Jean Vanier, World Peace and the Politics of Gentleness

There is a new website up dedicated to the life and work of Jean Vanier, founder of the international community of L’Arche, a global federation of homes and workspaces where adults with intellectual disabilities and assistants try to live in prayerful and mundane communion with one another. They are messy, beautiful communities where authenticity, tenderness and time-lost-at-table are cherished above all. The care and patience demanded to live  in a L’Arche home creates a good deal of frustration and the feeling of being worn out, often. Yet, these acts can also give themselves over to this searing self-discovery of one’s capacity for gentleness and the deep joy of being in the presence of another. I always remember the bewilderment on the face of a 19-year old German assistant when she described to me about just how much time she spent preparing for and then eating at the table in her first week at L’Arche, and then I remember the inner flicker of her eye a few months later as she shuffled over, arms a-tangle with a core member to cut some rosemary branches and petunias for dinner. And I think that walk from bewilderment to the inner-flickering of the slow act of being with the little of the earth is L’Arche at its best.

The website tries to get at some of this, hoping, explicitly, to make Jean Vanier’s witness to communion-across-difference more public, and articulate it, as Jean has attempted himself, as a political source of peace. Jean’s “politics of gentleness” as Stanley Hauerwas has put it.

For those who love L’Arche and Jean Vanier, the website is a delight and gives an excuse to reflect on what a politics of gentleness could really mean. There are glimpses on the site. The quotes about Jean Vanier from Romeo Dallaire, for example, the Canadian Lt. General famous for doing the best he could with a token UN force to shield Tutsis from the genocide slaughter of Rwanda in 1994, evoke the darkest sides of political structures which prize competition rather than slow-little-being as their motor of existence.  The hope against this darkness, then, is in the work of listening to the weak as teachers; filling the relationships of our polities with reconciled understandings of our fragilities; living broken bodies and souls as an experience of growth and goodness. These global hopes of Jean remain in the realm of the prophetic, but when the words start feeling a bit too airy, start clicking on some of the photos, read some of the tags and the hopes of more German kids carrying rosemary, and all the global peace-flickering that goes with it, doesn’t seem so impossible.

Massignon, Maritain, Delbrel

I’ve been thinking all month about a great trio of French Catholics whose lifestories and thoughts pushed or presaged much of what was involved in the kairos of the Second Vatican Council, namely, Louis Massignon, Jacques Maritain and Madeleine Delbrel.  Massignon for his pushing the Church’s friendship with Islam, Maritain for pushing the Church’s friendship with democracy and Delbrel for pushing the language of the Church out of the Church and back to the “ordinary people of the streets.” It is amazing how fresh this trio reads in 2011. Delbrel, poetic and joyous:

Why should the song of the lark in the wheat fields, the buzzing of the insects in the night, and the droning of the bees among the thyme, nourish our silence, and not the crowds in the street, the voices of the women in the market, the yells of the men at work, the laughter of the children in the garden, and the songs coming from the bars? All of these are the noises of creatures advancing toward their destiny, all of this is the echo of the house of God in order or in shambles, all of this is the sign of life encountering our life.

Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

I don’t want to drive a comparison or shake syncretism out of this note, but I had early 20 century Algerian Islamic reformers on my mind as I read early 20th century French Catholics this month, Ibn Badis and Malek Bennabi especially. What might the freshness of Massignon, Delbrel and Maritain tell us in a reading near Bennabi and Ibn Badis? It strengthens my hope that politics illuminated by the light of faith might help in the bulwark building of tolerant, plural and, even, religious democracies in North Africa today, as it helped do the same in Southern Europe.

Ramadan in Qatar

It’s the last day of Ramadan in August in Qatar, my first in a Muslim country, and the quiet fasting daylight is quickening to be broken.

While perhaps not as much as many warned or feared in July, fresh violence marked this month, in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, and in Palestine and Israel. But fresh political hopes as well, and rather than feed a lens of Ramadan-as-violence, I want to simply observe here the following Ramadan-hopes floating on the headlines this August in Qatar. Meager as these hopes may seem, they are signs of possibility. And they have just as much right as the violence to be associated in the press with the good works and almsgiving and communion with family and others and God that so many are seeking together in this moment (pursuits which have overwhelmed my green beginner reflections on Islam throughout the month).

1)      Libyan rebel fighters took Tripoli and despite continued fighting, throughout the week rebel leaders of the National Transition Council stressed restraint, promised reconciliation and pushed against purging. The government of Qatar, the first Arab government to really support the rebels’ struggle and the host of talks between Libyan political factions throughout the conflict, scrambled to layout a plan to help Libyan reconstruction efforts.

2)      Although Israel severed ties with them on account of it, Qatar has stepped up its efforts to help mediate the future of Palestine by providing political and legal aid to Palestinians as they submit a formal bid for statehood to the United Nations in September.

3)      Although Qatar broke with the league to protest Syria’s harsh crackdown last month, the rest of the Arab league joined Qatari diplomats’ chorus this week, condemned Assad’s violence and moved towards implementing consequential sanctions on the regime.

Democratization in the Land of Tibhirine

[This month’s post is being hosted by The Review of Faith and International Affairs]

Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria and assassinated in the mountains surrounding their home. In many ways, the story of these Catholic monks is an absurd entry point for a political reflection on contemporary Algeria. The Algerian Christian church is a tiny community in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the monks represent merely seven of the thousands of lives—perhaps as many as 200,000—that were extinguished during Algeria’s years of violence. Yet, with the recent release of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men in the United States, millions of Americans are being introduced to the monks’ story for the first time and, through their story, to Algerian politics. Given the film’s coincidence with political developments in the rest of North Africa, I would like to situate the film in its larger Algerian political context and consider what insights the spirit of Tibhirine might offer toward creating sustainable democracy in Algeria today…. read the rest of the article here

Monks of Tibhirine

Although their story is still unknown in the U.S., the deaths of the 7 Monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria, in 1993, has long held the attention of both the French and Algerian public. For the spiritual testimony it announces. For the reflection of French-Algerian relations it provides. For the mire of french secret services it captures. The death of the trappist monks, which produced one of the most moving, contemporary documents of interfaith friendship, left behind in a letter of last testament by the abbey’s prior, Christian de Chergé, was always object of some mystery.  The official version, that the monks had been kidnapped and then assassinated by Algeria’s most notorious armed Islamist Emir, Djamel Zitouni, always suffered from some obscurantism. This past week, revelations by a French general, Francois Buchwalter, that the monks had been kidnapped by the Islamists but killed inadvertently in an ambush by the Algerian army, has re-stirred the mystery and ill.  Sarkozy was forced to speak about it in Italy at the G8, calling for the “truth” of the matter in a statement that seemed to hold both a veiled accusal towards the Algerian government, adding more disequilibrium to that delicate rapport, and a reminder to the French and Algerian public of the original accusals of complicity or simple botchedness of the event by the French security forces. If the Algerian Army was able to locate the monks, and kill them, even inadvertently, at a time when French forces were working hand in hand with them, then it would seem to imply a gross sin of incompetence for the French. If the darker accusals turn out to be true, that the Algerian Army, and not the Islamists, had orchestrated the kidnapping and assasinations, then that puts the French secret services in a much deeper mire. The monks testimony to friendship, over-violence and beyond religious tradition, which seems to have been very inconvenient for all the governments and armed forces involved, remains hidden between the accusals.