In Memory of Jean Vanier
Author: Simon Duffy
We were very sad to hear of the death of one of the greatest champions of love, justice and equality of the 20th century: Jean Vanier.
Jean Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche movement, one of the earliest efforts to overcome institutionalisation, and he was a profound thinker on disability and the human condition.
Jean Vanier's official site is at:
L'Arche are hosting a site in tribute to Jean Vanier here:
I was lucky enough to hear Jean Vanier speak on two occasions, both of which were extremely thought-provoking, and at the time I put down some of my reflections in my personal blog. I have now rewritten those earlier thoughts and I’ve added some thoughts about the meaning of Vanier's life and the future of our movement.
The strong need the weak
The first time I heard Vanier was in an upstairs room in Parliament. He was joined on the platform by Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby. The title of the talk was Living together for the common good: why do the strong need the weak? and the event was sponsored by Together for the Common Good - an ecumenical movement to advance social justice.
However Vanier’s starting point was not ‘What makes us strong?’ instead he asks ‘What makes us human?'
He reflected on the Enlightenment account of humanity, with its ideal of the rational, competent and goal-achieving human. This ideal is central to modern thinking about the self, morality and politics – it is the all-important ‘rational I’ at the heart of the neoliberal dream and our current nightmares. And Vanier observed how self-defeating this ideal can become. The more an individual advances, the more he must leave others behind; the more we worship such individual striving, the more we condemn ourselves to the void. We think we are building, but all the time we are simply destroying.
Instead, for Vanier, we must begin with acceptance and love as St Paul understands it:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
For me this was one of the most memorable points in the evening, where Vanier – using a text that is so often rushed – points out that what comes first is patience. The modern view of love so often misses this point – it slips into that dangerous Enlightenment mode where all the focus is on what we do in the name of love. Love becomes another badge that we try to award ourselves.
We strive to do, to change, to improve – yet so often we fail to just be with each other, to meet each other and to accept each other.
Movingly, Vanier told the story of a male prostitute in Australia, who, dying in the arms of a member of L’Arche, said:
“You’ve always wanted to change me; but you’ve never met me.”
In the process of fixing others we lose sight of our very humanity – our essential fragility, our need for love, for belonging and contribution. Humanism becomes inhuman.
This reminded me of my first experience of people with learning disabilities, in an institution in the south of England. The buildings and the behaviour of the staff, struck me with horror; but the most important experience for me was that it offered me a different way of being human. I was a highly competitive young man, with some modest academic abilities, and a raging desire to work, to achieve and to win. Yet, here were people who had been taken out of that rat race, and yet were still fully human. Here was goodness, calmness, dignity, care, curiosity, play, challenge, suffering, and fear. Here were people who were certainly different, but wonderfully so.
For me this experience challenged my notion of who I was and what was the purpose of my life. However, paradoxically, it also turned into a mission which, for better or worse, has driven most of my decisions over the last 30 years. So I worked to help people leave institutions, take control of their lives, make friends, contribute to community – to become full citizens. It became a project – and in the light of Vanier’s critique - I can see that a project like that is also full of dangers. It can lead one into feelings of self-importance and it can tempts one to see others as the means by which your goals can be achieved - even if those goals seem noble.
Vainer’s approach is different. As he put it, the mission of L’Arche is less about what it achieves (although it achieves a lot) but more about the message that is inherent in its way of being – that we must meet together as fellow humans. For in the meeting of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ each are transformed. The weak may be supported, but the strong also get the chance to find out what really matters and who they really are.
In his Commentary on the Gospel of St John Vanier writes:
“Frequently it is only when those who are powerful experience failure, sickness, weakness or loneliness that they discover they are not self-sufficient and all-powerful, and that they need God and others. Out of their weakness and poverty they can then cry out to God and discover God in a new way as the God of love and tenderness, full of compassion and goodness.
“I must say that for myself it has been a transformation to be in L’Arche. When I founded L’Arche it was to ‘be good’ and to ‘do good’ to people with disabilities. I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me! A bishop once told me: “You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: up until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor. You are saying that the poor are doing good to you!” The people we are healing are in fact healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love and awaken within us what is most precious: compassion.”
In fact nobody is really ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. Instead the desire to be amongst the strong, and to avoid the weak, is just a symptom of society’s failure to welcome all and to comprehend the true value of each individual. We are like little kids, wanting to be picked for the team that we think will win – and so we allow ourselves to be judged by the wrong values. We even score ourselves by these distorted values – forgetting what is really important to us, focusing instead on what is important to ‘them’.
The discussion after Vanier’s talk was also fascinating – less for its content, more for the tensions and paradoxes it revealed.
The setting was important. We were tucked away in a corner of the Houses of Parliament, surrounded by images of splendour and power. The room was packed with famous faces – journalists, Lords, politicians and others from amongst the powerful. The discussion was led by Sarah Montague – of Radio 4’s famously combative and Westminster-centric Today Programme – who, revealingly, said she thought she knew most of the people in the room (although she certainly didn’t know me, and I met one Lord who didn’t know her). In other words, we were in the home of the strong.
