Review & Summary of The Peaceable Kingdom Ch. 7 & 8

In chapters 7 and 8 of The Peaceable Kingdom Stanley Hauerwas builds on the work of the previous six chapters to demonstrate the primary importance of identity for ethical choice-making. For Christians, this identity is fundamentally bound up with the identity and work of Jesus Christ. Hauerwas’ task then, is to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and secondly to offer direction for the reader in considering exactly who this Jesus is. That he does this without fully addressing the possible counter-arguments except where they illuminate his own point is unsurprising given his note in the introduction.

As a result the book may be said to be decidedly “one sided” for an introduction. My only defense is that I know no other way it can be done. As I try to show throughout, there is no way to do Christian ethics neutrally, since there is no agreement on what Christian ethics is or how it should be done that does not involve substantial theological and philosophical disagreements.1

Therefore, it must be understood that Hauerwas is attempting to present his vision of what he believes to be the fundamentals of Christian ethics, the way to be Christian in the world. In presenting this case he expects that it ought to be judged by the same standard he seeks to impress through its pages: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When considering Hauerwas’ ethics the most fundamental thing to remember is that it is the identity of the Christian community that is paramount. One could argue that it is the identity of any community that is in fact paramount in their understanding of ethics and Hauerwas is simply speaking to the specifics of what the identity of individual Christians as disciples calls them to in our time, primarily in the place called America. “I have argued” he states “that the question ‘What ought I to be?’ precedes the question ‘What ought I to do?'” To illustrate this point Hauerwas tells the story of the Nuer people of Africa, for whom disabled or retarded children are regarded as hippopotami, and not human. This belief makes it perfectly natural for them to leave these children in the river to be “cared for” by their own kind. Situations such as this, claims Hauerwas, demonstrate that it is erroneous to begin ethical deliberations by considering quandaries-for the Nuer, a mother who wanted to keep and raise her Hippopotamus child would raise a quandary, but addressing the quandary would not necessarily allow one access to the fundamental ethical question and may in fact act to obscure it.

Moral prohibitions for Hauerwas are the ways in which a given community realizes the reaction necessitated by their habits and commitments. In other words, “You do not first have the principle of ‘life is sacred’ and then deduce that abortion is wrong. Rather you learn about the value of life, and in particular human life that comes in the form of our children, because your community and your parents acting on behalf of your community do not practice abortion.”2 Communal ethics, such as one that places priority on life, demonstrate the positive commitments of the community and it is these positive commitments that structure prohibitions, the violation of which place one outside of the community.

Continuing his discussion of Christian communal ethics, using abortion as an illustration, Hauerwas indicates that:

If it can be shown that Christians have been wrong to prohibit abortion and yet that prohibition is in fact integral to Christian convictions, it follows that there is something basically wrong with how Christians understand the nature of human existence. On the other hand, a moral crisis may suggest that a community has not rightly understood the practical force of its own convictions.3

Moral crises may exist then, not only because the ethics of a community have been shown to be faulty but because the implications of their ethical commitments have been abandoned as too difficult or inconvenient. Yet because the implications of a given tradition’s ethics are not usually codified, being instead an emergent property of the lived-experience of the faithful, it is not uncommon for a tradition “not [to] understand the implications of its basic convictions. Those implications become apparent only through the day-to-day living of a people pledged to embody that narrative within their own lives.”4

The inability of tradition to maintain a full account of its own implications leads Hauerwas to casuistry-albeit to a particular definition of it. “Casuistry” he says, “cannot be limited simply to consideration of ‘cases’ or situations, but also requires the imaginative testing of our habits of life against the well-lived and virtuous lives of others.”5 By attaching special cases to specific traditions Hauerwas hopes to avoid the criticisms of casuistry which he mentions.

