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The Weekly Hauerwas: Why We Must Trivialize Ethics

In Stanley Hauerwas’ 1988 book, Christian Existence Today, one of his best essays, “Taking Time for Peace: The Ethical Significance of the Trivial” makes some fascinating points about what it might mean for Christians to live a ‘normal’ life given the reality of weapons of mass destruction.  He notes that the attitude that is encouraged, or tacitly enforced in a culture that lives “after the bomb” is one in which all decisions about human life and flourishing now must be made in reference to the bomb.  There is no going back to life before the bomb.  Instead today we must live in light of the fact that we have the capacity to destroy all life as we know it, and all our decisions about life must in some way or another be determined by that reality.   After the bomb, according to the conventional wisdom, neutrality is impossible.  You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

This has a certain level of surface plausibility to it, but as Hauerwas points out, such an idea is inherently totalitarian.  “Those who argue that every aspect of our lives must be determined by the bomb seem to be making this kind of suggestion – namely, that we live in a totalitarian situation where the bomb determines every decision we make” Hauerwas notes how the nuclear scare of the 20th century was utilized by the powers that be to cultivate a culture of fear that determined all aspects of people’s daily living.  What was recommended was “that we voluntarily tyrannize our lives in the interest of survival” (p. 255). 

I believe that Hauerwas’ comments regarding the fear of nuclear holocaust are quite germane to the current culture of fear that is propagated in the United States in response to the threat of terrorism.  Either you are for winning the war on terror, or you are on the side of the terrorists.  Neutrality is impossible and you will either be part of the solution, and help America rid the world of evil, or you will be an Islamofacist sympathizer dedicated to the murder of innocents.  In a way that is not different than the red scares of the Cold War, we are encouraged again today to voluntarily tyrannize ourselves by allowing all aspects of our life together to be determined by the threat of terrorism.

Hauerwas’ response to the determinative nature of the atomic age is to point to an alternative.  It may seem that our lives simply are, in fact determined by the atomic age and by the threat of terrorism, no matter what we do.  However, as Christians we must argue that nothing is ultimately determinative for our lives other than the God we find in Jesus Christ.  It is here that Hauerwas develops his main point:

I believe we do have an alternative to the desperation that fuels our fear of nuclear war.  That alternative is, quite simply, the need to reclaim the significance of the trivial.  For it is my belief that there is no more powerful response to totalitarians than to take the time to reclaim life from their power.  By refusing to let them claim every aspect of our life as politically significant, we create the space and time that makes politics humane.  Therefore there is noting more important for us to do in the face of the threat of nuclear war than to go on living – that is, to take time to enjoy a walk with a friend, to read all of Trollope’s novels, to maintain universities, to have and care for children, and most importantly, to worship God.  (p. 256-257)

Hauerwas notes that by reclaiming the trivial aspects of life we resist the totalitarianisms that would seek to claim every aspect of our lives.  This, he claims is the most ethically significant thing we can do in the face of the threat of nuclear war (and now, the war on terror).  Moreover, “such a suggestion is only intelligible and moral if God really is the being whom Jews and Christians have affirmed” (p. 257).  If God is indeed who Christians believe he is, then our lives are not determined by the bomb, or by terrorism, but solely and completely by cross and resurrection of Christ, which are the power and wisdom of God.  The reason our lives are not so determined is because, according to Christian theology, God has given us space and time in Christ to live, and thus to live in peace (cf. Eph 2). 

Thus, in a world of war where powers seek to determine all aspects of our lives, the way in which we work for peace is to take time for the trivial.  In preparing a meal, eating with others, reading books, riding bicycles, and taking the time to get to know others, we free essential practices of our humanness from the determinations of the powers.  As such, our greatest contribution to bringing about peace in this world is to take time for peace. 

Peace takes time.  Put even more strongly, peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force another to submit in the name of order.  Peace is not a static state but an activity which requires constant attention and care.  An activity by its very nature takes place over time.  In fact, activity creates time, as we know how to characterize duration only by noting that we did this first, and then this second, and so on, until we either get somewhere or accomplished this or that task.  So peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than be determined by “events” over which, it is alleged, we have no control. (p. 258)

I think Hauerwas’ point is most poignant in our current culture of fear in which an administration with hegemonic ambitions seeks to determine more and more aspects of its citizens’ existence.  Reclaiming the ethical significance of the trivial is vital to us becoming a people who have taken the time for peace and thus know how to offer a peace worth having to the world.   The only question I would put to Hauerwas’ account is as to when our reclaiming the ethical significance of the trivial becomes bourgeois indulgence.  Certainly taking time to be in relationship to others, and work our personal reconciliation and forgiveness cannot easily become a bourgeois activity, but often things like preparing meals, going for walks, and taking care of lemur colonies (one Hauerwas’ examples) can become a domesticated practice of having hobbies.  We must indeed reclaim the ethical significance of the trivial and never allow ourselves to be determined by the fears and desperations that a totalitarian culture seeks to impose on all aspects of life.  However, on the same hand, we must not allow or practices of triviality to lapse into sentimentality.  On this, I’m sure Hauerwas would agree.


  1. adamsteward wrote:

    I’m getting a kick out of the fact that J.P. Moreland is 27 times more controversial than Stanley Hauerwas. I’m sure this is a first!

    Really, though, this post holds a crucial point for Christian Pacifism. I”m becoming more and more convinced that any sort of resistance movement or protest that treats the powers as though they had not been disarmed, as though if justice is to be found it must first be found in the decrees of Congress, has utterly missed the point. And not just of Paul’s cosmic theology, but of the whole of Christianity, which is the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus, and that not something we earned or need to establish. Our participation in that rule must never take place under the assumption that WE must secure justice. On this, of course, I’m thinking of the last chapter of The Politics of Jesus. Also Arthur McGill: “The God whom Americans worship as the final and absolute Lord of reality is the power of death…Many Americans…still believe that death is the ultimate reality which will finally and permanently determine their existence.”

    For your sake, I sometimes wish I could find stuff to disagree with on your blog!

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  2. This is a profound post. Thanks, Halden. All too often I encounter “false dilemma” rhetoric: you are either with us or against us, either entirely supportive of Bush or entirely against him (i.e., a proto-terrorist). This is not only a logical fallacy; it is also deleterious to this nation and to the church that lives within it.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 9:55 am | Permalink

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