What should we think, feel, and do about human weakness? Jean Vanier shows us what we should do: live in community. Stanley Hauerwas tells us what we should think about: the peace that is found and experienced within these communities. Both start with the mentally handicapped as an example of weakness, while acknowledging that in some way each of us is weak. The brief reflections of these two important theologians are the result of a two day conference held in Scotland at the Centre for “Spirituality, Health and Disability." The book is the reproduction of the talks given by each of these men. Vanier spoke on the “Fragility of L’Arche and the Friendship of God” and “The Vision of Jesus: Living Peaceably in a Wounded World.” Hauerwas’ talks were “Finding God in Strange Places: Why L’Arche Needs the Church” and “The Politics of Gentleness.” The book is in “The Resources for Reconciliation Book Series” out of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation.
L’Arche’s charter says that “"In a divided world, l'Arche wants to be a sign of hope. Its communities, founded on covenant relationships between people of differing intellectual capacity, social origin, religion and culture, seek to be signs of unity, faithfulness and reconciliation." The sign of hope, Vanier claims, is found in the transformations that occur among those in the communities. The means of transformation are eating around the same table, praying together, and celebrating together. Celebration means laughing together, fooling around, and having fun. All of these essentials come to play in celebrating birthdays, deaths, holidays, and, as Vanier says, finding any other excuse to celebrate. These transforming communities are signs of hope that each of us outside these communities will discover an equally transforming community to share and heal our weakness. Such a discovery will occur when we accept each person as important for who they are – not as they will be; not as some untainted soul; not as an awesome presence of God. But as they are: weak and in pain – seen as strange by the mainstream. In L’Arche, that usually means many of the weak will have severe intellectual disabilities. It is in this community of the weak that transformation occurs both for those who are part of that community and those who recognize the sacramentality of that community. For it is a sacrament of peace.
Stanley Hauerwas witnesses this sacrament and analyses it. He sees patience, hope, process, time, and trust. The patience is needed because peace is conflictual. Hope is a reality because peace takes time. Trust is necessary because this community lives balanced on the mutual trust each member has in the other and in the God that enlivens them all. All of what he sees in the L’Arche community is bound together in the politics of gentleness – that mutual service and sacrifice that says “I am happy to be with you.” A just society must function as these communities do with their gentleness. So many times, says Hauerwas, we conceptualize a just society as one of human beings with no hurt, no weakness, no pain. As a concept this may be possible but as a real human society it is impossible because we, as those in L’Arche, are weak, painful, and frightened. It is only when we realize that justice is more than a contract between people. It is a habit of care that arises out of a network of trusting relationships bound by a politic of gentleness. This habit results in a community within which each acts for the good of the other. Out of this network comes the realization that my life and your life are all gift. In this network the weak are equally honored with all who live in it: a prophetic witness to weakness and a sacrament of peace.
The book is worth reading. The chapters are written in such a way that one can almost hear each of the presenters. In times like these we all need examples of success. Certainly both authors point to what we need to bring about a better world.