Living Gently in a Violent World

The Prophetic Witness of Weakness

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Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , July
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jean Vanier has spent decades living with people with disabilities. Through his friend Father Thomas Philippe, Vanier left a position as a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College in Toronto to start the first L’Arche home in Trosly-Breuil, France in 1964. L’Arche has welcomed people who have often been excluded, including those with disabilities, the residents, and even those who come to live with them, the assistants. Vanier says, “many have come to our communities to be with people with disabilities, and they are transformed by their relationships” (21). 

Vanier says that he was once told by Anglican theologian David Ford, “in L’Arche you have a wonderful spirituality, but if you don’t have a good theology, this spirituality will peter out” (21). In 2006, Vanier came to speak at a conference organized by the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability at the University of Aberdeen alongside Stanley Hauerwas, where the two reflected together on disability and theology. Vanier hopes that his dialogue with Hauerwas will help strengthen the theological foundations of L’Arche. The lectures given were then turned into this book, which was originally published in InterVarsity Press’s (IVP) Resources for Reconciliation series in 2008. IVP has reissued it as a standalone volume that includes a study guide for individuals or groups.

Vanier and Hauerwas each contribute two chapters. Vanier says that while he initially invited Raphael and Philippe to live with him in order to help them, he came to realize that they cared for him as well. Drawing upon the gospels and other biblical texts, he challenges the church to not only want to do good things for the poor and excluded in our midst, but to come and see their holiness and join together in community with them. He says, “I’m not interested in doing a good job. I am interested in an ecclesial vision for community and in living in a gospel-based community with people with disabilities. We are brothers and sisters together, and Jesus is calling us from a pyramidal society to become a body” (35). He speaks of friendship, with God and with one another, and of the gentleness needed to care for people. This requires people, in a world full of violence, to acknowledge their vulnerability and weakness. Drawing on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12, Vanier says that “people who are the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church. I have never seen this as the first line of a book on ecclesiology” (74).

In his essays, Hauerwas asks, “what does L’Arche have to say to the church?” (43). He argues that L’Arche teaches the church to slow down; it teaches that “patience is absolutely crucial if we are to learn to be faithful people in our world” (45). Patience is needed in caring for those with disabilities, and it also takes patience to make peace. Second, Hauerwas says that L’Arche teaches people about place, about familiarity and faithfulness to one another in community. This emphasis in L’Arche upon patience and place runs counter to the modern emphasis upon technology, speed, and placelessness. Just as Hauerwas argues that Christians are not called to nonviolence in order to rid the world of war but to be a sign of an alternative way of living, Hauerwas notes that L’Arche does not pretend to be the solution, but a sign, a witness, to the world of a “a different way of living in time” (45). Hauerwas shows that the gentleness of L’Arche provides a challenge to liberal political theory, for its account of freedom and justice has difficulty accounting for those with disabilities.

In addition to saying that L’Arche has something to say to the church, Hauerwas also argues that L’Arche needs the church. He calls L’Arche to recognize that while they have a deep communal life, this does not mean that “they don’t need to worship God with other Christians who are not at L’Arche” (57). He says, “L’Arche needs the wider church because its members need to leave L’Arche to worship God elsewhere, in another place, with all the time and bother that may require” (57–58).

John Swinton introduces and concludes the volume. Swinton notes common responses to individuals with disability within the church and liberal societies. While Christians sometimes respond to disability by asking theodical questions and liberal societies often argue it is better to abort babies with disabilities rather than allow them to suffer, Swinton talks about Dianne, a woman with Down’s syndrome, who “renarrates cultural and theological myths, and reframes her disability in the light of the truth that God loves her just as she is” (14). He says, “both Vanier and Hauerwas note that honoring such a God requires us to recognize the fundamental gospel principle that the weakest and least presentable people are indispensable to the church (1 Corinthians 12:22)” (16). Swinton says that we need exemplars to show us what it would look like to “live with” rather than “do for” people with disabilities, and he agrees with Hauerwas that L’Arche is such an exemplar.

While Aristotle assumes that genuine friendships—friendships of virtue—can only consist between equals, L’Arche witnesses to a different model of friendship, one in which we do not invite people over for dinner so that they will reciprocate, but instead “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13–14).

This volume provides invaluable resources not only for communities like L’Arche, but for churches. It demonstrates that individuals with disabilities should not be treated as a problem to be solved or as a group of people to do things for, but the importance of living life alongside people with disabilities and allowing them to use their gifts to enrich the lives of others.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun C. Brown is a doctoral candidate in Theological Studies at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, Duke University. He was named "America's best theologian" by Time in 2001 and has written consistently about the theological significance of disability.

Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities experience life together as fellow human beings who share a mutuality of care and need. Today over 147 L'Arche communities exist in thirty-five countries on five continents. Vanier's books include Life's Great QuestionsCommunity and Growth, Becoming Human, From Brokenness to Community, and Befriending the Stranger. He won the Templeton Prize in 2015.


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