This isn’t what I intended to write.
I had it all planned out—really, I did. I was going to write about Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and Catholic layperson who founded L’Arche, an intentional community where adults with intellectual disabilities could live alongside those without disabilities. In his theory and his praxis, Vanier shaped disability theology over the course of many years. Through his ever-gentle, every-patient example, we came to understand that all human beings have a certain inherent dignity because they have been created in the image of God; we can choose to recognize this dignity or not, but we can never give it or take it away. We came to understand that all human beings are beautiful, regardless of their physical appearance or mental acuity, and that all human beings have both gifts to share and needs to be met. When he died last year at the age of 90, I grieved despite never having met him.
Knowing what I knew then of Jean Vanier, it appeared that if ever there was a good man, it was he.
Except, that last month, L’Arche International released the results of an internal inquiry into the claims of six women that Vanier had spiritually and sexually abused them over a period of thirty-five years. The inquiry substantiated the women’s claims. For those of us who have been deeply influenced by Vanier, the news was devastating—in the words of writer and activist Tanya Marlow, “gutting.” For those who knew Vanier personally, particularly for those who live in L’Arche communities, the impact is even greater, as those with intellectual disabilities and those without disabilities mourn together. And for the women directly affected by Vanier’s abuse, the pain—magnified by his apparent goodness
—must be almost unbearable.
Knowing what I know now of Jean Vanier, it would appear that if ever there was an evil man, it was he. We struggle to come to grips with the ways that such good and such evil can co-exist within the same person, and it shakes us to the core. While it may be tempting to say that Jean Vanier is just like all of us, that we all have both good and evil in our hearts, that just doesn’t cut it. After all, most of us don’t ritually abuse others sexually and then justify it using twisted theology. Yet despite this, the good fruits of the L’Arche community are undeniable.
I was going to write about the Wet’suwet’en-Crown conflict. Just a few weeks ago, we all watched as tensions rose over the installation of a pipeline in the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en nation. At stake was not only the pipeline itself but also the right to govern. Blockades were erected across the country, slowing the flow of people and of goods, and it seemed that everyone had an opinion on how the conflict should be resolved.
While the geography and the details vary from place to place, the questions being asked in Wet’suwet’en are being asked everywhere: What, exactly, is an acceptable form of protest for Indigenous peoples? How can we make sure that the abundant natural resources available here are maintained so that everyone can live well, both today and seven generations in the future? What does free, prior, and informed consent look like, especially given the high levels of poverty in many Indigenous communities? How can we ensure a respectful nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous nations occupying the same space? When Canadian law and Indigenous law collide, as in the case of the blockades, whose rule of law takes precedence? Is reconciliation even possible? If so, what will it look like and where will it lead? What part should followers of Christ play?1
Events like this remind us that the Canada we love may not be what we have believed it to be. It can be uncomfortable to think about the ways in which we—both as individuals and also as citizens—are implicated in the conflict and to consider our need for collective repentance.
That’s what I was going to write about.
And then the coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, stormed its way into the headlines. Suddenly, the entire world was quarantined and life as we knew it was cancelled. Aside from health care workers and others providing essential services, most adults are either not working or are working from home, and the school year is now over. Vacation plans, school trips, sports seasons, church services, and concerts are down the drain. Baby celebrations, birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals are all postponed indefinitely. A sense of fear and uncertainty permeates our whole society, as what we know to be true keeps changing at an alarming rate. And that’s not even touching the health or economic impacts, which are obviously immense.
In a breath, everything I was going to write was outdated. We don’t know yet whether life will ever be the same again, but we do know that at least for now, everything is different.We don't know yet whether life will ever be the same again, but we do know that at least for now, everything is different. Click To Tweet
This is Lent. In the words of Sarah Bessey, it is “braided grief and hope and longing.”2 We feel betrayed by Vanier and grieve a fallen hero, even as his theology and praxis give us hope that one day, the dignity of all people will finally be recognized and they will be treated accordingly. We lament the broken relationship between Canada and Indigenous nations and we ponder our own role in things, even as we long for reconciliation and restoration. And we mourn the loss of our everyday life, even as we see hope and beauty in the human response to those affected by COVID-19—in the creativity of artists sharing their gifts, in the tenacity of health care providers caring for the sick, and in the grace of ordinary people re-learning how to be good neighbours.
Easter is on its way. It will come right on schedule, as it always does, and we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus regardless of whatever else is happening in the world. But the resurrection we yearn for only comes after death, restoration only comes after brokenness, and right now, we are still in the middle of it all.
More to read on the blog
- These thoughts and questions were developed during work with the Indigenous working group of the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada. For the full article from the working group see: Wet’suwet’en: A Response to the Conflict – Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada.