Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Politics of Gentleness: An Interview with L'Arche Founder Jean Vanier and Theologian Stanley Hauerwas

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Politics of Gentleness: An Interview with L'Arche Founder Jean Vanier and Theologian Stanley Hauerwas

Article excerpt


Jean Vanier, a Catholic lay leader, is the founder of L'Arche, an international network of Christian communities where people with and without disabilities share life together in a spirit of mutual dependence. Stanley, Hauerwas, an Episcopalian framed "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine, is a professor of theological ethics at Duke University. In partnership with Duke's Center for Reconciliation, Vanier and Hauerwas recently published Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (IVP, 2008). In November 2008. they sat down in Durham, North Carolina, to talk about community, justice, and the "politics of gentleness" with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Wilson-Hartgrove, who lives at Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, is author of Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line (NavPress and New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church Brazos Press).

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Jean, you were trained as a naval officer and as an academic, but you've spent most of your life now in L'Arche community. How did you end up in L'Arche?

Jean Vanier: In a way it's a very simple story. When I left the navy, I didn't quite know what I was doing. I left to follow Jesus. but how or where I didn't know. I went to live with a community in France, the founder of which I had heard about because he was a friend of nay mother. I was there and I became very close to this man, a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Philippe or Pere Thomas. He was a spiritual father to me. Even though I did a number of other things doctoral studies, teaching and such--I felt bonded to Pere Thomas. When he became the chaplain of a small institution for people with disabilities, he invited me to join him So the real reason I came and discovered people with disabilities was Pere Thomas. For me it was just an obvious movement. But it looked strange that I began something I knew nothing about. I didn't know why I was doing it, except to be close to Pere Thomas.

Wilson-Hartgrove: Why have you stayed 44 years?

Vanier: That is a good question. First of all, I think I was at a period where I didn't want to be committed to ideas but to people. Meeting people in the psychiatric hospital, I became attached to them. When I welcomed two people from an institution into my home, I knew that it was for life. You don't take people out of an institution and say, "We're going to create community together," and then in a few years just say good-bye.

But it was also the gradual discovery of something I'd never imagined that what is important is to accept people and love them as they are. Once that is done, then you grow together and help each other. So maybe the deepest thing in our humanity is that we are healed by those we reject.

Wilson-Hartgrove: You write in Living Gently in a Violent World about the gap between the so-called "'normal" world and the world of people who have been unjustly pushed to the margins. How can responding to that gap draw people into community?

Vanier: It's easier to say why the gap exists. The gap is created by fear. The gap is what pushes us to create bigger gaps. You feel lost in front of the one who is different because you don't know his language, you don't know how to respond, you don't know if you'll be accepted. Many people reject people with disabilities because they just don't know what to do. Myths are created--the disabled are dangerous or sexually perverse. So there is fear.

But what breaks down the fear? That is the big question: What creates transformation? We meet someone. St. Francis said he always held lepers in repulsion. Then one day the Lord led him to the lepers. He said, '"When I left them I had a new gentleness in my body and in my spirit. From then on, I wanted to follow the Lord." When you meet the leper and you listen to him, you realize that he's just a human being. From very deep inside of one, there arises a compassion for life. …

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