Ephraim Radner and others have recently reflected that the church’s theologians have said shockingly little about the pandemic that’s really been helpful, that’s helped Christians think clearly about this global crisis. To get our heads straight, minds clear, and hearts somewhat settled about this pandemic moment, we sat down with Stanley Hauerwas to see if we might find a way through the fog we could offer to the church.
Ben: If you could put your finger on it, what would you name as the reason why Christians are so divided in their thinking about the pandemic? Is it their view of science? Politics? Moral responsibility?
Stanley: I think all of those. But pushing further, it’s not just the pandemic that’s revealed that. We’ve known this for a long time because we haven’t been very good in our working congregations of showing the relationship between our worship of Jesus Christ and why it is that we live one way rather than another. I oftentimes think about Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts. What would it look like for Christians to not be able to come to church unless they were willing to tell each other what they make? That would therefore begin to show that our moral convictions are not ours but are part of an ongoing practice of a community that is able to share a life.
If coming to church scared you, and you needed the help of one another to be able to survive, then there would be a commonality, it seems to me, that would be a way to go on in terms of being able to discuss those issues, like why it is you should take the vaccine even though you don’t like some of the implications surrounding it about the administrative state and so on.
Kent: So what do you mean when you say, “if coming to church scared you”? Meaning, “it exposed you more than you were comfortable with”?
Stanley: Yeah. And say the church says that you shouldn’t become a soldier. And people would then start saying, “Look at those people over there, they’re a bunch of cowards.” And you’d think, “No, it takes a lot of courage to be for non-violence.” That might be very frightening to take a stance like that. And so you need one another. It’s just a common presumption that people are more cooperative when they need one another for survival. The church clearly has positions that should, as a matter of fact, require us to need one another.
Kent: So, let me see if I’m tracking what you’re saying, Stanley. You might think that the church has positions on everything from violence to marriage and sexuality that in our society are so demanding that we would need each other to hold the convictions to live them out. But the church by and large hasn’t operated in that way. And so it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the church lacks the strength to really shape the way Christians think about the pandemic.
Stanley: That’s right. Right. You just put it much clearer than I did, but that’s what I’m thinking. What the pandemic has partly revealed is the everyday loneliness of our lives. And that loneliness is compounded by the fact that it is an indication of how we worry that we’re not sure our lives are worthy. So the loneliness is not just the name of a relationship with others, but a relationship with ourselves. We’re not sure who we are and as a result we are not sure how we can have lives that are open to friendships with others that don’t protect our loneliness because I think people are not at all sure they want to know who they are.
Ben: That seems right. It seems the pandemic has only exacerbated that sense of loneliness and isolation. People have retreated into themselves even more.
Stanley: You know, I’m a big fan of the rituals of the everyday. I don’t think we were cut out to be constantly worrying about who we are. But I think that oftentimes the everyday routines, which can be quite wonderful, also can hide from us our need for one another in a way that makes the kind of loneliness that characterizes our lives just overwhelming.
Kent: This makes me think about a struggle that I had during the pandemic when we were all, you know, sort of stuck at home. My wife was at home. I was at home. My daughter was at home. And I hated it. I wanted to go to work. I felt overwhelmed by, I guess, the demands of relationship or something like that. Would that be an example of the way in which I had sheltered myself from friendship by the routines of the everyday and that now I was being exposed? Is that how you’d read that?
Stanley: Yes. The isolation that was necessary, that we all were captured by, I think, resulted in – and it’s still ongoing – people not having resources to know how to be connected. Because resources to know how to be connected presume common commitments to what makes life worth living.
Ben: Your comments have already anticipated many of the questions we planned to ask, like “what is the pandemic revealing to us that was previously hidden?” and I think this attention to loneliness is a really nice way to chart a path for our conversation.
Stanley: I mean people want to say, “One of the things the pandemic revealed is our interconnectedness across the world.” I don’t know that that’s true. It was interesting, the production of the vaccine in such huge numbers was necessary not because we’re altruistic people that want to make sure people in El Salvador get the vaccine, but because if we don’t have people in El Salvador getting the vaccine, then we continue to be vulnerable to the illness.
