Trevor George Hunsberger Bechtel

The Conrad Grebel Review 27, no. 1 (Winter 2009)

Chris K. Huebner. A Precarious Peace. Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2006.

One realizes quickly upon reading A Precarious Peace that a desire for a solid thesis argued with clean, crisp, logical warrants and brought “together into some final programmatic statement of a position” (29) will be entirely frustrated. No last word can be given because words and positions, no less than politics and power, are precarious for those in the Christian community (58).

The precariousness that Chris K. Huebner places at the center of his Yoderian study of Mennonite theology, knowledge, and identity decenters any attempt to offer a last word. This is a book whose project is “disestablishing, disowning, dislocating” (23) without reconstructing its subject theoretically. As such there is no argument that Huebner could be criticized for not showing adequately. He has promised not to provide an account of what peace is, and no one account of peace is given here. Instead, in a random sampling, there are stories about Alzheimer’s, Atom Egoyan’s films, friendship, speed, and Zizek.

The argument – or, as Huebner says, “common theme” (30) – is simply that peace is characterized by being precarious. For peace to be anything else would require a coercive intervention. Peace comes to us as a gift, given by Christ, and like all gifts it is both radically ours and out of our control.

While the political and ecclesiological ramifications of Yoder’s vision have been noticed, applied, and extended in various contexts, the epistemological questions that his investigations suggest have drawn less attention. This is what Huebner is about in this volume. I particularly like the description of his approach: “Let us group this collection of impulses together under the heading of standard epistemology.… What follows … is a series of gestures toward a counter-epistemology that arises from the church’s confession that Christ is the truth. Here truth will appear to be unsettled rather than settled.… It arises from an excessive economy of gift, and thus it exists as a seemingly unnecessary and unwarranted donation” (133-34).

This language of gift gives much of Huebner’s discussion a “spatial” feel. To elaborate his conception of peace he invokes words like diaspora, settled, patience, gesture, scattered, speed, or territory. I am strongly impressed by how Huebner is able to move, and to move me, in space and time throughout this book. The discussion has an embodiedness missing from much of the theological endeavor.

The book’s biggest strength is the reworking of our perceptions, actions, emotions, and disposition towards precariousness. I teach Christian ethics at a small Mennonite liberal arts institution to students who are mostly not convinced pacifists in either action or epistemology. I find this an enormously difficult and somewhat stressful task. This is not surprising, because many of them are just beginning their education in the ethos of Christian community. While reading this book I noticed that in class my statements were clearer, my mode of engagement more patient and less anxious, and my answers more characterized by the open-endedness that characterizes the gift.

Huebner has written a course of therapy for those who believe in peace that will, if we let it, deepen our engagement with peace, make us more comfortable with its precariousness, and orient us towards the Christ who gives us this peace. Huebner skillfully calls into question our assumptions. Some debates evaporate under his critique, as in a chapter on Milbank and Barth called “Can a Gift be Commanded?” Others condense as the author brings together questions not typically asked at the same time, as in a chapter where he employs contemporary philosophers and cultural critics to show how martyrdom shapes the gift of peace.

I close with questions offered in response to a quotation at the end of a wonderful chapter on [Paul] Virilo and Yoder: “But because this good news involves a breaking of the cycle of violence that includes the renunciation of logistical effectiveness and possessive sovereignty, it can only be offered as a gift whose reception cannot be guaranteed or enforced” (130, emphasis mine). Here Huebner seems to want to guarantee a certain shape to peace. But if peace is always precarious, is it also true that only peace is precarious? Isn’t there also precariousness to the exercise of power, the attempt to govern, or the attempt to communicate in the language of culture and not only gospel? Can we not recognize peace and precariousness even when they occur (miraculously) in spite of force, clumsy intervention, or misguided attempts to control? Or must peace, in order to remain precarious, guard against alliances threatening that precariousness?

At points Huebner eagerly recognizes that those practicing peace are also always implicated in the violent exercise of power (see chapters 8 and 12). But at other points the shape of the peace he avers seems overdetermined by the demand of precariousness. Isn’t a truly precarious peace also willing to explore the possibility of remaining settled, existing in a happy exchange, or flourishing for a moment in effectiveness?

Trevor George Hunsberger Bechtel, Religion Department, Bluffton University, Bluffton, OH