Stanley Hauwerwas and Jean Vanier’s Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness is the third book in the Resources for Reconciliation series put out by Inter-Varsity Press.
I was introduced to Jean Vanier about five years ago. A friend of mine handed me a copy of From Brokenness to Community, which is an edited version of Vanier’s speech at The Harvard University Divinity School Wit Lectures. As I read Vanier’s story of leaving what he thought he knew and the academic life, changing his life’s trajectory and engaging in community with the mentally “handicapped” I immediately engaged with my own selfishness. Reading From Brokenness to Community pushed me into a deep examination of myself, of my brokenness and of the redemption that God provides within community – both in communion with Him and communion with others. If you have not read From Brokenness to Community, it is well worth purchasing. The book is only 50 small pages and is easily read in one sitting – although it is best read at a walker’s pace, taking in every word and nuance.
Vanier begins Living Gently in a Violent World by explaining L’Arche. The L’Arche movement is an international connection of faith-based communities centered on developing communities where people who have developmental disabilities and people who do not have these disabilities live in harmony. In 1964, Jean Vanier and his wife Pauling welcomed two men with disabilities into their home in France. What they learned and gained from that experience was the impetus for the L’Arche movement.
Vanier is humble and poignant in Living Gently in a Violent World. Vanier admits that L’Arche is still maturing and that, in some ways, is a fragile movement.
“. . . L’Arche is a fragile reality. Will it still be here in twenty years? There is always be people with disabilities, but will there always be people who want to live with them as brothers and sisters in community, in a place of belonging that helps each member, each person, grow to greater freedom?”
As I read of the challenge and returns of the L’Arche community I could not help, but think of its larger impact. L’Arche communities are diverse both between communities and within each community. Some communities are primarily Christian (although there is denominational variation), those outside of the Christian faith lead some organizations, and they exist from North America to the Middle East. However, all of these communities support the whole-person transformation of all community members. The community is not to “help” people with disabilities or even to enrich or mature those who do not have a disability. While, this surely does occur the central aspect is L’Arche is the central aspect of the Christian faith; Love.
Vanier tells rich stories about what love can do to individuals hurt by the pain of abuse; abuse, spiritual, social, and mental. L’Arche’s result is to address brokenness through the love that is found in true community. L’Arche’s uniqueness is that it highlights brokenness, not so that people wallow but so they can find redemption. It is the acknowledgement and gentle approach of community that allows society to find healing. When we are willing to recess into our own brokenness, we are able to view the holy aspects of others. We have come down off our spiritual or moral pedestals to dwell and broken people in need of healing and redemption via community and ultimately the Father.
Vanier is the prophet in Living Gently in a Violent World, while Hauwerwas is the polemicist. Hauwerwas begins by confronting the issue of time. While we are often scurrying around to find answers and to enact our own justice, we often neglect that peace (ultimately love) takes time. Violence is a shortcut to pseudo-peace, and inevitably brings us to more violence. Hauwerwas argues that peace is achieved by redemption and transformation, which inevitably takes time.
“If the time has already been redeemed by Jesus, we learn to wait on the salvation of the Lord by taking time to listen to our weakest members”
Progress pushes us towards deafening speeds that force us to continue to move closer to an ideal, which seems to get further and further away. However, speed is not the central issue. We are consumed with the purpose behind the speed, efficiency. We desire everything when we want it and how we want it. This expands beyond the golden arches (McDonalds), domain names, or radio signals. Efficiency has overwhelmed our relationships. We see the traces of this the heightening levels of divorce, the constant movement of people (i.e. the idea of a “starter house”), the institutionalization of the “mentally handicapped” etc.
Our society is suddenly lost and frustrated when remote controls do not work, when automatic gates do not close on vans, when the internet is slow, when our churches get out “late”, or when our food does not come quickly enough. This fervor for efficiency passes over people and focuses on the task. We disregard community. We go and leave church having little more than interactions of southern hospitality. We drive past our neighbors rather than getting to know them. It is not that we are inconsiderate, we are simply too busy, working too efficiently, to invest. I have been convinced that the reconciliation, the healing of a broken relationship, only comes from patience, when one is busy one does not have the intentionality to understanding their own emotion or the emotions of the “other” in order to enter into honest relationship. For Hauerwas, the human, reconciliatory ethos of L’Arche is what the Church and society needs to combat this dependency on efficiency and reform true relationships.
“Constancy of place seems to me imperative if we are to be Christians who don’t abandon one another in the name of greater goods. You cannot be constantly going and coming as an assistant in L’Arche. Core members, love routines, and routines create and are treated by familiarity. Familiarity is what makes place “a” place.”
I must admit; I was a little disappointed by Hauwerwas’ contribution. Make no mistake; Hauwerwas gives a sophisticated perspective on the L’Arche community and its prophetic voice to both the global and local contemporary church. Hauwerwas’ academic resolve is unquestioned. However, his academic prowess convolutes the wisdom of his commentary. Nevertheless, Hauwerwas’ perspective is a valuable asset to the book.
Gentleness and weakness are usually the last things we think about in our modern society. We are a society of quickness, efficiency and strength. These characteristics result in a violence that is sometimes systematically interwoven into the fabric of our society (i.e. persistence American slavery) and sometimes intentional (i.e. the beginning of persistence American slavery).
Vanier and Hauwerwas view L’Arche as a flagship to the church and hope that its expression of Christianity can embrace a gentleness of patience that will bring healing to broken people and a broken world.