Thinking Anew – Where are the prophets of peace?
Jean Vanier: founded L’Arche Community which operates today in 38 countries, with 150 communities supporting 3,500 people with learning disabilities. Alastair Grant/AP
In a recent book, Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on the possibility that institutional religion can impede human development, an interesting role for someone who not so long ago was part of the religious establishment. He suggests that religion is seen by many as having to do with conforming to laws, conventions and norms handed down from on high. To be religious in this way is to be “subject to the will of a divine power and therefore to be called upon to make dramatic and consistent self-sacrifice”. He writes: “There’s no need for me to elaborate the ways in which such a model has been abused, distorted and used for anti-human purposes across the centuries.” He seems to be suggesting the church could serve humankind better by being less judgemental and more welcoming to people as they are. This has been a problem for Christianity from the beginning. The church was understandably Jewish in character early on, but as non-Jewish people converted to Christianity there was an expectation by the Jewish base, initially supported by Peter, that they should observe Jewish dietary and other disciplines. Enter Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, insisting that Christianity was not a Jewish sect; it was a world religion and would have to adapt.
That is an issue in tomorrow’s reading from the Book of Acts. Peter is challenged by traditionalists because he changes his position. He explains this by describing a vision he had where “something like a large sheet” is lowered from heaven loaded with animals, some, by Jewish tradition, unclean and therefore not to be touched or consumed. The message from on high for Peter was simple: heaven has room for all of humanity; there is no distinction of race, religion or gender.
This echoes the commandment of Jesus we read in tomorrow’s gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This for Jesus would be the mark of an authentic Christian community and where it is found, wonders, miracles even, happen, as we see in the work of Jean Vanier who died last week. Vanier, a Canadian naval officer during the second World War, worked postwar for the Red Cross with survivors from Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps, an experience that affected him deeply. But his life changed dramatically following a visit in 1963 to an institution for the mentally disabled, He was appalled by their treatment. “These were perhaps the most oppressed and humiliated people of the world. They were called stupid, mad, imbeciles, idiots.” So, he invited two men with intellectual disabilities who had lived for years in an asylum to live with him near Compiègne in France. Thus, was founded L’Arche Community, which operates today in 38 countries with 150 communities supporting 3,500 people with learning disabilities.
For Vanier it was simply living the command of Jesus to love one another. In his book The Broken Body, he is more direct than Rowan Williams in suggesting the churches fail to demonstrate the beauty of living in harmony while celebrating diversity to a fractious world. “Today some people feel that the only answer is national security: clarifying their identity more sharply, getting rid of strangers and all who disturb . . . So new barriers are built, developing a sense of being the strongest, of being the best. In such a world the Christian churches seem to many people irrelevant for they too are more a cause of division and war than a source of unity and peace. To walk down the street and see the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, this or that church, each one preaching its own Jesus . . . defending its own frontiers. All this seems unbearable, intolerable hypocrisy. Where is our hope; where are the prophets of peace today?”
A troubling rebuke from a true prophet of peace.