Prayer of the Day: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“…in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…” Matthew 13:29-30.
One of the individuals whose work has been formative for my faith and ministry was the late Jean Vanier who died a year ago last May. Vanier was a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian. He was the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over more than thirty countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends. He continued to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in France until his death.
Vanier’s communities were founded on the conviction that persons commonly labeled “developmentally disabled” are not social problems to be solved, but gifted persons that a society founded on power, control and wealth has neglected to its own detriment. Vanier’s mission was to create communities where the full human potential of these neglected ones could flower. I have always believed that Vanier’s communities reflect what St. Paul meant when he called the church Christ’s Body of gifted members. All of this being the case, you can imagine my dismay upon learning that an internal report published by L’Arche early this year concluded that Vanier sexually abused six women between 1970 and 2005.
This is not the first time I have seen one of my heroes cast down from his pedestal. While in Seminary and throughout the early years of my ministry, I was heavily influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder, the well known Mennonite theologian who taught at the University of Notre Dame. In the early 90s, credible complaints were made that Yoder had abused numerous women, some students and others who worked under him in some capacity. Tragically, these complaints were largely ignored and even covered up while Yoder’s predatory conduct continued. Needless to say, the joy I once got from reading Yoder’s profoundly insightful and provocative books has largely evaporated.
Now I am wondering where all of this leaves me. Obviously, these two men were not the people I thought they were. Still, their work and their teachings inspired me and formed me in no small part. Does it matter that their lives were the very antithesis of their teachings? Is it still appropriate to cite John Howard Yoder when arguing for Christian pacifism and non-violence? Can I still appeal to the writings of Jean Vanier to illustrate the bonds of trust and intimacy required for the Church to function as Christ’s resurrected body? Can I still honor the truths these men have taught me even after learning that they were not embodied in my teachers? One might argue that truth is truth, that two plus two equal four and it matters not whether one learns that from a saint or a scoundrel. But as disciples of Jesus, we proclaim a truth that is incarnate, a truth that is embodied, a truth inseparable from the One who reveals it. Perhaps that is why I experience deep sadness and a degree of emptiness whenever I return to the writings of Vanier and Yoder. It feels as though the soul has leaked out of their books.
That these men, who were sexual predators, also possessed deep insight into God’s gentle reign and its implementation challenges our natural binary disposition. We are tempted either to ignore, deny and make excuses for Yoder and Vanier or to excoriate them along with their work. But Jesus would have us know that neither of these alternatives serve us well. Instead, Jesus urges his disciples to embrace the pain of living in this weed infested field where the beautiful is hopelessly intertwined with the hideous, the noble with the despicable, the compassionate with the cruel, the moral with the immoral. The name of that pain is the cross.
As tempting as it is to separate the weeds from the wheat, that temptation must be resisted. God knows this world has suffered enough from efforts to “purify the race,” “ethnically cleanse” the land and “purge” enemies of the state. God knows the church and many of its most faithful members have suffered the righteous wrath of those who would purify, reform and perfect it. What horrors we inflict upon each other when we forget that the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and attempt to redraw it along lines of our own choosing! When destruction of evil becomes the singular focus, the first thing destroyed is ourselves. God alone holds the blade sharp enough to separate the wheat from the weeds. Our own blunt instruments of judgment lack all such surgical precision and are capable only of inflicting wounds.
So while I don’t believe busts of Yoder or Vanier belong in the seminary library, their books most certainly do. Moreover, their stories need to be told in full, not to bring shame on their memories, but to remind us how close we all are to evil, how easily it makes its way into the hearts of these seemingly most devout and how hard it is to unearth it without ruining the good. This word coming to us from Jesus’ parable is hard to digest. It is difficult to accept, albeit true, that the Holy Spirit sometimes works through unholy instruments. It is discomforting to be reminded that holiness and evil live in such close proximity. But if we take the parable to heart, we can guard against the evil that would destroy us while still recognizing holiness in the most unlikely places and, most importantly, find the patience required to allow God in God’s good time to bring God’s good plantings to maturity and harvest.
Here is a poem/song by singer and songwriter Bob Dylan illustrating the madness of imagining that we are God’s instruments for separating the wheat from the weeds.
With God on Our Side
Oh, my name, it ain’t nothin’, my age, it means less
The country I come from is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there, the laws to abide
And that the land that I live in has God on its side
Oh, the history books tell it, they tell it so well
The cavalries charged, the Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side
The Spanish-American War had its day
And the Civil War too was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands and God on their side
The First World War, boys, it came and it went
The reason for fighting I never did get
But I learned to accept it, accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.
The Second World War came to an end
We forgave the Germans and then we were friends
Though they murdered six million, in the ovens they fried
The Germans now too have God on their side
I learned to hate the Russians all through my whole life
If another war comes, it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them, to run and to hide
And accept it all bravely with God on my side
But now we got weapons of chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must
One push of the button and a shot the world wide
You never ask questions when God’s on your side
Through many a dark hour I been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side
So now as I’m leavin’, I’m weary as hell
The confusion I’m feelin’ ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head and they fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war
Source: The Times they are a Changin’ (c. 1995 by Bob Dylan). Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than half a century. His most celebrated works date from the 1960s and became anthems of the antiwar movement opposing U.S. military operations in Vietnam. But Dylan has also dabbled in country western, contemporary Christian and modern folk music throughout his long career. Dylan published eight books of drawings and paintings. His work has been exhibited in major art galleries. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize Board in 2008 awarded him a special citation for his profound influence on popular music and American culture. In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for having created new poetic expressions within the American musical tradition. You can read more about Bob Dylan and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.
 I understand, of course, that the best of people are flawed, that none of us who profess high ideals live up to them with perfection and that good people are capable of poor judgment, short sightedness and moral weakness. But the kind of predatory behavior practiced by Vanier and Yoder far exceeds any singular moral lapse. It reflects rather a serious lack of empathy and a calculating design to exploit the trust and confidence of vulnerable persons for personal gratification. This, I believe, is the sin against “one of these little ones” Jesus discusses in one of the rare instances he mentions hell.