The Table Video

Stanley Hauerwas

Social Practices of Ignoring and Acknowledging Suffering

Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School
June 2, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas describes and critiques prevailing responses to suffering and injustice, and outlines several real challenges that face America in particular.


There’s this sense of wanting to avoid suffering, deal with it by casting it out of our lives, and we exert some kind of control, to become more comfortable and to avoid it entirely. That often means marginalizing or shifting scenes of suffering off to the side-lines, turning a blind eye. I wonder if you’d comment on our social practices of ignoring injustice, ignoring suffering, for the sake of our own complacency and comfort.

Well, I think suffering has become an anomaly in America, that we assume, always legitimates trying to get rid of it. And that turns out to be a formula for death and killing. People, if you take, for example, the use of amniocenteses to discover if a child is Down Syndrome or not.

People assume if the child is Down Syndrome you ought to abort the child in order to spare the child suffering. Look, if that is the reason that you think a Down Syndrome child should be aborted you would abort any child because life is going to be filled with suffering.


We are finite creatures that suffer illness, death and one another. So, I think, the general justification for that is done in the name of compassion to stop people from undergoing suffering is a very dangerous development in America. It puts the medical establishment in a real crisis because most the time, most of what we endure, that you suffer, you’re not gonna get much better. What physicians do is teach you how to go on in the face of suffering.

I mean it’s very interesting, I mean as an old guy, think about how increasing like, people are beginning to think of aging as an illness, that you want to do something about, to overcome. Well that’s extraordinarily dangerous. I say in a hundred years, if Christians are people identified as those who do not kill their children or their elderly, we will have been doing something right. I mean that’s a big deal.


Because I think in the name of compassion we’re living in a social order that will increasingly not know what to do with those born dying.

Right. So here’s a quote. “A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself “cannot avoid the creation of a people “whose souls are superficial and whose daily life “is captured by sentimentalities. “They will ask questions like, Why does a good God “let bad things happen to good people?”

Right, I always wonder how could that question have been asked by a Jew? I mean have you read the Psalms? [laughs] The Psalms are absolutely, I kept the law, it’s my delight, my friends have betrayed me, my enemies mock me, my life is absolute shambles but you are God, [laughs] but you are God. And that means everything that you are God. So the idea, that somehow or the other, our lives are meant to be free of suffering just doesn’t make much sense.

And, of course, one of the things, that people are very hesitant to do is talk about their relationship between sin and suffering. And that we are embedded in sinful practices and hardly notice it, I mean, it’s certainly an occasion of a great deal of our suffering. And as you suggested earlier, that the kinds of injustice we perpetrate on one another that creates suffering is, of course, just horrendous and that needs to be named. I think one of them, one of the great challenges before America, is how do you acknowledge what was done was so wrong, there’s nothing you can do to make it right? And I’m speaking of slavery.

The African American community in America represents the history of a suffering that cannot be made right. But it must be acknowledged as what we, as a people, must come to terms in a manner that says, I mean what we’re trying to do is say, “Oh, African Americans can move to the suburbs, “have two cars, three TV’s and worry about Jews moving in.” So what’s a little bit of slavery between friends. So it wasn’t that serious, it was that serious.


And so how to come to terms with that as a social order I think, remains a deep challenge. And then you combine that with the genocide against the Native American and the kind of suffering that they’ve had to undergo, I mean, those are acknowledgements that have to be made part of your common story.

These things can’t be repaired.

Can’t be repaired.

So, in the process of acknowledging, what vices stand in the way and what can we do to get closer to a starting point? For understanding that reparation or repair is it possible?

I think vices that stand in the way is lack of candid speech. I think that Americans are people who do not want to know truth, in it’s deep straightforward form. And how the lies grip us, is an on-going challenge that I think leaves us with a politics which is often quite horrendous.

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