Ben: It’s a way of self-preservation.
Stanley: Yes. The need for self-preservation may not be all that bad in terms of the behavior that’s required.
Ben: Do you think that there is anything that Christians should be apologizing for this side of the pandemic, or at this point in the pandemic, wherever we are?
Stanley: Our word for apologize is confession. And of course, it’s confession of sin. Part of the problem with the confession of sin is we think that sin is something that we do rather than a power that possesses us. If Covid does anything, it helps us locate the powers that possess us; in particular, money. Money is a power that possesses us, and we don’t even know how deeply it goes. That’s not necessarily revealed by Covid, it’s just what it means to be rich people. And it’s something we’re not even sure how to describe.
Ben: Is there a way that Covid helps us locate the power that money has over us? Maybe that is something we need to confess as a result of our experience the last two years.
Stanley: Well, most people would say that what is revealed is how money helped us get well. Surely part of that is true. Money also, however, is one of the ways that we finance our loneliness because money means, “I don’t need you.” But Covid, in a way, forced me to need people I otherwise would not want to need. So I guess that would be [one way to locate the power money has over us].
Greed is what people wouldn’t necessarily think of when you think of money, but greed is such a terrorizing of the soul because you can never satisfy it. That’s why it’s greed. You will hear people say, “X or Y died of the pandemic, and it was just so unfair because they were having such a life.” Unfair? Where does that come from? I think it comes from greed: “I don’t get enough in my life because of the illness, and I deserved more.” That’s greed. It would be very interesting to do an account of the understanding of the pandemic in terms of the role of the vices. I’m not sure how it would come out, but it would be interesting.
Ben: Are you familiar with Kyrie Irving?
Stanley: Yeah, he’s a basketball player.
Ben: Basketball player, really good, went to Duke actually.
Ben: He refused to get vaccinated, which has meant he’s not been able to play any home games this season, and I think they worked out the math and he forewent $16 million in salary or maybe even more. So, commenting on Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated, Shaquille O’Neal says, “You know, his stand is his stand. I’m not going to get into the argument of what he should or shouldn’t do, but I’m just saying from experience, if you want to win, you have to sacrifice.” Do you think that Shaq has a word here for the church?
Stanley: Yeah, I like that. Though I don’t like his first statement, “I’m not going to get into the argument.” He needed to get into the argument and he clearly did. So it was a kind of verbal gesture that I prefer he not use. I mean, because it’s the underwriting of the American [presumption] “no one can tell me what to do.” Yeah, you should. We need to tell people what to do.
Ben: In my church we have parishioners that are pro-life and pro-choice, pacifist and committed to just war, traditional sexual ethic and pro-gay marriage, kind of all over the map on the positions you could take. And these differences don’t pose problems for friendship. But when it comes to the question around the vaccine, there is no such fellowship among our pro-vaccine and our vaccine-skeptical people. What do you make of that?
Stanley: Well, rather than saying, “you’re just nuts,” the more viable reaction is that it’s not a matter of how they are being positioned in relationship to the vaccine in terms of their own health, but how they need to take the vaccine as a sign of moral responsibility to their fellow human beings who they do not want to have their illness become the illness of the other by transmission.
One of the aspects of Covid is how unbelievably infectious it is. I have some friends who are very, very bright and want to stand against the tyranny of the administrative state and they see the requirement that you need to have the vaccine as the fulfillment of that, and these are not stupid people. But my response to that is, “ok, I understand how you want to be a form of resistance to that, but do you want to implicate your neighbor in that?” It seems to me that as a way of indicating our solidarity with one another, it is a very good idea to receive the vaccine as a way of not spreading the disease. So that’s the way I try to think about that.
