He is a renowned theologian and ethicist, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, and the author of several books, his most recent Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. He is also a proud Texan. On a sign that identifies the room number and name of the office holder is a sign that reads: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Dr. Stanley Hauerwas greeted me in blue jeans and sneakers and welcomed me into his office where he says he spends ten hours a day. A man who says that he was “raised to be a brick layer” and while in seminary worked in a factory is surrounded by books. In fact, there are so many that I no longer feel as if we are alone but that they are leaning forward from their shelves, sliding closer to us from the floor and tables, wanting, like me, to hear the words of this unassuming sage. Though recovering from a cold, Dr. Hauerwas’s mind is sharp and answers even sharper. Here is an excerpt of my interview with him during my visit to Duke Divinity School last week.
Hauerwas: Because of history. Because of slavery. African Americans were persecuted and you have to give a reason for that. If you had black skin, it justified you not having the position that whites had. And this has become a self- fulfilling project. Blacks live the life that confirms the stereotypes and now part of the challenge for African Americans is not to let this happen… White liberals need black suffering for moral identity but it is very destructive to use white guilt to further your cause because the guilty get tired of being guilty. Then there is the game of “I’ve been more victimized than you have been.” Some are given moral identity through the status of victimization but you need them for moral identity more than they need you and that does not underwrite the narrative of victimization.
McNeill: James Baldwin said, “We are trapped in history and history is trapped in us.” How can we get out of the trap of history?
Hauerwas: Through forgiveness and reconciliation. But we have to first be willing to be forgiven. Giving forgiveness puts us in a position of power. We must not let history be our fate but history must be one that aims at reconciliation. White slave holders were trapped too. They didn’t know any other way of being. Racists are trapped. Offer an alternative, another way of life is to offer reconciliation.
McNeill: Why and how do Christian leaders allow race to determine whether or not they will reconcile themselves to other Christian denominations?
Hauerwas: How to blend worship styles is a great problem. If I were an African American, I’m not sure I would trust a white person. We have trouble imagining the everyday slights that are part and parcel of a racialized society. For example, a few years ago, they were having a debate as to whether or not there should be a black cultural center. White liberals thought, “No, that’s re-segregation.” African Americans have to live around whites that have very different styles and habits. You need to get away. Worship is a good work but we have to find a creative way of doing this… With the best of wills, we have a lot of trouble understanding white privilege?
McNeill: Why is that true?
Hauerwas: Power dulls the imagination.
McNeill: How and why does race determine the character of American Christianity and that of Christians?
Hauerwas: It has to do with history– the separation of two churches, the argument of whether or not slaves could be baptized. They were baptized and that was the signal that slavery was a clear contradiction… because you baptize human beings. Christians produce knowledge of its bad faith through a practice like that.