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.
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.
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.