Signs of Peace
Jean Vanier and L’Arche

By Bob Wells

Academic theology, done well, is no easy feat. No matter how vigorous and robust the thinking, how well-chosen the words, how carefully crafted the sentences with which they are expressed, theological notions are difficult to convey. 

What does “peace” or “community” or “reconciliation” look like?

You need signs. Concrete examples.

To Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, they look a lot like L’Arche, the international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and others.

Years ago, when he was first starting out as a theologian, Hauerwas had a rough idea, a certain inchoate sense, of what Christian ethics concerned and what it would look like. But putting it into words was excruciating.

“Then I discovered the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche,” Hauerwas recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, that’s it. It looks sort of like this.’”

Located in 36 countries, the L’Arche communities—135 in all—are “family-like” homes where people with and without disabilities live together. Founded by Vanier in 1964, they are places that “give witness to the reality that persons with disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship,” according to L’Arche USA.

The L’Arche communities are not “church,” nor are they the ultimate embodiment of peace on earth. They are, after all, modeled after families. Yet in L’Arche, Hauerwas saw signs of what he was trying to describe. In a world of violence, they are places of gentleness and peace, however fragile.

As Hauerwas points out in Living Gently in a Violent World, a new book co-authored with Vanier and scheduled for publication this fall by the Center for Reconciliation at the Divinity School, L’Arche does not pretend to be a solution. It is instead “a sign of hope.”

“I believe one of the singular gifts L’Arche has made for Christian and non-Christian alike is to help us see what peace looks like,” Hauerwas writes.

Published in partnership with InterVarsity Press, the book is based on talks delivered by Hauerwas and Vanier at a 2006 conference—“A Day with Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas”—at the Centre for the Study of Spirituality, Health and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Like L’Arche, Vanier is also a sign of peace, according to Chris Rice, co-director of the Center for Reconciliation. This November, the center will celebrate the witness of Vanier and L’Arche at its 2008 “Teaching Communities Week: Living Gently in a Violent World.” 

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