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Roger Olson: Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas: Can Their Approaches to Christian Political Ethics be Bridged?

A resurgent Christian pacifism has been elaborated by the Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

Hauerwas centers his understanding of Christian life and ethics on the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus indeed counsels non-violence and non-resistance to evil. This means, for Hauerwas, that no Christian should participate in any civil organization or group that uses or threatens to use coercive force, as in police and courts, and of course the military. Rather, Christians are called to form “witnessing communities” within the general society where they practice non-violence and non-resistance, even at considerable cost.[2]

Image: Valor Kopeny

William Jennings Bryant in 1902.

So how does Olson reconcile two such antithetical theologies? He does so by pointing to individuals whose lives have bridged the differences. He cites the life of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and healing minister Christoph Blumhardt, and several others including William Jennings Bryant, the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

William Jennings Bryant’s life is especially attractive to Olson’s bridge position. Bryant was a devote Christian and pacifist. In 1914, at the start of World War I, he used his position as Secretary of State to encourage peace negotiations between the Allies (Britain and France) and Central Powers (Germany and Austria). However, those negotiators failed, and President Wilson began favoring the Allied side. Bryant feared the US would eventually enter the war. Indeed, that happened, but Bryant resigned from the government before that as a protest to Wilson’s tilt. In any case, Olson considers Bryant’s public life a “bridge” person between the Niebuhr and Hauerwas positions. He was a man of pacifist persuasions, and served the government with all his strength as long as he could in good conscience.

Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked practically all of his adult and ministry life as a dedicated pacifist and advocate of non-violence. However, when he saw the monstrous evil of the Jewish Holocaust, and German atrocities to other peoples and enslaved POWs, he was forced to reconsider his position. He joined the German Army’s intelligence branch (which was heavily Christian) and assisted the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and his generals. That cost him his life.


A Charismatic Perspective and Critique

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist most of his life, but a just war participant at the end of his life. He was not both at the same time. A bridge holds both ends at the same time.

It seems to me that Olson’s good intentions of bridging Niebuhr and Hauerwas don’t quite succeed. That is especially clear in the example of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist most of his life, but a “just war” participant at the end of his life. He was not both at the same time. A bridge holds both ends at the same time. Bonhoeffer’s eloquent and inspiring story as pacifist opponent to Nazism has become a heritage story to Christendom. But Bonhoeffer’s ultimate resort to arms indicates the weakness of pacifism. His attempt to kill Hitler and his generals was no different morally than the typical American GI who enlisted out of high school in 1942 because he too saw the evil of Nazism via newsreels and the newspapers, and wound up fighting in several campaigns – perhaps even being involved in a tragic “collateral damage” incident (the tragedy of war, as Niebuhr would point out).

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2017

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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