Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas begins his recent book War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity with the typically Hauerwasian statement:
This is a modest book with an immodest purpose: to convince Christians that war has been abolished. The grammar of that sentence is very important: the past tense is deliberate. I do not want to convince Christians to work for the abolition of war, but rather I want us to live recognizing that in the cross of Christ war has already been abolished (Kindle 98)
Is it really the case that war has been abolished? Clearly much depends on what Hauerwas means by “already been abolished”. However, reading this opening gambit of Hauerwas I could not help but be reminded of my own experience encountering similar teaching in a different context. I began my Christian life within pentecostalism, even to the point of attending a pentecostal theological college (seminary for US readers). As is well-known pentecostalism is an expressive form of Christianity and one in which God was seen to be very active in the day-to-day affairs of her followers. Miracles were regularly claimed to have happened and, following the interpolated end of Mark’s gospel it was thought divine healing, after the fashion of Jesus’ own ministry, would be a regular feature of the believers’ life.
Belief in divine healing, or at least the possibility of divine healing, is widespread across the Christian church but where a lot of pentecostalism (not all) differed was in the belief put forward in precisely the same terms set out by Hauerwas. In the atonement Jesus made provision for the healing of all sickness. Taking their cue from Isaiah 53 teachers would proclaim that ‘by his stripes you have been healed’ (i.e., the death of Christ provided for the healing of the body in the here and now).
Whilst theologically problematic what made the doctrine extremely damaging was not the conviction that on the cross Jesus defeated sickness but rather the belief that since this healing had already been provided for in the atonement any failure to see healing was a consequence of a lack of faith. The result was a plethora of individuals who claimed their healing ‘in faith’ whilst continuing to exhibit the symptoms of their ailment. And, of course, – so the logic went – since that individual ‘had’ (note the grammar) been healed what reason was there for continued medication? For most this resulted in trials of faith and self recrimination but for an unfortunate few the result was serious illness or death. All because, like Hauerwas, they paid attention to the ‘grammar’ of what Jesus achieved in his atoning death.
So, am I saying Hauerwas is guilty of spiritual abuse in the same manner of these huckster preachers? No, but that does not mean that this line of thinking is not problematic. Hauerwas comments that some may think his grammar of the atonement is ‘foolish,’ he is right, and I count myself among the number of those who do so. Whether God is, to use philosophical language, atemporal (timeless) is a question that has been outstanding for millennia (for the record, I answer in the negative) but the Church is, very much, a product of the world where B follows A and precedes C.
To say that Jesus defeated war in that he opened the possibility for the humanity to share in seeing the unveiling of the reign of God where, as another chapter of Isaiah (11) puts it the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together”, and end all strife is one thing. To say that the wolf and lamb are actually feeding together when, in fact, the wolf is neck-deep feeding on the lamb’s bloody carcass is another thing entirely. To deny this is the case now (which is not the same as saying it always will be the case) amounts to nothing less than a denial of human freedom.
Hauerwas’ broader point – which is surely right – is that the Church should be taking its cue on how it views in the light of the new creation that was begun in Christ. Hauerwas thinks this should be done by denying the reality of war – the problem with such an approach is that this places the imperfect messy church that is made up of sinners on the way to salvation in the same situation as those who ‘named and claimed’ their healing. The New Testament talks of a Church that is vulnerable and riven with strife and offers advice on how to resolve these differences according to a different ethic from that of the world according to the way of Jesus. As the Bride of Christ the church will be ‘made ready’ but we are not there yet; saying otherwise is simply denial.