Thinking With Hauerwas About Policing



This week I made a pilgrimage to Stanley Hauerwas’s penthouse office at Duke Divinity School, and asked him to help me think about the church’s call in the context of modern policing. With the increased visibility and attention being paid to issues like militarization, systemic racism, and deadly force, how can Christians speak and act faithfully?

His first instinct was to point me towards those doing work on what is called “just policing,” with scholars like Gerald Schlabach and Tobias Winright. While I appreciate the contributions of these scholars, I have often wondered whether the questions being asked – how we reform the criminal justice system, or create a just system – are not built on assumptions which should be interrogated much further.[1] Hauerwas and I agreed that these are essentially Constantinian questions. They also require an account of justice that must be (at least in part) abstracted from the work of Christ. How much meaning does the word “just” lose when it is applied to a system that requires some degree of violence and domination? If Jesus really is the justice of God (as Daniel Bell, Jr. has argued)[2], then how is this justice exemplified in a system that cannot be fundamentally life-giving, only less deadly? If the execution of Jesus represents the justice of God, then the death wrought by the state might be analogously just. However, if the real justice in this event is “cruciform,” and as Michael Gorman has argued, “involves the absorption rather than the infliction of injustice,”[3] then we might be talking about a justice for which the police state has no capacity. Furthermore, if God’s justice is seen in the life-givingness of raising Jesus from the dead, then surely we are past a point of reasonable analogy with the police state’s “justice.” Like the members of Pharaoh’s court attempting to keep up with God’s work, the state will eventually see its staff swallowed. We can of course say that the criminal justice should be “more” just, but we must be careful to allow Christological (and cruciform) definitions of justice to be centered.

The notion of reform for the criminal justice system should also be viewed with some skepticism, especially by readers of Foucault, who claimed in the 20th century that “for a century and a half, the prison had always been offered as its own remedy.”[4] Reform is not a new idea for the criminal justice system, but Foucault says reform essentially “constitutes its programme.”[5] The idea of reform today gains traction from rhetoric that suggests our criminal justice system is “broken.” Again, Foucault pushes back here. If prison is supposed to reduce offenses, and does not, “one should reverse this problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison…for the observation that prison fails to eliminate crime, one should perhaps substitute the hypothesis that prison has succeeded extremely well in producing delinquency.”[6] Rather than simply advocating restraint, we might consider whether the problem is more than a matter of scale or limit.

Given these analyses of the system at large, my question for Hauerwas was how the church can engage (and not simply withdraw, as has been a criticism of Hauerwasian and certain Anabaptist theologies) these issues as a community. He responded with a variation on a question I have been pondering for some time – what would it mean for the church to form people who, following Christ, would rather die than kill? What would it mean for Christians generally to put their own bodies on the line, to “protect” in ways that are not death-dealing? Taking this further, pacifist Christians might also consider whether a pacifist position might also impose a dichotomy that lets us off too easily: we cannot kill while following Christ, but if we somehow avoid killing we must not assume that we have retained some moral purity. Here I think we need to again draw on Foucault, specifically the notion of biopower. Given the pacifist position, we might enquire whether participating in the disciplines of policing, even without guns, might still be problematic for a follower of Christ. Foucault traces a history of sovereignty that once (and sometimes still) reveals itself as direct power over life, the power to punish bodies, the power to take. The transformation in the modern age has been the shift from a power of only “seizure and suppression,” to a power that works to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it.”[7] For Foucault, there was a shift from repression to production, from the body as the primary object of discipline to the soul. “The ancient rife to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it,” a power concerned with “the calculated management of life” through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”[8] This power can certainly be exercised by Christians without guns, even Christian pacifists, so our analysis of power must not be limited to obvious dramas of life and death (though it certainly must include them).

My next question for Hauerwas, given his ecclesiology, was how we as a church might displace the police? Clearly it is not enough for us to simply replace, to do what police do differently or “nonviolently.” How can we organize our communities, how can we protect lives and souls and bodies, how can we think outside the order of the state and the market?

Hauerwas seemed to think a revitalization of church discipline might be a way forward, or at least a precondition for distinctly Christian political witness. Does the notion of excommunication have any meaning in a voluntarist ecclesiology shaped by nation-states and globalization? Should it? If one were to commit a grave offense against one’s local church, are our communities strong enough that both the communities and the offender would feel the loss? As one who is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of church discipline given its abuses, and is sympathetic to theologies of “open table” Eucharist where all are welcome, I am wrestling through this.[9] Of course he acknowledged the complexities and historical problems with the idea.

Through further reflection and conversation, it seems that there might be a dynamic in the church where certain communities have attempted to follow the principles of Matthew 18, (especially vv. 15-17), and have in so doing made space for tremendous abuses (thinking of not only of the case of John Howard Yoder, which Hauerwas acknowledges, but certainly also other churches in various denominations that have experienced scandal and loss). Other church communities, attempting to learn from these mistakes, have swung the pendulum the other way, installing safeguards to ensure community safety that end up relying upon state police apparatuses for their security, and precluding the possibility of reconciliation. It is much easier to be an open and welcoming community when discipline is outsourced to the state. The challenge then is how we as a church can say (with God) a decisive “no” to inhumanity, while also saying “yes” to human beings?

The state seems like an easy target here, and for some (including some Anabaptists and political conservatives), seems like a place to begin. I clearly sympathize with these concerns, but given the lessons of history, we cannot help but be suspicious at church communities that first complain about government interference, knowing that this has so often created an incubator for abuse. The way forward might be a church community that is able to both establish its distinct identity, and witness towards the justice of God, while displacing state apparatuses. Our problem is not that the state forces itself upon us; it is that we don’t have enough communities capable of thinking outside its order.

Nathaniel Grimes


[1] Scholars like the ones I named are aware of these concerns, and attempting to faithfully work through their implications, but in the wider conversation they might be taken for granted.

[2] Hauerwas expands on this in chapter 8 of War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2011).

[3] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2009), 99.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 268.

[5] Ibid., 234.

[6] Ibid., 272-277.

[7] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 136.

[8] Foucault, Sexuality, 138-140.

[9] Specifically with the help of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998).


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