“maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks”

I haven’t been writing much lately (obviously, as the silence here indicates), for a variety of life reasons, but I have been doing a ton of reading. I am nearing the end of my year long read through of a large part of Stanley Hauerwas’ bibliography. Accordingly, over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing here quite a bit that has caught my eye and stirred me from that reading, especially from Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, which I just recently finished. I have a lot to draw out from it, both as Excerpts and in extended thoughts. I know my readers may tire of hearing me respond to Hauerwas, but that is where my head (and my theology) largely is these days, and I do it out of a great debt of gratitude to Stanley and his work and the path it has set me on.

This passage from the introduction Performing the Faith is where I want to start, because I think it does a really good job of diagnosing much of our cultural malaise. Its all the more meaningful to remember that these words were written nearly two decades ago, because they still ring so true today. (Emphasis all mine.)

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Dimbleby Lecture (2002) interestingly calls attention to the challenge punishment presents for those living in societies like modern England. His observations about punishment follow his account of the loss of politics in what he calls the emerging “market states.” According to Williams, such states are now servants of global capitalism, which means that they are unable to be the focus for conversations necessary to discover goods in common. Rather, market states derive their legitimacy by trying to provide insurance to voters who seek the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks. Such states push “politics towards a consumerist model, with the state as the guarantor of ‘purchasing power’, it raises short-term expectations. By raising short-term expectations, it invites instability, reactive administration, rule by opinion poll and pressure.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, pages 27-28.

We live in a world of market states, and no where is this more true than right here in America, the very nation that has led the charge to change our conception of all communities and relationships to one predicated first and foremost on marketplace values. We are conditioned to understand social interactions as taking place between a consumer and a seller; much of our social energy goes into determining which of these roles we are in whenever we interact with another person, another institution, or another state. Our politics have largely become a consumer-producer relationship, with us as voters expecting that we should receive some immediate tangible benefit for our votes or political support, rather than recognizing the long game that democracy really is at any level.1

And so, our politics have become characterized by “instability, reactive administration, and rule by opinion poll and pressure.” One need only look as far as the previous presidential administration to see these traits most blatantly, but they have been a part of our political culture for much longer than the last four years, and they continue on today in the Biden years. This isn’t either a random or an inevitable outcome. We’ve made choices as a people – or, at the very least, allowed those in power to make choices on our behalf with very little pushback – to get to this point, because we mostly want “the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks.” In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it too; we want to do whatever it is we want to do right now, and we don’t want to be reminded that there are consequences to our actions, consequences that affect those less fortunate than us, and consequences that determine the future of our world.

So I take these words as a reminder: politics is not a market transaction. We shouldn’t treat it as such. Politics are the language we speak together as a community to determine how we can live together. We’ve allowed it to become much less like a town meeting, and much more like speaking to a used car salesman. This is the wages of market states, of the rule of capitalism and liberalism and the attendant need within those systems to destroy any shared story or memories about who and why we are. The goal of our political arrangements has to be more than just “freedom.” We need a bigger story we tell about who we are and what we are doing here. Part of what I’m exploring in reading and writing about Hauerwas right now is how we as Christians do in fact have a better story to tell – and how it isn’t a story about how to rule the world directly. I look forward to exploring those themes here.


1 Please note I’m not making the standard conservative political claim that voters are being “bought” in order to benefit one party or another. This is a larger, system-wide critique of how we understand politics to work.

Excerpt #24

While the world says, “believe what you want but make sure it remains a private preference,” we proclaim the exact opposite. Tolerating this worldview kills the mission of God in God’s church – following Jesus is not meant to make my life safe, secure, comfortable or more tolerable to a majority of Americans. It definitely won’t compartmentalize down to a nice, cozy pocket! In the same way, Jesus is larger than a political affiliation, so my allegiance to him should be greater than my allegiance to a political party. Following Jesus, as Hauerwas states, “is going to make my life dysfunctional to most Americans.”

Jason Barnhart, Sunday Asylum: Being the Church in Occupied Territory, page 89.

Excerpt #23

The moral challenge is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative. We lack the practices, and hence the imagination, that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

I am aware that such a suggestion cannot help but be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you that I am serious; I am against tolerance; I do not believe it is a good story, because it is so clearly a lie. The lie is exposed by simply asking, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story?” Why should that story be determinative for your life? Simply put, the story of freedom has now become our fate.

For example, consider the hallmark sentence of the Casey decision on abortion – “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Remember that was written by political conservatives. Moreover, it is exactly that view of freedom that John Paul II so eloquently condemns in the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. A view of freedom, like that embodied in Casey, according to John Paul II, assumes we must be able to “create values” since freedom enjoys “a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.”

In contrast, John Paul II, who is not afraid to have enemies, reminds us that the good news of the Gospel, known through proclamation, is that we are not fated to be determined by such false stories of freedom. For the truth is that we are not free to choose our own stories inasmuch as we are God’s good creation. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but learning to recognize our lives as gift. We do not receive our lives as if they were a gift, but rather our lives are gift. We do not exist and then God gives us a gift, but our existence is gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life as gift, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.

Stanley Hauerwas, “No Enemy, No Christianity: Preaching between ‘Worlds’ in Sanctify Them in The Truth, pages 197-199.