Ben: Ok, so pivoting now to the category of practices and virtues. What virtues are particularly helpful for being faithful in the pandemic? You mentioned vices earlier, you know, which ones are really showcased. Which virtues do you see to be the really important ones in the pandemic?
Stanley: I don’t know that it’s well thought-out but the first virtue that pops into my head is kindness. We need to know how to be kind to one another as a way of helping us to be present to one another. How to embody judgments about what I ought to do and what you ought to do in a manner that is kind, I think is a real challenge. Kindness is seldom seen as a major virtue, but I think it’s very important for knowing how to be in touch with those that are ill and those that are not.
Ben: And those that are vaccinated and those that are not.
Ben: Which goes to the first question about the church and the kind of divisions in the church.
Kent: What is kindness? I mean, I go to “niceness,” which I don’t think you want to say kindness is just being nice to people. I mean, what is it?
Stanley: I treat it as the first virtue in The Character of Virtue. Of course kindness is the alternative to cruelty, and cruelty is so often associated with actually causing pain in the other’s body through touching. Kindness is causing pleasure in the other’s body through touching. Pleasure is oftentimes seen as the antithesis to virtue, but delight is constitutive of, and rides on the back, of virtue. Kindness is delight in the existence of the other, with the opportunity to be in touch, oftentimes through touch.
Kent: So you can be nice to someone and utterly fail to be kind?
Stanley: Yes. I hate being nice. Niceness is such a manipulative way of life. I always say Southern gentility is raising niceness to an art form because it’s one of the most manipulative forms of human behavior.
Kent: This is a question that might allow you to expand a little bit on the kindness theme. Ben and I both experienced a fair amount of tension and conflict within our families over different reactions to Covid: masking, lockdowns, vaccines.
Stanley: A lot of people did.
Kent: So how should Christian spouses and close friends carry on in the midst of intense disagreement about these matters? They’re not trivial matters. How can we go on in a way that we aren’t torn apart by our disagreements about so-called “life and death” matters?
Stanley: I don’t know that you shouldn’t be torn apart. Serious matters entail serious behaviors. If my grandsons thought that they should be ready to kill in whatever the various forms of [state] killing are, it’d make a difference for how I relate to my grandsons. I mean, you can’t have strong convictions, which you ought to have, without it causing some, at times, conflicts. I guess what it means to be in a family is: “There’s nothing I can do about the fact that you’re my brother or sister, and you will remain my brother and sister, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Kent: And can you say the same about spouses?
Stanley: Yes. You certainly can. I think one of the aspects of modern marriage is that we agree to not discuss certain things because if we agree to discuss certain things we’re not sure the marriage could last, which therefore means truthfulness and marriage are often incompatible.
Ben: One of the things I like to underline in Resident Aliens is your point that the only reason why Christians should either stay single or get married is that it somehow enhances discipleship. I’ve wondered recently if the converse works as well: that the only reason why you should end your marriage is because it somehow enhances discipleship. Is that coherent?
Stanley: Yeah, I think it is, but it depends on what you mean by end the marriage.
Stanley: Right, but that doesn’t end the marriage, as far as a Christian understanding of marriage is concerned. That’s a legal solution that doesn’t deal with all the moral and theological complexities that are associated with marriage. A good Roman Catholic response.
What did you all think of the virtual developments for education?
Kent: We wanted to ask you that: virtual developments for church and for education.
Stanley: The first response is, “it was better than nothin’.” Paula and I really depended on Church of the Holy Family having a virtual service and we are deeply grateful we were able to participate in that way. We would look at our virtual service and then we would worship with the Passionist the Sunday Mass.
Stanley: Online. But it was interesting, and then we worshiped outside during the summer for three or four months, and then once the vaccine was having the effect, with masking, we were allowed to go back into the nave. I have to say, the first two or three Sundays that we were back together, and we did distancing and all of that, we would have fifty, sixty people, I cried. Just to be back with people you love and to see one another and to have the common liturgy, I found myself recognizing how much life depends on that. I mean, if that’s not what makes life worth living, I don’t know what does.