Dispatches from the Breaking Point
Last Saturday morning, I, like many others, gasped as I read Ian Brown’s Globe and Mail article describing how L’Arche founder Jean Vanier had sexually abused six women over a period of several decades and known of abuses committed by his former mentor and spiritual director, Père Thomas Philippe. I had received a heads-up from local L’Arche leaders that “something about Vanier might be coming” (our church has close ties with the L’Arche community in our city), but most seemed to think that it might have to do with what and when Vanier knew about Père Thomas’s abuses. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like what I read in the Globe last weekend.
I am not in the inner circle of L’Arche so I’m not affected as personally as some of my friends in the community. But it’s still a gut punch to learn that someone whose life and witness I deeply admired had been behaving in sexually and spiritually exploitative and manipulative ways over the course of decades. The deception and betrayal run deep and cause great pain. It’s one thing to learn that some mega-church pastor who quite obviously loves the sound of their own voice has abused their power and influence in these ways. But Jean Vanier?! The man seemed to virtually embody all that was gentle, kind, tender, and sacrificial in the world?! Yes, we’re all sinners, but… well, seriously, Jean Vanier?!
At any rate, I’m not alone in struggling with this. I’ve read dozens of reactions to this story over the past week. Some have been helpful, some have not. Most have expressed confusion, shock, and some measure of anger. Alan Jacobs, for example, offered this blistering response in a post that he has since taken down:
The Vanier story has been a kind of breaking point for me. I would like to propose the following response:
Every Christian man in any authority of any kind over any persons—and that includes me, as a teacher—should be assumed to be exploiting that authority to control others, especially women, for sexual gratification or simply in order to satisfy the libido dominandi.
That should be the position we all take going forward. No exceptions. None of us should be trusted, none of us should be believed. You all should watch us like hawks and expect the very worst at every moment. Only by taking such apparently drastic steps do we have a chance of breaking the demonic hold of religious authority invested in men or in institutions controlled by men.
Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to operate with a rather low anthropology. I have never been one to downplay the pervasiveness of human sin, stupidity, and profound selfishness. I am not one of these people who believe that human beings are basically good and that if we could just figure out how to arrange ourselves socially, politically, and economically our innate virtues would flower forth in all their luminous brilliance. No, I believe that we are all in the words of Moby Dick, “somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” And “all” really does mean all of us.
But when I read Jacobs’ assessment of how to respond to news that even those who seem to be the very best among us go badly astray, I cringed. Surely this is too drastic a “solution.” Surely this is a reactive response borne out of pain and anger. Or, worse, it’s another example of what is rapidly becoming our default online instinct which is to pile on the superlatives in order to demonstrate an acceptable level of outrage to the watching world. Every Christian man in any authority should be assumed to be exploiting that authority to control others, especially women, for sexual gratification? Really? This is the way forward? This is how we absolve ourselves of our sins of association? This is our twenty-first century equivalent of sackcloth and ashes?
That was my instinctual response to Jacobs’ words. My second response was, “Well, wait a minute, perhaps this is exactly how a “Christian man in a position of authority” would be expected to respond. He would seek to protect himself, obviously. He would say, “Well, yes, of course there are bad Christian men out there, even some men who we would never expect badness from, but not me, for heaven’s sake!” He would say things like, “How would I even operate in a context with that kind of a hermeneutic of suspicion? How could anyone function well in their vocation when the default assumptions are that you’re probably lying, that you can’t be trusted, that you’re almost certainly exploiting someone behind the scenes, that your very existence is a problem to be guarded against?”
This past Sunday, a small group of us spent the hour before worship simply talking about how we were feeling about the Jean Vanier story. It was good and important that we took this time. But there were times, certainly, where I felt a little awkward personally. It’s a tricky thing, as a male leader of a spiritual community who nobody would probably ever expect to have dark, subterranean secrets to be talking about the pain caused by revelations that a male leader of a spiritual community who nobody would probably ever expect to have dark, subterranean secrets had a whole shadow side of his life that nobody knew about. If even Jean Vanier can’t be trusted, then how or why should we trust those whose life and public example don’t approach the heights of his?
Still, though, at the end of it all, I still think Jacobs goes too far. Christian communities have always been led by sinners. This is axiomatic. It is embedded in our theological anthropology and richly borne out empirically. But I actually don’t think a community could function if people were encouraged to have as their default assumption that their leaders (at least the male ones) were probably abusers. If communities actually internalized the message that no male leader should be trusted or believed, that they should be “watched like hawks” and expected the “very worst of at every moment,” then the logical next question should be, “Well, why accept them at all?”
To be sure, I imagine some would advocate this. For some, male leadership of any kind is problematic by definition and must be eliminated. I obviously don’t think this is the healthiest way forward. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?