Tuesday, July 10, 2012

King Arthur and Stanley Hauerwas

For several years, son #1 has been trying to get me to read his favorite novel, The Once and Future King.  I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago, and just finished it yesterday.  I think it was John Adams who said about Don Quixote that he was sad that it ended; that was not my reaction to Quixote, but it was to The Once and Future King.

It is the retelling of the King Arthur legend, and counted by some to be the greatest fantasy book of all time (though I'm not sure how one objectively measures such things).  We get to follow Arthur from his boyhood with (the future) Sir Kay and their lessons from their tutor, Merlin.  Then Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and so inherits the throne of England.  He finds the situation in England to be one where might makes right, and so has the idea to channel all of this "might" into chivalry, in which knights go about fighting for justice.  The greatest of his knights is Lancelot, and an interesting love triangle forms with these two and Queen Guenever.  I say it is interesting, because each of them really likes the other two in the triangle and feels a kind of loyalty and allegiance to them.  But of course it leads to their undoing.

There is another kind of undoing, though, that interests me more in the story.  There is a period during which chivalry flourishes.  The bad guys have been silenced, and England is a much nicer place to live.  But it is a peace that is purchased through the superior strength and might of the Knights of the Round Table.  Might still seems to be winning; it is just that the good guys are now the mightiest.  Arthur struggles to get out of the cycle of violence and replace it with the rule of law, but when individuals are kept in some sort of check, violence erupts again in groups or nation-states.  "There were no laws for that."

At the end of the book Arthur wonders, "Was it the wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?"  He decides that even very charismatic leaders could not get the whole population to do something that was radically out of character for them.  "A leader was surely forced to offer something which appealed to those he led?  He might give the impetus to the falling building, but surely it had to be toppling on its own account before it fell?  If this were true, then wars were no calamities into which amiable innocents were led by evil men.  They were national movements, deeper, more subtle in origin."

Enter the second half of my title.  I've also been reading Stanley Hauerwas's essays in his War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity.  What is it about America that sees war as the answer to every problem?  Of course that's a complex issue, but Hauerwas thinks one thread of the answer lies in our "secular" state that has substituted national identity for religious identity, and so war becomes a liturgical act.  War for us has become a way of remembering fallen heroes and legitimating ourselves.  He says, "For Americans, war is necessary to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars.  Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart" (27).  Such language comes out clearly in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:  "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

But then where does it ever end?  We have to show that we can fight and die for country to preserve our "freedoms" just as the previous generations did, otherwise they would have done so in vain.  So we use good violence to combat bad violence.  And King Arthur can tell us that in such a situation, violence wins.

I don't think I've ever called myself a total pacifist.  I've never quite been convinced that the secular state should never resort to violence in dealing with those who just want to set the world on fire and watch it burn (though I suspect such cases are much rarer than official intelligence reports suggest).  But if it is ever proper for a country to use violence to achieve its goals, let's please not call it a Christian country (I'm not so sure that countries are the kinds of things that can be Christians anyway...).  I am convinced that the way of Christ is not the way of violence.  I'm sure some of you disagree and have your favorite Bible verses to prove your case.  I can throw some of my favorite verses back at you.  That only proves the point I made in a previous post (here) about the under-determination of Scripture.  Instead, let's settle this like men: read The Once and Future King, and then we'll talk about it.


Katie said...

Now I want to read Hauerwas' book. I have oftened wondered why (or how) American Christians could support certain wars. In a church I attended in WV, nationalism was next to holiness. I dreaded the Sundays before Memorial Day and the 4th of July. The sermons were never about Jesus, just about America and how great America is. I have often thought that American Christians (at least a certain sect of them, anyway)had much more faith and confidence in our military than in Our God. Thus, praying and fasting are put aside in favor of violence everytime. Hauerwas' book sounds intriguing.

FarmerLenny said...

This post has inspired me to read The Once and Future King sooner rather than later. I'm just bummed it's not available as an e-book (my wrist is getting weak in my old age).