Living Gently in a Violent World, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
Summary: Essays by the two authors reflecting on the practice of gentleness in the L’Arche communities where assistants and the disabled live in community, and the theological and political significance of this witness in a violent world.
Stanley Hauerwas has been named “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine, known for his advocacy that the church embody its social ethic, that it be itself, in its communal life, and for his critique of liberal democracy, capitalism, and militarism, and the church’s often unthinking endorsement and adoption of these ideologies. Jean Vanier, deceased in 2019, was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities where helpers and the disabled live and share life together in “houses” or communities. Until 2006, they had never met, although Hauerwas had commended the work of L’Arche. They were invited to a conference by the Center for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, where they spent two days conversing and speaking. This book, recently reissued in an expanded edition with study guide, reflects those conversations.
Other than introductory and concluding essays by John Swinton, this book consists of four alternating essays by Vanier and Hauerwas. The first, by Vanier is a narrative of the beginnings and development of L’Arche. Drawn by the work of Father Thomas Philippe with the disabled in France, he moved there, began to live with two disabled men who had been institutionalized, and soon found himself leading the community. He describes L’Arche as fragile, subject to government regulations and the question of whether people will always choose to live with them. He also describes L’Arche as a place of transformation, both for assistants and the disabled, transformations that reflect the mystery of the Spirit’s work. He describes three crucial activities in their community, all requiring gentleness and patience: meals together, prayer and communion, and celebration of everything from birthdays and holidays to deaths of members. The message in all of this is, “You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community.”
Hauerwas responds by discussing how L’Arche is a “modest proposal” in a violent world that is a witness to the church of its call to gentleness and non-violence. It is a witness of care for those who cannot be cured, of patience in a particular place. For this reason, Hauerwas also believes that L’Arche needs the church as a reminder that they need to worship with the larger body that is not L’Arche. It is not only as a witness to the church, amplified through the church, but also support and sustenance from the church that makes its life possible.
Vanier then writes of L’Arche as a place that in a small way addresses the woundedness of the world by recognizing in weakness and wounds a way to God. He speaks of the connection of fear and violence, and the power of surrendering our fears to love–the love of God and the present love of the community, both the abled and the disabled. Grieving the sentiment that would abort all those with Down syndrome and the message that leaves the disabled feeling, “I am no good” Vanier writes:
“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).
Hauerwas’s concluding essay explores the politics of gentleness in an extended engagement with the thought of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, both who labored to articulate a rationale for the rights of the disabled to help. He summarizes how L’Arche went beyond this:
“Nussbaum wants to give Jean justifications for helping the disabled. What she can’t do is give him a reason to live with them. But that is exactly what Jean says he needed. He had to be taught how to be gentle. It is not easy to learn to be gentle with the mentally disabled. As Jean has already said, they also suffer from the wound of loneliness. They can ask for too much. Which means gentleness requires the slow and patient work necessary to create trust. Crucial for the development of trust is that assistants in L’Arche discover the darkness, brokenness, and selfishness shaped by their own loneliness…. According to Jean, through the struggle to discover we are wounded like the mentally disabled, we discover how much ‘we need Jesus and his Paraclete…” (p. 90).
There is a gentleness that flows out of this awareness before God of our mutual weakness, exemplified in the practice of mutually washing one another’s feet, transformative to assistants and disabled alike, that is a witness in a violent world.
This slim volume is an extraordinary testament, a witness as it were, to the power of gentleness that flows from weakness, both in its description of the quiet wonder taking place within L’Arche, and the record of the conversation between Vanier and Hauerwas, as they opened minds and hearts to each other to explore the significance of the “modest proposal” that is L’Arche in an impatient and violent world.