Yet even a particular definition of casuistry cannot solve the problem Hauerwas faces because of his emphasis on narrative-criticisms of which have been voiced in this class. Hauerwas addresses the concern that his focus on narrative might seem to under-write an individualistic, relativistic or emotivist perspective since, as he says a:

Total emphasis on narrative and virtue may seem to invite just such arbitrariness. For when it comes to decisions, such an ethic seems ultimately to assume some form of intuition to justify individuals’ perceptions of what they should do given their ‘story’ and corresponding virtues. What is lacking is any public criteria for the testing of such decisions. Therefore the emphasis on the virtues, in spite of denials to the contrary, remains an irreducibly subjective account.6

While Hauerwas acknowledges that casuistry is regarded with suspicion as “a minimalist endeavor to evade some of the more onerous obligations of a legalistic ethic” he argues that, in a Christian context it is “not just a possibility but a necessity, because it provides the means by which we learn to check our own particular rendering of the story of God with that of our community. The church not only is, but must be, a ‘community of moral discourse’-that is, a community that sustains a rigorous analysis of the implications of its commitments across generations as it faces new challenges and situations.”7

Despite these criticisms, Hauerwas does not feel that an emphasis on narrative places us in the torturous and inhumane situation of continually listening to detached personal narratives placed primarily to obfuscate and confuse any attempt at clarity or decision-making. Indeed, Hauerwas points out that “[t]here is nothing about an emphasis on narrative and the virtues that in itself denies that we must still make decisions or that we are often rightly required to justify why we have acted as we have.”8

For Hauerwas the purpose for the narrative turn, the emphasis on virtue and character have served not to relativize ethical and moral situations, but instead to clear away assumptions which disable ethical choices; “at least part of the intention of an ethics of virtue is to free us from the assumption of the felt ‘necessities’ and ‘givens’ we too often accept as part of our decisions.”9 It is not so much that people are always placed in moral quandaries with a bad and a worse option, but rather that they are placed in these quandaries and can’t see the truth that their choices are not so limited as they believe. Hauerwas claims that the “‘necessity of abortion (or violence etc…) in such circumstances too often is the necessity generated by our unwillingness to change our lives to any significant degree so that another alternative might be contemplated.”10

The limitations placed upon our moral choices by society are false then, but they must be combated by something, namely the example of our forebears in the faith, the cloud of witnesses and the contemporary community. “The enrichment of our lives through our contact with one another,” he says “cannot be limited to the present. For we continue to depend on the hard-won judgments and wisdom of our ancestors. Indeed, one of our first moral tasks is always to preserve their memory as a lively memory.”11

The lively memory of which Hauerwas speaks is the memory of disciples who sought to live out the Gospel of Christ in their lives, people who sought to embody the implications of the Kingdom. This kingdom, this peace, is already a reality; it was inaugurated by Christ. At the same time, there is no idealism in Hauerwas’ argument. For him:

The peace Christians embody and seek is not some impossible ideal [. . .] It is not perfect harmony. It is not order that is free from conflict because it has repressed all rightful demands for justice. Rather the peaceable kingdom is a present reality, for the God who makes such a peace possible is not some past sovereign but the present Lord of the universe. Such a peace is thus the opposite of order, as its institutionalization necessarily creates disorder and even threatens anarchy. In effect the peace of God, rather than making the world more safe, only increases the dangers we have to negotiate.12

The kingdom brings danger with it because it requires that Christians “speak the truth about our world, to challenge the powers that offer us some order.”13 The challenge of the kingdom comes from the realization that the only security one can truly have is in God, through Christ. “Joy” Hauerwas says “is thus finally a result of out being dispossessed of the illusion of security and power that is the breeding ground of our violence.”14 Thus Hauerwas views the final source of our violence to be an unfaithful-and indeed unrealistic desire for security. This sentiment is echoed by Rowan Williams in his sermon entitled “Hearts of Flesh,” where he says

The more we seek-individually, socially, and nationally-to protect ourselves at all cost from intrusion, injury, and loss, the more we tolerate a public rhetoric incapable of affirming our mortal uncertainties, errors, and insecurities, the more we stand under Ezekiel’s judgment for ‘abominable deeds’-the offering of fleshly persons on the altar of stone.15

