This book surprised me several times, but all were wonderful surprises.
The first surprise came from a misunderstanding of the title. Living Gently in a Violent World indicated to me that it would be about some sort of pacifism. It was not. It included ideas of anti-war and anti-violence I suppose, but those were peripheral at best. Instead, this handful of essays talked about L’Arche, an international organization dedicated to help those with mental disabilities. Each author wrote two essays for a total of four chapters (not including a nice introduction and conclusion by John Swinton). Jean Vanier co-started L’Arche and the ideas in his essays are obviously greatly influenced by his personal experiences there. Stanley Hauerwas, though not lacking in experience with intellectually disabled people himself, provides more of an outsider’s view of the organization for us. The violent world referenced in the title is far more than just war and fighting. These two men have seen the incredible violent attitudes towards people with disabilities. The world seems obsessed with finding a place for everyone and everything. The problem with that, they claim, is that disabled people don’t seem to have a place. So instead of feeling like they belong in the world, the disabled are constantly told (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly) that they are burdens and that we need to rid the world of them if we want to live in a perfect world. Both authors have very negative views of abortion on the grounds that it’s telling people with disabilities (among others) that they would have been better off not being born at all. This world is violent in an effort to create peace. It is violent towards the disabled because they disrupt our ‘normality’ and we simply don’t know how they fit in our perfect little world we’re trying to construct.
The second surprise I got was how incredibly powerful this book was. I expected to enjoy it and grow from it, but I did not expect this 100 page book to bring me to tears and reevaluate how I view the poor around me.
A last surprise was how practical this book was. In the second essay, Stanley Hauerwas speaks of the great importance of patience. Patience, he says, is what L’Arche has to teach the Church. We are so focused on progress and healing our physical maladies that we forget to love the people we’re trying to cure! He says this: “We see it in medicine today; the task is not to care for patients, but to cure them. When caring turns into curing, we don’t know what to do with patients when we can’t cure them.” He says this is why we war as well. We do not have the patience to deal with the problems of the world, so we impatiently start wars in an attempt to quickly eradicate difficult issues. In the end, this impatience produces more issues and more wars. We are able find the time for reading and writing books while people are dying of hunger “not because we choose to ignore the poor, but because we believe there is a faithful and and unfaithful way to feed the poor. And it is worth our time to try to name that.” L’Arche does not offer solutions, but hope. The hope they offer is shown by “be[ing] with those Jesus taught us to be loved by — that is, those we “help” by simply being present.”
Jean Vanier talked a lot about how much he saw God in the poor he worked with. “We hide behind power… [However], when we listen to stories of terrible pain and know we can’t do anything about it, we touch our own vulnerability… In other words, people who are the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church.” These people who are told they do not belong don’t want to be cured, they want to be loved. And as we love them, we learn to find God’s strength in the weak. As we see their powerful vulnerability, we learn to push away our masks of strength and find God for ourselves.
For Jean and Stanley, we do not need to be superheroes with flashy powers to bring about peace. We simply need to show our love by doing “ordinary things with tenderness”.