Saturday, December 14, 2013

We Are a Vulnerable Communion: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 8, "The Politics of Gentleness: Random Thoughts for a Conversation with Jean Vanier" by Hauerwas.

If I had a canon of saints, Jean Vanier would be among them. In a confessional moment, Hauerwas might admit the same. Vanier’s writing on community, vulnerability, and brokenness has resonated deeply with me and influenced the way I think about the capability of life together. He writes simply and he writes gently. There is tenderness in the composition of his sentences. I don’t only mean the thoughts he communicates, which express grace for and within the weakness of our bodies and the fragility of life. There is also tenderness in the way his sentences are formed, the grace that is style and movement and sound.

Hauerwas is at his humblest in this chapter on Jean Vanier’s politics of gentleness, and Hauerwas is at his most honest: he worries that his polemical attempt to defend gentleness betrays Vanier and the work of L’Arche (196). For Hauerwas, gentleness is necessary for any just politics, and the world of L’Arche – communities where differently-abled people live and work together – is gentle (195). Gentleness is important for Hauerwas because it redefines power and rule through the concreteness of friendship. L’Arche fosters friendships between people with varying abilities so that diverse gifts can be recognized. Gentle friendships like those at L’Arche are cultivated by tending to the ordinary, actively caring for things nearby. These sets of practices are sustained by conviviality and cooperation, which do not erase weakness but instead welcome it.

Wendell Berry is a close kin to Vanier, at least for me. They both practice and write about community, healing in conviviality, the gifts of mutuality, and the wisdom of care and fragility. Community, says Vanier,

is not about perfect people. It is about people who are bonded to each other, each of whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate. And community is the only earth in which each can grow without fear toward the liberation of the forces of love which are hidden in them. But there can be growth only if we recognize the potential, and this will never unfold if we prevent people from discovering and accepting themselves as they are, with their gifts and their wounds.
Vanier has also written that love isn’t doing heroic acts; love means “knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness” (195). Tending, as Berry understands, means learning practical skills and livelihoods that are attentive to different kinds of action. According to Berry, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is often inadequate for this task. One reason is the otherworldly focus of much Christian theology that distracts people from caring for the close-at-hand. The second reason is that the Bible and much religious literature are “so strongly heroic.” We are too concerned with the actions of “great men” that are supposedly extraordinary because they are rare. These actions hardly serve as examples for ordinary lives, which operate in a different dramatic genre:
The drama of ordinary or daily behavior [like the heroic] also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance.
Heroism is deeply inspiring; it can unsettle the drama of the ordinary when it becomes stale and assumed. But heroism doesn’t live with the questions of long-term devotion and right livelihood. Heroism doesn’t necessarily teach us how to actively care during diurnal rhythms when the crowds are no longer watching.

Hauerwas sees a similar deficiency in modern liberal politics, which “has found it difficult to provide moral standing for people with mental disabilities” (198). Modern political discourse (including anarchism) operates on a strong underlying assumption in the rationality and free will of political actors. In the liberal mind, people with disabilities are clearly lacking (198). The assumption in much political decision-making is that only those without severe physical or mental impairments can effectively participate (199), an assumption that not only reinforces anthropocentrism but a dangerously reduced one. Liberal politics excludes the disabled because it depends on generalizability; it decidedly wants to avoid the messiness of context and ordinary emotions, which means it wants to avoid embodiment. Liberal politics attempts to generalize the heroic by enthroning reason as the ultimate human trait, which is ultimately dehumanizing.

Martha Nussbaum, with strong allegiance to liberal political theory, argues that focusing on capabilities acknowledges that rationality is only one part of our embodied lives (200). But capabilities have to focus on particular practices with specific people and their varying gifts and needs. Addressing capabilities means addressing bodies and places. Hauerwas believes that “whatever significance can be found in sharing one’s life with another person (a significance that will usually come as a surprise) cannot be found outside the activity itself” (202). Capabilities might force liberal rationalism out of its safe abstraction by making friendships with unlikely folks.

I first heard about Jean Vanier in occupied Palestine. I was working at the Al Basma Center, a restorative place for people with developmental disabilities in the village of Beit Sahour, the “House of Vigilance.” This ancient village is located in a valley on the eastern side of Bethlehem, between the hills rising to Jerusalem and the desert of the Jordan River Valley. Started in 1987, Al Basma (which means “the smile” in Arabic) had almost no funds and no tables or chairs, and so the six students sat on the floor. Now, thirty students walk or ride a small bus to a stone building where the edge of town begins to fade. They still have few funds, but their creative programs include olivewood carving, making fuel from olivewood sawdust to heat the center in winter, recycling paper and making Christmas cards, weaving on traditional looms, drama and exercise, speech therapy and hygiene classes, and a greenhouse with one of the first aquaponics systems in Palestine. The students cultivate practical and artistic skills and the belief that they are vital members and contributors to their community. Their shared work helps sustain the center. I could use the same words to describe Al Basma as Vanier uses to describe L’Arche: “We are but little homes filled with happy prayerful celebrating people whose fragility is marked on their bodies, minds, and spirits, and with assistants and friends who believe in a spirit of love and of tenderness.” (Al Basma is depicted in the first story of this film by my close friend Zach Crow.)

Six women are the leaders and teachers and, like the students, half are Muslims and half are Christians. These women sometimes sacrifice their paltry pay so the center can continue each month. The days are filled with good work, with laughter and explosive arguments and then laughter again. The work tables are transformed into banquet tables where they eat meager vegetarian feasts because meat is too expensive. And then they remove the tables at the end of each day and dance to Arabic pop music between the pink walls. The next day, this ceremony begins again. Al Basma agrees with Vanier that a “community that does not celebrate is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done.”

