Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)” by Stanley Hauerwas

Since joining the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring I've been meaning to post something on one of my favorite little essays, Stanley Hauerwas' “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)”. I've been meaning to post on it because it combines two hot-button moral/political/theological issues in a really creative way. It seeks to explore

a.) how homosexuality relates to military service, and

b.) how Christianity relates to military service.

To say any more up front would be to steal from the delight of reading about it. So, here is a slightly edited version of a paper I once wrote on the essay:

________________


In this brief essay, Duke Divinity School Theological Ethics Professor Stanley Hauerwas takes a unique approach to the issue of whether or not gays (as a group) are being unfairly discriminated against by not being allowed to serve in the military. He only briefly addresses of discrimination, saying “I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service,” but that discrimination does not concern him. In fact, he says “I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded [from military service] as a group. I only wish that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

While his essay is not, in the end, primarily concerned with either the moral value of homosexual behavior or the discrimination of groups on the grounds of sexual orientation, he does provide at least a cursory treatment of the issue of discrimination against gays, saying “Discrimination against gays grows from the moral incoherence of our lives” and not from “the threat that gays might pose to our moral or military culture.” This is because most people are not “secure in their convictions and practices.” After all, “people who are secure in their convictions and practices are not so easily threatened by the prospects of a marginal group acquiring legitimacy through military service.”

His approach to this issue does not even consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts. I believe that, given what I know of his theology, and given the subtext of this essay, that Hauerwas does not believe that homosexuality is consistent with Christian ethics. But, on the issue of whether or not gays should be allowed to join the military, the moral value of their actions is, to Hauerwas, irrelevant. Why? I think that there are at least two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, for Hauerwas, the military itself is immoral. In fact, he spends the bulk of his essay arguing that Christians should, on moral grounds, be exempt from military service because their ethics would so contrast with the ethics of the military. Hauerwas asks, for instance, “What if Catholics took the commitment to just war seriously as a discipline of the church?” What would be the result of such a commitment? He says that the result would be the exemption of Catholics from military service, because Catholics would question the nature of the American military, and the way in which the military wages war. They would object to the use of nuclear weapons, even as a deterrent; and they would object to bombing runs which kill civilians. They would even object to having a standing army, because “[t]he very fact of our standing army means too often such discussion [on when to go to war] is relegated to politicians who manipulate the media to legitimate what they were going to do anyway.”

He also asks us to “[i]magine Catholics, adhering closely to just war theory, insisting that war is not about killing but only incapacitating the enemy.” Imagine Catholics deciding “[t]hey could participate only in wars designed to take prisoners and then, if that is not a possibility, only to wound. Killing the enemy is a last resort” for them. If Catholics decided to make just war theory an important part of their religious life, then would they be fit for military service? Wouldn’t they pose a much greater threat to the military way of life than gays?

And, to Hauerwas, Catholics are not the only Christians whose lives should threaten the military ethic. In fact, all Christians ought to live in such a way that their lives are incompatible with, and threatening to, the prevailing ethic of our military culture. After all, “Christians are asked to pray for their enemy.” Could a soldier “really trust people in [their] unit who think that the enemy’s life is as valid as their fellow soldier?” Could someone who views all life as a gift from God, and all people as (at least potentially) children of God, really be effective at the kind of wars waged by the United States? Such wars require the dehumanization of the enemy. Such wars require even the acceptance of some civilian casualties as inevitable.

So, the first reason why Hauerwas refuses to, in the context of this essay, consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts is because the military is, itself, so immoral. Christian ought to, on moral grounds, be exempt from military service; and, as long as they are not, and as long as gays are, “it seems clear... that gays, as a group, are morally superior to Christians.”

The second reason why I think Hauerwas refused, here, to consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts, is a more subtle one which is not overtly contained in the text, though some passages hint at it. It has to do with the way that he views Christian ethics, and who is bound to Christian ethics. Evangelical Christians, particularly in today’s culture, tend to want to turn America into an ethically Christian culture; at least in the sense that all Americans should be bound to uphold a Christian sexual ethic. But, given that in a number of important and non-sexual ways (such as the military) American culture is totally incompatible with Hauerwas’s understanding of the Christian ethic; such a goal (to conform America to a Christian sexual ethic) seems ill conceived and totally impossible.

