“Those of us with power and social standing have subtle ways of hiding our inner handicaps, our difficulties in relationships, our inner darkness and violence…” Jean Vanier, Becoming Human.
I found out this week that Jean Vanier was guilty of sexual assault over the span of several decades. Vanier, who passed away last May, was a French theologian world-renowned for starting communities for people with disabilities. His entire life’s work emphasized the value of the least among us. When he spoke, it was slow and controlled, with the sort of punctuated consonants you could listen to for days. He wrote about the power and strength of all human bodies and all human beings. So many looked up to him—myself included.
A few years ago, a friend and I asked each other: who would be the most personally devastating individual to discover had been living a double life of sexual abuse? This conversation came on the heels of Hybels being ousted at Willowcreek and slew of other men being held accountable for egregious behavior. I believe my answer was Barak Obama, but if I had made a list of three, Jean Vanier would have been on it.
I have rolled my eyes every time another celebrity pastor or mega-star is accused of sexual abuse. Like so much of our news, hearing about abuse in the church has lost its shock value. Predictably, it is almost always men with great power established on the premise of their charisma with little personal or professional accountability. The news about Vanier landed differently. There was no eye-rolling. My stomach fell in exhale.
In the last two weeks, I had recommended Vanier’s book, Becoming Human, to a half-dozen people. I pushed it off my nightstand tonight. It is laying, cover-bent, on the floor.
The first question that came as I hung my head in disbelief was, “Who is innocent?” If the soft-spoken Frenchman who dedicated his life to the disabled is disgraced, to whom can I aspire? If the man who spoke most passionately and convincingly about respecting human bodies and respecting human value exploited his power to take advantage of the bodies of women, who can I trust? And if I am asking that question, how much more distrustful must any woman who enters the church be? I cannot imagine the pain of those who were taken advantage of by a man they trusted with their entire lives. I do not know that pain. I won’t try to write about it.
Don’t put human beings on a pedestal or Don’t idolize any person, we’re all broken has generally been the response I’ve seen to this story. Is it idolization to imagine that someone has figured out more of life than I have? Is it naïve to look up to them?
In his book, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams names a loss I am feeling: belief in God for many people “starts from a sense that we ‘believe in’ we trust some kinds of people. We have confidence in the way they live; the way they live is a way I want to live…Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in. It puts quite a responsibility on believing people, of course. But nonetheless, the remarkable fact remains. Some do take respons-ibility for making God credible in the world.”
The second question that came to mind grieved me. I apologize for it, since the answer seems so obvious: Is sexual assault a line in the sand anymore?
I hesitate to bring it up, but when the audio surfaced of our current President talking about using his power to grab women, I foolishly assumed that it would be devastating for his campaign. I figured this was a line in the sand. Not having committed sexual assault was a reasonable expectation I held for positions like Pastor, Teacher, Medical Professional, Therapist, President, and the list goes on. As we all know, the audio made no impact on his electability. It feels like such an obvious point to make in a homily on Sunday or in a lesson with our middle schoolers, but I guess it simply needs to be said: despite what our culture and politics tell us, it is inexcusable to take advantage of another person’s body. There is no greatness, no kindness, no trauma, no celebrity that justifies it.
It was inexcusable for Jean Vanier. It is devastating for his legacy. It is a contradiction of everything he stood for. I can’t compartmentalize it by saying that I shouldn’t have put him on a pedestal. There are human beings that deserve to be admired for the way they live their lives. None of them are perfect, but there’s a difference between not being perfect and having sexually exploitative relationships!
The third and scariest question that the news about Jean Vanier raised was, “if Jean Vanier was possible of exhibiting such exploitative behavior, how in the world am I supposed to be better?” Last night, I turned to my wife and said, “if Vanier committed these crimes, who hasn’t?”
“You haven’t!” she said back to me.
“Not yet,” I said. My response scared me.
I didn’t say “not yet” because I think I am at risk of committing those sins. But, I wouldn’t have said Vanier was either. That is what scares me. I cannot roll my eyes and point my finger at the massiveness of the church, the perilous theology, or the toxic masculinity permeating an organization that caused these behaviors. Jean Vanier wrote the book Becoming Human, yet he allowed his own handicaps to cause him to exploit relationships in a way that caused irreparable damage. His life’s story was—formerly—one of the handful that inspired faith in me. It has, with great sadness, been added to a growing list of cautionary tales.
Thank you to the women who shared their stories. I do not understand how difficult it must have been to bring this truth into the world. Thank you for your courage.