The teachers and I came out of the little office to greet the students when they arrived in the mornings. Nizaar crouched down, overcome with excitement, and shouted “Habibi! My love!” and spread his arms out to hug me. Nizaar frequently came through the small patio to the open pink door of the office, sometimes dancing as he came, watching as my friend Patrick printed words on the recycled cards after I cut them to size. Nizaar repeated our names over and over until we finally looked up at him. Then he raised his hand dramatically and belted operatic undulations as he hopped up and down clapping, then whispering falsetto melodies with knees bent and eyes wide. His body and voice rapidly bound and unleashed a wild energy.

Sana is spry and thin and he knows everyone and everything in Beit Sahour. He entered every room saying his name in a shrill nasal voice as a greeting announcing his arrival. His name and his presence are a unified event with a mischievous grin. Sana sat quietly outside the kitchen whenever the teachers and I ate breakfast, his scruffy unibrow furrowed as he attentively watched the pita and eggs disappear. Then he swooped in and snatched a piece of bread from the table, scurrying out with crumbs falling from his salivating mouth.

Issa always slapped my hand as he entered the center. He enjoyed squeezing my hand like a vice. Issa was the finest dancer, almost entranced by the traditional Palestinian rhythms of his feet and the flick of his hands above his head. Sometimes we sat in the grass and laughed about nothing in particular. His family worried that their daughters could never marry because of his disability, so they hid him in a cave. Teachers from the center found him and taught him to eat and speak. They also found that he was skilled at weaving. Issa is an artisan and he works the loom with memory and intelligence. He clamps his tongue between his teeth in determination. He also lives with his family again.

Khalil’s facial features are characteristic of Down’s syndrome, but I remember his beautiful round face for his incessant smile. His short, stubby body shuffled toward me and his illuminated eyes stared up at me as he took my hand. He often said nothing, smiling. I watched Khalil regularly push another student named George in a wheelchair up the ramp to the center’s entrance; Khalil would stoop down to talk with his friend but the wheelchair starts swerving and they almost run into the railing. He blew kisses at the teachers and me through the window of the bus as he left in the afternoon.

Each afternoon we all sat outside in the courtyard. Confined energy quickly turned into laughter or intense arguments across the patio. I saw Vanier’s point that we shouldn’t be idealistic about people with disabilities: “Some have been victims of so much contempt and violence, which they have stored up inside themselves, that there can be an explosion of violence.” I quickly turned to privileged despair. Am I contributing to what I’m against by being another white American in the Middle East dabbling with resistance? I also quickly became impatient with the students and their furious shoving and constant chaotic noise. In my annoyance I noticed only their disability. Where is meaning and purpose in George’s body? His mind will never be abled and his limbs will never be straightened; he twists and jerks in his wheelchair and can never sit still. He drools garbled words.

In the midst of my self-absorbed anguish, Khalil often sat next to me like the missing character of Job, the friend who does not moralize but sits close in silent company. Khalil and I couldn’t really speak to one another, which meant I risked projecting my own words onto him. I could then keep him disabled and keep that disability at arm’s length. But Khalil spoke with touch, a fragile language that I could brush off like a whisper, like the weakness of God. God does not exist until Khalil sits next to me.

One day, Khalil took my hand in his squat fingers with darkened knuckles and I knew that I was handicapped. I was disabled and I still am. With my intellectual and physical abilities, I am the mess because I don’t know that I’m broken. I hide behind accusations of the brokenness of others. Vanier knows that his friends with disabilities need his help, but at L’Arche he discovered that the opposite is also true: “People who are powerless and vulnerable attract what is most beautiful and most luminous in those who are stronger: they call them to be compassionate, to love intelligently, and not only in a sentimental way . . . The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives, which they often hide behind masks.” I give to Khalil and he gives back. I show him love because he first loved me. The more time I spent with him, the more I cared for him, the more times he screeched with laughter as we made crazy faces, the less he became a disabled person and the more he became Khalil. We are a vulnerable communion trussed together by the inescapable fragility of life.

Palestine crucified my hope and Al Basma resurrected it. Faith, hope, and love may remain, but the first two are byproducts of love, because love comes first. To hell with hope if it means ethics are meaningless without the future. We only hope for what we love, and I love good soil and the vulnerable communion of my friends. Al Basma taught me that, as Hauerwas claims, learning to listen well is part of the gentleness of life (196). I am still learning to listen to the wreck and gift of the beautiful risk of life. Listening is a weak force compelling me to surrender my control and move gracefully. The same grace in Vanier’s words is in Khalil’s clumsy gait as he pushes George up the ramp:

We need to touch the truth of who we are,
It is then, as we grow gradually
into the acceptance of our wounds and fragility,
that we grow into wholeness,
and from that wholeness, life begins to flow forth
to others around us.

The founder of Al Basma and his wife are close family friends. They live on a hillside where they planted orchards and gardens of grapes, oranges, apricots, olives, lemons, almonds, thyme, mint, figs, and flowers from Gaza. Over homemade wine, Abu Shadi tells me that, “This is my paradise, and I want to die in it! My rocks are more beautiful than the green of Sweden. If you take me out of my land I am like a fish out of water. I don’t want to drive Israel into the sea, so we must give peace a chance!” He and his wife, Nuha, love the center and the students with a consuming passion. “The most important thing for us to do,” Abu Shadi insists with tears in his eyes, “is to tell them they are needed. We give them love. They are not parasites. They are a part of this society.”

Abu Shadi occasionally bellows out Shakespeare from his veranda toward the Jordan River Valley:
Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
  Here shall he see
  No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

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