Books that promise to radically change the way I see the world make me skeptical. Living Gently in a Violent World was no different, except insofar as that it actually did.
Living Gently is a release by InterVarsity Press in their ongoing series “Resources for Reconciliation,” which addresses an areas of life in need for reconciliation between theologians and practitioners on the one hand, and the Christian and ‘secular’ worlds on the other. In order to begin this process, each book is authored by an academic and a ‘field’ voice. In the case of Living Gently, the authors are Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Living Gently focuses on the way society, especially Western society, views and treats weakness, particularly the weakness within the disabled community. Vanier and Hauerwas use the L’Arche community—a network of homes in which people both with and without disabilities live together—as an example of their theology in action.
Their basic premise is this: every human person, disabled or not, carries a deep wound of loneliness. Vanier and Hauerwas say the binding for that wound can be found in healthy community, but that we cannot form those communities in our society until we learn how to see pain, disability, and weakness in a drastically new way.
For Hauerwas and Vanier, how we interact with the disabled, including the hierarchy that places them at the bottom of social pyramids, is connected to people’s varying capacity to hide their loneliness and insecurity. Those who cannot hide dependency well are considered ‘lesser’ than those who can. These pyramids result in a ‘compassion’ for the ‘lessers’ that ultimately kills them, e.g. the growing practice of aborting fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome. This occurs because hierarchy turns caring into curing, and the incurable makes us uncomfortable. Our ‘solution’ is to eradicate the source of that discomfort rather than question our social premises. Our compassion has manifested itself as a war: a silent, slippery imposition of a vision of ‘peace and prosperity’ where everyone is autonomous and whole. Pax America, anyone?
As Vanier puts it, Christian community is called to make a body out of the pyramids, and an ecumenical one at that. We are to love the disabled neither because they affirm our own ideology, nor because we will gain something by it, nor because it is ‘unjust’ that they are disabled and we can make it ‘right’. Rather, we love them because of their humanity: we see clearly in them the wound that disables us all.
Vanier and Hauerwas suggest that all people are essentially like Adam and Eve in the Garden, who knew their nakedness, were ashamed, and hid. We too know the vulnerability of our loneliness and build concealing walls of power, possessions, or feigned stability. People with disabilities are usually stripped of the ability to cower behind these facades. Thus, they become “privileged witnesses” of our fundamental cry to be loved and accepted by a physical, living community.
Vanier and Hauerwas’ book is appropriately challenging: Can we learn to ask a person with disabilities to bear their cross as a living sacrifice for us all? And after learning to love them with visible wounds, can we learn to see the universal wound of loneliness behind the masks that most of us hoist? Can we see beautiful, stitched-up humanity inherent in a community without hierarchy?
For Vanier, such a community is based on three things: eating together, praying together, and celebrating together. And at the core of such a community are relationships founded on caring for, rather than curing, one another. As Hauerwas points out, the flu can be cured while the infected ‘person’ is maintained. But we cannot cure Down’s (at least at this point in time) without destroying the person. We are instead to care. As Hauerwas puts it, “There is no triumphalism in gentleness.” There is foot washing instead. There is freedom to love the unpopular and ungreat. There is space to love a God who “does not promise things will always work out right” in this fractured world. There is creation of mutual respect and love.
Living Gently in a Violent World offers readers a vivid vision of this gentle and merciful way of life as a community of broken and still-becoming individuals. And it’s not stretching the truth to claim you will see the world differently by the last page. ‘