The news about L’Arche International founder Jean Vanier hit last week: He “initiated sexual relations” with at least six (non-disabled) women, “usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment.” In other words, he was in a position of power, and that power was abused.
As we all know, the story is not unusual – men in power often exploit their power for sexual purposes, and all too frequently this takes place in Christian settings (across the ecclesial spectrum). But this one hits harder than most, for me at least. I had revered Jean Vanier as exceptional, as one of the few who—I thought—truly married thought and practice in a life well-lived. The L’Arche communities, which he founded, continue to offer a vivid picture of human life at its best: people of all abilities choosing to share life with one another and to treat each other with respect, dignity, and grace.
When a sexual abuse perpetrator is someone like Harvey Weinstein, it is easy to denounce him and move on. We live in a “cancel culture,” after all. Part of living a virtuous life in 2020 is keeping up on who has been cancelled and tweeting accordingly. But when a sexual abuse perpetrator is someone like Jean Vanier, it feels more complicated. In addition to his humanitarian work, he was a philosopher and a theologian, someone who devoted himself to thinking and writing about what it means to live a good life. His writings on the human need for trust, safety, and belonging are profound. What is the meaning of those writings now, in light of his abuse of power over women in his spiritual care?
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day in the liturgical calendar when we repent of our sins, when a priest marks us with ashes in the sign of the cross and reminds us that we are made of dust and will return to dust.
Part of the task of repentance is discerning what is sinful and naming it as such.
In light of last week’s announcement, Jean Vanier now serves as a poignant reminder that human beings are capable of both goodness and evil, sometimes in a very complicated mixture. But acknowledging that complicated mixture is not the same thing as simply shaking our heads, sighing, and saying that we are all sinners.
We are all, indeed, sinners, something that we will confess perhaps more fully than usual on Ash Wednesday and in the coming season of Lent. But we do not all sexually abuse those within our power. Sin is, unfortunately, part of the human condition. But turning to that universal experience as a way of coping with the truth of what Vanier has done can serve to minimize these particular sins of his. It can serve to minimize the experiences of countless victims who have been similarly abused.
Hannah Arendt, writing about the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Eichmann was not a monster, Arendt argued, but, more terrifyingly, a rather ordinary bureaucrat who had perpetrated horrific crimes. By naming Eichmann’s evil as “banal,” Arendt was not trying to make it less than what it was; her worry was that making monsters out of human beings such as Eichmann allows us to distance ourselves from the evil that is potentially present—but not inevitably so—in each of us. Arendt wanted to do the hard work of looking at Eichmann’s life and deeds and naming the particular evils that she saw there. She felt that this work of judgment was an important response to the horrors of the Holocaust—to assess accurately the evil that had been done, and why, and how, in order that it would not happen again.
Like Eichmann, Vanier was not a monster, but a human being with the capacity to do evil. Either “cancelling” Vanier altogether or pre-emptively appealing to the sinful condition that we all share poses a danger of skipping the hard work of naming his sin, considering its consequences, and paying attention to the systemic changes that need to take place so that this might not happen again.
I appreciate the L’Arche communities’ willingness to name Vanier’s sin for what it is. I appreciate their emphasis on the victims’ experience, their acknowledgment of the victims’ “courage and suffering” and willingness to speak truth. This is no small thing.
I know that the international community Jean Vanier founded is a gift of grace in a broken world. I now know that he also contributed to the brokenness of the world through the abusive relationships he fostered. I don’t know exactly how to sit with this hard, heavy truth. For now, I think I want to let the heaviness of it all sink in, to let myself feel grief over his sin and the pain of his victims.
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006).
Photo by Kotukaran, cropped by Gabriel Sozzi – Cropped from File:Wilbur_Sargunaraj_meets_Jean_Vanier,_May_2012.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38953853