Montague then endeavoured, with minimal success, to play devil’s advocate and to encourage a lively discussion in the normal style. However the Philosopher, Cardinal and Archbishop all refused to play along. Instead they reflected on the need for time, discussion and humility in the political process.
Vanier refused to play ‘political advisor’ or ‘social policy expert’ and in this refusal he lived his principles. Yet for Montague, and I think for some others in this room, this seemed deeply disappointing and frustrating. They wanted answers, solutions and policies. They were the strong, and they wanted something to give them more strength – whether it was food they could consume (the latest good idea) or at least a good argument, a test of their intellectual muscles.
For modern politics demands that the powerful are constantly mindful of their appearance in the media and they must, at all times, maintain the illusion that they are competent to solve any problem. They are caught in an impossible trap – for they must present themselves as the answer to any question we might ask. They are the folk who must stand atop the crazy pinnacle of the world that Vanier wants us to reject: a world where we can only advance by standing on the backs of the other people.
It is important to note that Vanier is not attacking government, the powerful, professional experts or policy-makers. He is not saying they are wrong, stupid or evil. Instead he is acting out the very issue he wants people to understand: we must meet each other; we do not need to use each other. The world is not a puzzle to be solved. We must live and act with integrity and love. We cannot hope to be the answer to every question. We must be true to our own gifts and find the role that is right for us.
If I had one frustration in all of this it was simply that it was so hard to challenge the rather strange assumption in the home of the powerful that that it was they – the powerful – who could be trusted to act in the best interests of the weak.
Does it makes sense to assume the abuser will reform himself?
There is a revolution going on
The second time I listened to Jean Vanier was when he received the Templeton Prize – at St Martins in the Fields on Trafalgar Square:
His acceptance speech was powerful and began with this rallying cry:
“There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.”
Again the context was so interesting. This tiny and frail individual was standing amidst the powerful, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, and overturning the most important value system upon which their power rests - not power, not even money, but their faith in their own superiority.
For me it was a blessing to feel the blast of his optimism. As he said, in 1945 we had Hiroshima and the uncovering of Auschwitz; and of course we don’t have to look too hard to see further ugliness. But surely he was right to claim that something of importance has happen – a new chapter did open. Not only have we begun to recognise the importance of human rights but also – slowly, all too slowly – we began the liberation of all those ‘others’ who had been trapped in institutions, deemed unworthy, by a society that had lost its moral compass.
It was a particular blessing to hear this message only a few days after a UK General Election when the worst government in 75 years – a Government that has targeted disabled people for cuts and had chosen to impoverish the poor – had been returned to power.
Vanier captured exactly the fundamental flaw in the thinking and behaviour of the powerful – they behave as if the point of life is to climb higher and higher, to even clamber up upon the backs of the weak.
But where are they going?
What will they find when they get there?
They will still be empty and alone.
What must we do about our leaders, who are lost? Well – to begin with he suggests – we must pray for them.
A powerful message for me at least – for I know my own pride is such that I like nothing better than to condemn them for their many failings. But he is right, they are lost. They know not what they do. Their cleverness is ultimately at their own expense – however many years in power they gain, however big the pile of money they amass. There is no joy in it. There is no beauty in it.
And now, as the mess of Brexit has shown us, such moments of victory quickly tumble into chaos, personal failure and shame.
Despite our current problems, I do not believe the current attack upon the human rights, the welfare state and justice will succeed. We have come too far to turn back to the hell that we’ve left behind. There are still signs of hope, amidst the growing darkness.
However I’m afraid I do not have enough faith that the powerful, on their own, can learn the necessary humility to transform themselves. I feel that those of us who are weak must organise ourselves to demonstrate that we are not irrelevant, redundant or unworthy. I remember the words of Rabbi Shmelke who said:
“The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.”
I do believe the ‘strong’ need the weak, but I also believe the weak need to find and express their strength – a strength which is greater than the strength of the strong if it is a strength founded in love, community and justice.
For myself the event also cast some light on my own dilemmas. I set up the Centre for Welfare Reform in 2009 with the goal of creating a citizen think tank to develop positive and just solutions for the problems of the welfare state. I wanted to protect and support the social innovators who were often squeezed and abused by a political system that doesn’t know how to respect the integrity of things. Yet, it has been much harder to do this than I expected.
Instead, since 2010, my work was dominated by a goal that I certainly didn’t want – to campaign against the injustice of the current UK Government. I expected others to do this – yet I’ve found that there has been no significant defence against cuts and policy changes that target and abuse disabled people – including people with learning disabilities – even though disabled people are the number one target for cuts by Government. I wanted to develop better solutions; instead I’ve found myself more often simply defending basic rights.
