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Must Liberalism Be Violent? A Reflection on the Work of Stanley Hauerwas, 75 Law & Contemporary Problems 201 (2012)


My subject is the work of the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on violence and

coercion. I shall argue that his views on the violence of war and his views on the

violence of the liberal state are inextricably linked, and that the critique of

liberalism that emerges from his thought actually does have—contrary to his

own view—important implications for public policy.

In order to appreciate his thinking on these matters, one must appreciate his

starting point, which is not the starting point of the standard academic

analysis—that is, he does not begin with liberalism. He begins (and he would

say, ends) with Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of Christendom but

Christianity in the sense of church—the place to which Christians are called and

through which their lives are constituted. And although Hauerwas certainly has

some interest in what commands bind believers in general and Christians in

particular (a point to which I will presently come), his larger concern is the

creation and nurturing of people who believe that commands bind them—that

people are in the first instance bundles not of rights and preferences (as

liberalism would have it) but of duties. These duties, moreover, are not owed to

each other, or to ideology or party, or to government or future generations or

Mother Earth; they are owed to God.

The notion that we are created by God, and owe duties first to God, is

crucial to the conceptions of church and of society that motivate his work.

Following close behind is his conception of American culture—legal, political,

and economic—as determined, through every available method of temptation

and coercion, to conceal these duties, to cloud them, to draw us away from

them, recreating us instead as creatures sufficiently arrogant to believe in our

own freedom to choose our own ends—in short, to suit us for capitalism.

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