Not wishing to sacrifice people because ideology blinded mercy, Hauerwas believes that “if we are a people capable of speaking the truth, we are such only because we are also a people who refuse to abandon those whose lives have been disrupted by that truth.”16

Far from being a call for a sectarian disengagement with culture, Hauerwas’ call is for Christians to engage the culture by embodying the implications of the Gospel by their lives. One of the implications of the Gospel and the realized kingdom which stands in conflict with the world, existing by a logic all its own and at war with even the rationality of the other, is that Christians will be made more vulnerable by living within the kingdom. Hauerwas’ theology is not one that rests on the comfortable notion that non-violence is a good way for good people, but rather that it is a radical way of life for a people who are called to live radically in a variety of ways, all of which testify to a kingdom that is not of this world, that is fundamentally threatening to the logic and the organization of this world and which, because of that, can guarantee no worldly safety to its citizens. “Perhaps,” Hauerwas says, “that is why the church is so often constituted by those who have at some point lost control of their lives, who have faced the darkness of rejection and anarchy. For such a people know that there is no avoiding the tragedies that are part and parcel of our histories.” Because such people have already experienced the reality that they are unable to control their lives, they are less likely to resist the radical aspects of the Gospel.

Hauerwas’ ethic is foundationally about the community, the history of that community, and the scripture which the community’s life together and their interaction with the world is based upon. Hauerwas summarizes his own view of the Christian life best when he states that “the Christian life is more a recognition and training of our senses and passions than a matter of choices and decisions. By displaying some of the sense and passion of that life, we may all be better able to see how to live it.”17


  1. Some critics have expressed concern with Hauerwas’ emphasis on community and Identity as a source for ethics because they feel there is no check, nothing to prevent cult-like behavior. Hauerwas addresses this by indicating that “Christian convictions must remain open to challenge from sources outside the Christian community, since those convictions presuppose that this is God’s world [. . .]” (p 120). Does such an argument make Hauerwas dependant upon the very liberalism which he criticizes?
  2. If Christian identity and ethical choice is so tightly bound to the tradition and “narrative” of the Christian community, where is the possibility for development and change? By what mechanism might one discern between positive change and negative change?
  3. In chapter nine, Hauerwas argues that there are different types of inaction in the face of extreme circumstances: there is the inaction of the pessimist, the angry activist, the conservative, the communist and the Christian. The two that were most similar, because they recognize that even during their times of inaction something is driving the events of history, are communism and Christianity. Yet Christianity is unique because it finally finds the telos of its narrative outside history. Do you think there are in fact different moral ramifications for different types of inaction, depending upon their motivation?
  4. Hauerwas seems to understand that his call for Christian non-violence could in fact lead to disorder and make Christians-in the eyes of others-less safe. Indeed, having heard Hauerwas address the issue of whether or not he would kill to protect his son in person, and observing how he addressed the question, I can say that he seems to have a clear grasp of the possible consequences of his understanding for individual lives. Yet, is this enough to avoid the claim that he doesn’t live in the “real world,” and fails to grasp the “way the world works?”

Works Cited
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Williams, Rowan. “Hearts of Flesh.” In A Ray of Darkness, edited by Rowan Williams. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995.

  1. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), xv. []
  2. Ibid., 119. []
  3. Ibid., 119-20. []
  4. Ibid., 120 []
  5. Ibid., 121. []
  6. Ibid., 122. []
  7. Ibid., 131. []
  8. Ibid., 123 []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid., 124. []
  11. Ibid., 134 []
  12. Ibid., 142 []
  13. Ibid., 146. []
  14. Ibid., 148. []
  15. Rowan Williams, “Hearts of Flesh,” in A Ray of Darkness, ed. Rowan Williams (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 35-36. []
  16. Hauerwas, The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, 146. []
  17. Ibid. []