I think that Vanier’s challenge to the powerful is right – and his thinking and his actions maintained absolute integrity in their humility and their orientation to the actual meeting of human being. However I also feel that the ‘weak’ cannot afford to wait for the ‘strong’ to wake up to their true needs. Mental handicap ‘hospitals’, like the one I visited, and which as Vanier rightly said “crush disabled people” had to be closed. The reason they were closed was because families, disabled people and their allies came together to work and to lobby to bring about their closure. It did not happen by accident or because of some politician suddenly woke up to their injustice.
We do need to organise and to join the political process. It may be dysfunctional and confused – but unless disabled people and families are present in that process – just as they should be present at every other level of community life – then they will not be able to defend their rights or interests. The presence of people with learning disabilities within the political process may even bring some honesty and humility to that strange world.
We have also now seen how many disabled people and families are able to organise their own movements of resistance and liberation. In the Autumn of 2014 many people came together to support Learning Disability Alliance England to prepare for the 2015 General Election. In just a few months they united hundreds of people and organisations in a movement to stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. And this movement has been led by people with learning disabilities – friends like Karen Flood, Simon Cramp and Gary Bourlet who called upon different people to unite and work together. They welcomed the respectful support of families, professionals and other allies. They’ve shown how much can be achieved when we come together in community.
One of the most exciting events was the Citizen Jury event where people marked the manifesto’s of the political parties. It is true that the Conservative Party refused to attend (given their record this was not surprising); but the others who did attend, including Labour’s disability spokesperson Kate Green, engaged in an intense and respectful debate with people with learning disabilities and their families about the details of policy. Today we are capable of having real and important debates with senior politicians. The election result may not have gone the way we would have liked – but life is not always about winning and getting what you want. This development still marks another important step towards full citizenship for people with learning disabilities.
“The revolution will not be televised” sang Gil Scott Heron, but it will “put you in the driving seat.”
The revolution is work - the work of love.
Exploring the Copernican revolution
Trying to ‘do good’ can quickly be a trap – it becomes about us, our pride, our glory, our achievements – and we can quickly tire and turn to blaming others. When we’re tempted in this way, we must see how empty all of this is. We all know we must die, and all our moments of power and glory are just vanities – that quickly pass away. What abides – is love
Personally I am interested in exploring further what Vanier’s Copernican revolution might look like for the welfare state as a whole:
- How can we live together in a way that accepts and honours mutual dependency?
- How can we invite contribution and challenge from those of whom society expects too little?
- How can we live in community?
As Vanier says we need community, but real community is mucky, a little bit crazy and often quite annoying. But it is only community that can create the beauty, truth and the love we all need.
These kinds of questions demand that we reconsider many of our common assumptions about how best to organise society and the welfare state. I explored these issues in my paper Love and Welfare, which was directly inspired by reading and listening to Vanier. There are many practical and social changes that we will need to be adopted if we want a welfare system that honours the weak:
Basic income - We will need to secure everyone’s income, without relying on enforced labour, stigma and shame. We need to recognise the many different contributions people can make to community life, not force everything through the sausage machine of paid employment.
Inclusive education - Why do we teach our children that life is all about fitting into some tightly defined ladder of meritocratic values? Surely every child must be supported to discover their own gifts and find their own path in life.
Independent living - Everyone belongs and everyone can have a life of meaning and contribution. If people need extra support then this is no barrier. We need to redesign our social care system to enable people to control their own lives and their own support.
Inclusive communities - We must not force people out of communities because their income is too low, their skin colour is wrong or because they have extra needs. Communities must welcome difference and offer people homes and places - both real and virtual - where people can meet, discuss and create together.
Constitutional reform - Ultimately we need to live in democracies that enable power to be decentralised and which enable citizens and communities to take greater responsibility for shaping their own destinies, within a framework of human rights.
The social problems we face today reflect the challenges Vanier describes. Justice does not just mean establishing some neutral set of rules and rights which enable individuals to just get on with their lives; much more it means living together, valuing each other and creating a better world together.
This is the vision which inspires the work of Citizen Network and this is the work that I hope we can take forward, inspired by Vanier’s vision and wisdom.
I will end with the Benediction (blessing) which was composed by Jean Vanier’s sister Therese and which ended the award ceremony:
May oppressed people and those who oppress them, free each other.
May those who are disabled and those who think they are not, help each other.
May those who need someone to listen, touch the hearts of those who are too busy.
May the homeless bring joy to those who open their doors reluctantly.
May the lonely heal those who think they are self-sufficient.
May the poor melt the hearts of the rich.
May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love.
May prisoners find true freedom and liberate others from fear.
May those who sleep on the streets share their gentleness with those who cannot understand them.
May the hungry tear the veil from those who do not hunger after justice. May those who live without hope, cleanse the hearts of their brothers and sisters who are afraid to live.
May the weak confound the strong and save them.
May violence be overcome with compassion.
May violence be absorbed by men and women of peace.
May violence succumb to those who are totally vulnerable, that we may be healed.
The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.
In Memory of Jean Vanier © Simon Duffy 2019.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.