives those who are fighting it permission to do things that they otherwise would not be allowed to do; it hides decisions. As a matter of fact, I worry about our president calling the struggle against the pandemic a “war.” That’s a legitimating discourse that I think is deeply dangerous.
Speaking of justice, this pandemic has highlighted questions of economic injustice. Wealth profoundly influences, if it does not determine, who lives and who dies. If you’re David Geffen on your yacht in the Caribbean, you’re probably OK. If you’re one of the folks in the publicly assisted nursing home in my area, you’re probably not – they are dying daily. What is our response to living in the middle of this literally murderous injustice?
We knew that this was the case all along, but we didn’t want to say it. Now we have to say it. We ask some in our society to live in a manner that cannot be justified. And having admitted that this is so, we must respond to this fact with our deeds, with our lives.
Allegedly, I’m an evangelical on the left. I’m not an evangelical, and I don’t think there’s any left left. I just try to help Christians figure out how to negotiate this extraordinarily strange world as faithfully as we can.