I suspect that Hauerwas would say that the goal of evangelical Christians in America ought not to be to conform American culture to a Christian ethic, but instead ought to be to convert individual Americans into Christians. Then, and only then, will they, as Christians, be bound to uphold a Christian ethic, and such an ethic would contrast with American culture in many more important areas than sex. As it is, evangelicals are getting it backwards. They are trying to change society as a whole, forcing their ethic onto people who are not bound to that ethic. Such acts, rather than encouraging those people to convert to their kind of religion, actually serve as a deterrent, turning them off to the evangelical expression of Christianity.

While the essay in question was written in 1993 to address the issue of gays in the military, the ideas contained in it and drawn from it are particularly helpful in the wake of the 2004 election, in which 11 states passed referendums on amending their constitutions to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Hauerwas writes, “Gay men and lesbians are being made to pay the price of our society’s moral incoherence not only about sex, but about most of our moral convictions. As a society, we have no general agreement about what constitutes marriage and/or what goods marriage ought to serve. We allegedly live in a monogamous culture, but in fact we are at best serially polygamous. We are confused about sex, why and with whom we have it, and about our reasons for having children.”

All of these moral confusions create an environment in which we, wishing to establish a firm moral line, come down on people who are different from us. “[T]he moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.” And, of course, the one thing on which we are sure is the one area in which we are not tempted. Christians so often wish to be told that homosexuality is wrong so that they can overlook the ways in which they sexually misbehave. They claim that homosexuality poses a threat to marriage to overlook the more obvious threats to heterosexual marriage; heterosexual sexual misconduct.

As quoted earlier, “people who are in their convictions and practices are not so easily threatened by the prospects of a marginal group acquiring legitimacy.” This quote, of course, was intended to apply to gays serving in the military, but it certainly also applies to the prospect of gay marriage. Legitimizing marginal groups does not threaten those who are secure. Secure heterosexuals who adhere to a morally coherent heterosexual sexual ethic and who live in secure marriages should not be personally threatened by the prospect of allowing persons of the same sex to marry each other. This statement does not depend on the moral value of homosexual sexual acts.

And so, in an essay which concerns issues of import to gays, Hauerwas does not include any statements on the morality or ethics of the homosexual lifestyle. Why? Because, presumably, his audience does not primarily include gays. It primarily includes heterosexual evangelical Christians who use gays and lesbians as a scapegoat for the problems contained within their own heterosexual marriages. It primarily includes heterosexual evangelical Christians who love using the issue of homosexuality to make themselves feel better about their own sexual deviance. As long as they have gays and lesbians to point to and to blame for their own problems, they don’t have to face up to the role that they have played in undermining the sexual morality in their society and in their church. As long as they have gays and lesbians to point to and blame for their martial problems, they don’t have to own up to their own role in the so-called “decay of marriage and traditional families.”

Secure, married, heterosexual Christian couples know that the state and health of their marriage does not depend on whether or not gays, as a group, are legitimized by either being allowed to get married, or by, as a group, being allowed to serve in the military. They know that the state and health of their marriage depends entirely on their own actions and attitudes. And so, to introduce a discussion on the moral value of homosexual sexual actions would be to distract from the main point of Hauerwas’s essay, which serves as a form of moral and ethical instruction to Christians who already have their own opinions on homosexuality, and use those opinions as a means by which to ignore the ways in which they fail to live up to the ethical standards of their own religion.

2 comments:

crystal said...

Secure, married, heterosexual Christian couples know that the state and health of their marriage does not depend on whether or not gays, as a group, are legitimized by either being allowed to get married, or by, as a group, being allowed to serve in the military.

You won't be surprised to hear I agree.

This reminds me of a science fiction book by joe Haldeman - The Forever War ... in the far future, society has become mainly same-sex oriented, as well as racially homogenized (kind of polynesian), and the hero, one of the few perverts (heterosexual) left from the decadent past after a lot of time-warp stuff, is in the military ... gives one some perspective on our feelings about homosexuality and the military :-)

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

This was one of my favorite Hauerwas essays. Another was a Mother's Day Sermon called "Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace." It was, of course, a commentary on Jesus' saying that no one who fails to hate father, mother, etc. can be His disciple.