FEATURED: LIVING GENTLY IN A VIOLENT WORLD by Hauerwas / Vanier [Vol. 2, #1]

January 2, 2009

 

“Christ’s Way of Peace
Manifested in our Weakness”

A Review of
Living Gently in a Violent World:
The Prophetic Witness of Weakness.

by
Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier.

 

By Chris Smith.

 

Living Gently in a Violent World:
The Prophetic Witness of Weakness.

Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2008.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $12 ] [ Amazon ]

 


Since this past summer, when I first got word of this book, I have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to dig into it.  Not only is it written by two of the most important figures in Christian thought today, it also is the first book in the series “Resources for Reconciliation” from IVP Books and Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation.   And this little book did not disappoint, offering a brief but compelling argument for the place of weakness in the life of the Church.

            Living Gently is primarily a book about the L’Arche communities, which Vanier founded in the mid-1960’s, and the witness that these communities offer to the wider church.  For those who are unfamiliar with L’Arche,  these communities are comprised of people with and without severe disabilities, who share life together and learn and grow together.  Indeed, L’Arche provides a fertile context in which to think about our calling to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation.  Both Hauerwas and Vanier have spent many years reflecting on the place of disability and weakness in the church community, albeit in different contexts: Vanier within L’Arche and Hauerwas within the academic community.  Those who may have discovered Hauerwas’ writings in the last decade, may not be familiar with his earlier works on medical ethics and the Church, in which he frequently explores the role of disability and suffering.

            There are four essays in Living Gently, two by Vanier and two by Hauerwas, as well as an introduction and concluding essay by John Swinton that frame the Vanier/Hauerwas conversation nicely.  In the book’s first essay, Vanier describes the vision for the L’Arche communities, which he characterizes with the images of “fragility” and “the friendship of God.”  Vanier here names three practices that are essential to the vitality of L’Arche: eating together, praying together and celebrating together (i.e., laughing, fooling around and having fun).  He concludes by sharing the primary theological insight that he has learned through his experience with the L’Arche communities: “To become a friend of Jesus is to become a friend of the excluded.  As we learn to be a friend of the excluded, we enter into this amazing relationship that is friendship with God” (41).

 

            In the book’s second essay, Hauerwas reflects on the significance of L’Arche and, in particular, its rootedness in local communities and its counter-cultural mission to care for the disabled rather than trying to cure them (or institutionalize and depersonalize them).  He goes on to emphasize that L’Arche is not the Church and that its members should participate in church communities – for their own sanity as well as to bear witness to of L’Arche’s work to the larger family of God.  He describes this sort of witness by likening L’Arche to a canary in a coalmine: “By watching L’Arche we know when we face the ‘culture of death’” (56).

            Vanier’s second essay draws on a theme that pervades all of his writing – the fragility of our human condition, which is characterized by our weakness and the prevalence of fear in our lives.  He says here that people with disabilities teach us to live with our own fears and weakness and thereby lead us to God.  Furthermore, they remind us of our own need for others.  Hauerwas’ essay “The Politics of Gentleness” is the fourth and final one in this collection.  He examines the politics of modernity, which on one hand maintains that the disabled should be cared for, and yet on the other hand, can offer no compelling reason for so doing.  Thus, Hauerwas maintains that the politics of gentleness embodied by L’Arche is at odds with the liberal, modern politics of the broader culture.  L’Arche is therefore a witness of a contrast society, which points to the way of Jesus in which the walls of fear have been broken down and peace between persons – and indeed all creation – has been restored.

            Living Gently thus concludes with John Swinton’s brief essay which describes L’Arche as a peace movement.  Indeed, I believe that the peace that Jean Vanier and L’Arche bear witness to is one that goes much deeper than simply abolishing war.  Swinton concludes his essay:

L’Arche lays down a marker in the fabric of time, a marker reminding us that in Jesus, time has been redeemed for practices of peace.  Its presence reminds us that Christianity is not a theory but a practice.  To believe in Christianity, we need not only to know about God; we need to see God, to feel God and to love God in all things and at all times.  That is our peace, our shalom.  Peace follows the shape of the gospel; it needs to be seen to be believed.  L’Arche helps us to begin to see what peace looks like (104-105).

 

            This book is an important one for the Church, as it points to the example of L’Arche, as a witness to Christ’s gentle way of love and peace, and urges us to reflect upon L’Arche’s calling to share life in community with the disabled.  There were however, two minor shortcomings that could have made this an even better book.  First, I wish that the introduction would have included a fuller depiction of what L’Arche is and how life unfolds in these communities.  Had I not been quite familiar with L’Arche, I fear that the first couple of essays would have been hard to follow without a more detailed description of L’Arche.  Secondly, Hauerwas’s final essay was too short and choppy; his argument would have been much easier to follow it had been fleshed out more.  Despite these issues, Living Gently is an important book for our churches to read and reflect upon, and I pray that it would lead us to more compassion toward those people that society rejects and toward a community that is marked by the peace of Christ and by joyous celebration of the hope that we have through his death and resurrection.