Though it's often said and hard to argue against, nothing could be more misleading than to call Stanley Hauerwas the preeminent Christian theologian in America today. If theologians are ivory-tower types who write impenetrably on inscrutable topics, Hauerwas is a contrarian critic of America's moral life, who uses his post at Duke Divinity School to make Christian ethics more accessible and relevant to society. Hauerwas' theological orthodoxy and political progressivism defy attempts by liberals or conservatives to own him, and deny both sides the comfort of entrenched positions. We spoke to him before a Memorial Day weekend that will see the dedication of a new monument to World War II veterans, and during which the war in Iraq continues to rage.

This Memorial Day, the new monument to World War II veterans formally opens on the Mall in Washington, D.C., commemorating the war we regard as blameless, since it fought Nazism. Is World War II a blameless war, from the nonviolent Christian's point of view?
Not at all, because World War II was not a just war, because the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender. In the Crusades, getting the Holy Land back was the goal, and any means could be used to achieve it. World War II was a crusade. The firebombing of Tokyo by Doolittle and the carpet bombing in Germany, especially by the British, showed that. Those actions were also not in keeping with just-war theory, since they involved the intentional killing of civilians.

This weekend we'll hear a lot about sacrifice, and it's true, is it not, that those who fought did sacrifice themselves, if only for the spread of democracy?
Yes, and that is why you see American flags in churches. The idea is that these people gave their lives. But that is not the same as Christian sacrifice. Jesus made the final sacrifice for all, and we need not make it again.

This is not to take away from the soldiers, some of whom showed great bravery and attention to duty. As a pacifist, people always ask about Romans 13. ["Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience."] But the answer is in Romans 12, which says to do good to your enemy and to overcome evil with good. In World War II, after all, there were many Catholics and Lutherans in Germany who used Romans 13 to justify fighting for the Nazis.

Your new book, "Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence," tells the story of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis, though he was a pacifist.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York and came into contact with Jean Lasserre, a Huguenot and a pacifist--pretty out of character for a Calvinist. Lasserre argued for pacifism on a scriptural basis and Bonhoeffer was very much influenced by him.

You say on a scriptural basis. Is it fair to assume that we're talking about the New Testament?
Actually, Lasserre based his pacifism on the Decalogue. Bonhoeffer later can be seen taking his ideas from the Sermon on the Mount. What they shared is the notion that nonviolence wasn't something you might consider after accepting Jesus as your Lord. It was something that was inescapable once you accept Jesus as Lord.

Yet Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and killed because he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. Does this mean he came to see violence as acceptable, if only to kill one man?
We don't know. He had contacted George Bell, bishop of Chichester, hoping to negotiate with British officials. His group planned to offer to organize a coup against Hitler if the British would agree to a conditional surrender. I believe they got as far as Anthony Eden, who insisted on unconditional surrender. That changed the course of the plot, but it's not certain what Bonhoeffer's role was.

He definitely worked for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service of the German navy, after he lost his church position, as a way of avoiding the draft, which would have meant taking the oath to Hitler. The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, and other officers were plotting to assassinate Hitler. But there are too few documents to be certain what Bonhoeffer's thinking about violence was at the time. What is certain is that he'd consider killing Hitler a sin.

Necessary, but a sin?

Bonhoeffer wrote during the war that he thought Germany should not attempt to return to a liberal democracy if the Nazis were defeated.
Bonhoeffer believed that Germany had not developed the ethos that, say, England had to support liberal democracy. Germany had been turned into a nation-state by Bismarck in the middle of the 19th century, and as a nation came very late to liberal democracy. The German version of liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic, had barely begun before the Nazis took over, whereas England had formed a liberal ethos over centuries.

But his beef with liberal democracy seems more philosophical and thoroughgoing. He says that the language of rights and liberties, as you write in your book, "cannot help but lead to godlessness and the subsequent deification of man, which is the proclamation of nihilism."
That's right, and in noting that, I hoped some people would see a parallel to the present day in this country.

The other place it seems this has application is in the current situation in Iraq. Many argue that the proper ethos is not present there either for liberal democracy.
To try to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy is absolutely crazy. Islam has no understanding of the separation between church and state because they don't understand Islam to be a church. The very idea that you could have separation between mosque and state from Islam's perspective is the imposition on them of Christian practice. Islam doesn't really have a place for state. They are a universalistic faith like Christianity, but they think there is no country that bounds Islam.

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