Performing the Faith as reviewed by Tobias Winright

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004. pp. 252. $19.99 pb. ISBN 1-58743-076-2.
Reviewed by Tobias WINRIGHT, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO 63108

Crossposted on  Catholic Book Reviews

Named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time in 2001, Stanley Hauerwas regards himself rather as primarily a theologian of the church. Among his numerous books spanning three decades of theological writing, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence is no exception in conveying this perspective.

Hauerwas, who is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, offers in this volume a stimulating reading of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theological politics which serves as a stage for both the refinement of some of Hauerwas’ more recent work (e.g., his Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001]) and the reprise of some of the major themes (e.g., narrative) from earlier in his career. Included among the cast with whom Hauerwas often dialogues are Thomas Aquinas, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, John Milbank, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Victor Preller, Alasdair MacIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, and Jeffrey Stout. Center stage, however, is Hauerwas’ contention that what we proclaim and perform as a church is the truth we offer to a world permeated with lies.

While the subtitle and the photo of Bonhoeffer on the book’s cover could possibly mislead readers to expect from its first to last pages a treatment of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, especially as these pertain to the subject of nonviolence, the title nonetheless indicates the major theme around which the book revolves. Divided into three major sections, the book’s second section, “Truthful Performances,” develops what Hauerwas has in mind by the book title’s opening words, Performing the Faith. The first third of the book, “Bonhoeffer on Politics and Truth,” obviously correlates with the subtitle’s reference to Bonhoeffer, and the final third of the book, “Performing Nonviolence,” thereby corresponds with the remaining part of the subtitle having to do with the practice of nonviolence. Throughout the book Hauerwas attempts “to develop the connections between truthfulness, nonviolence, and the process necessary for the discovery of goods in common rightly called politics” (17). Still, given that Bonhoeffer is not mentioned beyond page 72, Hauerwas perhaps should have connected the dots between these interrelated sections for some readers by devoting some attention in each of the subsequent chapters’ concluding section to the way in which they intersect with what he had to say about Bonhoeffer in the book’s introduction and initial two chapters.

A pivotal chapter (written with James Fodor of Saint Bonaventure University) of the book is “Performing Faith: The Peaceable Rhetoric of God’s Church,” which explores the analogies between theatrical and musical improvisation and embodying the Christ life in the world. Because Jesus Christ is God’s most defining performance, Christians too are called to become “holy performances” (86). While our performances are actually repeat performances of Christ’s singular performance, we nevertheless improvise along the way. Moreover, we rehearse during worship, which not only informs and forms us, but also performs us in a way that we in turn will perform in the world. As such, the church’s witness is not something constituted primarily by written and oral argument; rather, it has to do with a visibly incarnate life of discipleship. For Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer and his participation in the Confessing Church exemplified this sort of faithful performance.

Hauerwas admits he has always respected Bonhoeffer, but in reading and rereading much that Bonhoeffer had written (and some of the secondary literature), he noticed some similarities between Bonhoeffer and Yoder with regard to their concern for the church to manifest faithfully and visibly God’s will in the world. While there is certainly more to Bonhoeffer (and to Yoder), it is undeniable that this is an important point of contact, so Hauerwas’ presentation, in this reviewer’s assessment, “is not as crazy as it sounds” (18).

There are, however, a number of questions that arise and linger. Are Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, especially with regard to his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, really congruent with the kind of Christian nonviolence Hauerwas espouses? To be sure, Hauerwas raises doubts about whether we can know “how Bonhoeffer understood how this part of his life fit or did not fit with his theological convictions or his earlier commitment to pacifism” (36). While Hauerwas’ view is plausible, this reviewer remains unconvinced. As Hauerwas himself admits in one of the legion (though usually interesting) footnotes, it is unclear exactly what kind of pacifism Bonhoeffer represented or if his “christological pacifism required the disavowal of violence in every circumstance” (40). As Yoder pointed out, there are varieties of pacifism, and the type with which Yoder identified—a discipleship form of nonviolence that is unintelligible without the confession that Jesus is the Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord—at times overlapped with and at other times diverged from the other types. Still, unlike Bonhoeffer, it seems, Yoder and Hauerwas draw a line at killing. Even so, the church, according to Hauerwas, cannot presume to know what does and does not count as “violence” (26), which is an odd claim to make by someone who so highly esteems tradition and narrative. The just-war tradition, for example, has a long (though still developing—sort of like improvisation?) history of attempting to distinguish between legitimate use of force and unjustified violence. Nevertheless, Hauerwas posits that pacifism cannot be explained but only witnessed. Why can it not be both?

Hauerwas adds that “Christians are never pacifists or just warriors, but rather first and foremost we are disciples of Jesus Christ” (26). Probably most Christian proponents of just war, this reviewer included, would agree. Just-war Christians should also be able to describe their stance in the way that Hauerwas reserves for pacifism: as a form of discipleship consisting of determinative practices and habituation that spark our imaginations to discover creative forms of life that are alternatives to violence. Couldn’t the just-war tradition function similarly, as a way of life leading to creative solutions, with the use of lethal force truly a last resort, rather than the standard view of the just-war tradition as basically a checklist of criteria? Moreover, some of society’s everyday practices that Hauerwas refuses to participate in, such as singing the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” are similarly refrained from by some just-war disciples, including this reviewer. Hauerwas also believes that in calling himself a pacifist he creates expectations to which other Christians will hold him accountable, but again the same could be said of a sincere just-war Christian. Finally, there are just-war theorists who would agree with Hauerwas when he expresses his view that he does “not believe that the esse of politics is coercion or violence” (202). In short, much of what Hauerwas writes about nonviolence can hopefully be said about just war, and as such perhaps Bonhoeffer, even though earlier he identified with pacifism, could be regarded as moving into a kind of just-war mode (without written and oral arguments, but by witnessing) when he cast his lot with the plot against Hitler.

In this book Hauerwas attempts to respond to questions readers have asked, and it is certain that another round of questions will ensue from this particular effort as well. For this, Hauerwas’ performance in the writing of this book is to be applauded, even by those who disagree or do not totally agree with him. Performing the Faith is most appropriate for academic libraries and for fellow theologians, but probably not for the uninitiated who has not previously read anything by Hauerwas.

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