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The Trivial

February 27th, 2020 | 3 min read

By Matthew Shedden

In 1986 Stanley Hauerwas wrote a brilliant essay on Peace and the significance of the trivial. The essay is one of my favorites, and I believe is of particular importance today.

In its context, the essay is an exploration of ‘the bomb’ and what it means to live in the nuclear age. Time Magazine had just published the claim that “the Bomb’s presence abets, if it does not exclusively account for, much of what is nerve-wracking and unsatisfactory about our lives.” Hauerwas takes up the case from the theologian, Gordon Kaufman, and his claim that in light of nuclear weapons Christian theology must be rethought. He writes that Kaufman’s “position…makes explicit what many feel when they contend that if we live as if the bomb does not matter, we are making a decisive mistake.”

Hauerwas is skeptical of these claims. To define life in such a way is to make the bomb (or previously the Vietnam war) a totalitarian force. He writes “Every aspect of our lives must be subjected to the discipline of examination to discern whether we may in fact be unconsciously supporting the continuation of nuclear weapons.” What is the end of all this? “That we will be making a mistake if we allow the bomb to determine our lives spiritually. Put simply, we will not be working for a peace worth having if we assume that peace means only the elimination of the bomb from our lives.” What makes for a peace worth having?

While today, the fear of nuclear weapons has faded from such a controlling view new things have risen to take its place. The coming environmental collapse is a ready replacement, however because it stretches out over time and human civilization primarily deals with what is near and immediate to us, redefining our lives in the face of it has not taken root yet. But because we can focus on what is near and immediate to us, current president Donald Trump has become that totalitarian force in our lives and discourse. He must be thought about. He must be written about. We can cut people from our lives for their support of him. We can banish them to the outer places. If one were to try to and live as if he didn’t exist they would be making a mistake. Our lives must be lived in the constant awareness of him and what he does. Every  book must confront the legacy of how we got him and what are going to do about it. We must live lives confronting this truth.

What remains for the faithful to do? What can we do when confronted with the bomb or Trump? “That alternative is quite simply the need to reclaim the significance of the trivial.” Resistance isn’t just making every aspect of life tilt toward the bomb. For “there is nothing more important for us to do in the face of the threat of nuclear war than to go on living—that is, to take time to enjoy a walk with a friend, to read all of Trollope’s novels, to maintain universities, to have and care for children, and most importantly, to worship God.” Hauerwas is aware this seems like cheap quietism, but at this moment it might seem like the one way to remain human.

This leads Hauerwas’s essay to a collection of sentences that I have not been able to stop thinking about.

  • I am not suggesting that the bomb should make no difference for how we live our lives; rather I have tried to suggest that when we allow it to make all the difference we lose the power to stand against the forces that have built the bomb in the first place. For our lives become determined by the kind of urgency that robs us of the freedom to enjoy the time God has given us to make peace possible. Peace takes time. Put even more strongly, peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force the other to submit in the name of order. Peace is not a static state, but an activity that requires constant attention and care. An activity by its very nature takes place over time. In fact, activity creates time, as we only know how to characterize duration by noting that we did this first, and then this second, and so on until we got somewhere or accomplished this or that. So peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than letting ourselves be determined by “events” over which, it is alleged, we have no control.

The rise of Trump in our current political moment has only made us double down on the forces and mechanisms that created our political moment. In the meantime we’ve abandoned the practices that make a time we call peace.

So why a new blog? My hope is that we regain some sense of the trivial that makes our lives worth living and can redeem some of that peace; peace that takes time.

More on Hauerwas at MereO. 

Matthew Shedden

Matthew Shedden is pastor at Defiance Church in a small mountain town in Colorado. There he tries to reclaim the trivial by spending with his family, fly fishing the Roaring Fork, skiing, and cooking.