There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.Jean Vanier at Templeton Prize Giving Ceremony
This was the message of Jean Vanier as he received the Templeton Prize – at St Martins in the Fields on Monday evening. His acceptance speech was powerful and direct.
For me it was a blessing to feel the blast of his optimism. As he said, in 1945 we had Hiroshima and the uncovering of Auschwitz; and of course we don’t have to look too hard to see further ugliness. But surely he is right to claim that something of importance did happen then – a new chapter did open. Not only did we begin to recognise the importance of human rights but also – slowly, all too slowly – we began the liberation of all those ‘others’ who had been trapped in institutions, deemed unworthy, by a society that had lost its moral compass.
This is a particular blessing only a few days after a UK General Election when the worst government in 75 years – a Government that has targeted disabled people for cuts and chosen to impoverish the poor – has been returned to power. Vanier captures exactly the fundamental flaw in the thinking and behaviour of the powerful – they behave as if the point of life is to climb higher and higher, to even clamber up upon the backs of the weak. But where are they going? What will they find when they get there? They will be empty and alone.
What must we do about our leaders, who are lost? Well – to begin with he suggests – we must pray for them.
A powerful message for me at least – for I know my own pride is such that I’d like nothing better than to enumerate their many failings. But he is right. They are lost. They know not what they do. Their cleverness is ultimately at their own expense – however many years in power they gain, however big the pile of money they amass. There is no joy in it. There is no beauty in it.
Despite our current problems I do not believe the current attack upon the human rights, the welfare state and justice will succeed. We have come too far to turn back to the hell that we’ve left behind. There are still signs of hope, amidst the darkness.
I have been particularly inspired by how many people have come together to support Learning Disability Alliance England since its creation in the Autumn of 2014. In just a few months we’ve united hundreds of people and organisations in a movement to stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. And this movement has been led by people with learning disabilities – friends like Karen Flood, Simon Cramp and Gary Bourlet have called upon different people to unite and work together. They have welcomed the respectful support of families, professionals and other allies. They’ve shown how much can be achieved when we come together in community.
This was so striking when we ran the Citizen Jury event to mark the political parties. It is true that the Conservative Party refused to attend (given their record this is not too surprising); but the others who attended, including Labour’s disability spokesperson Kate Green, engaged in an intense and respectful debate with people with learning disabilities and their families about the details of policy.
An old friend of mine, Virginia Moffatt (now at Ekklesia) reminded me that back in 1992 when she’d suggested that there be a hustings for people with learning disabilities in Southwark (where we both worked) that she had been faced with blank incomprehension. Today we are capable of having real and important debates with senior politicians. The election result may not have gone the way LDA England would have liked – but life is not always about winning and getting what you want. This development still marks another important step towards full citizenship for people with learning disabilities.
I am also encouraged by an event just a few days away – the wonderful punk rock band PKN – a band made up of people with learning disabilities – will be representing Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest. [Please cast your vote!] Again people with learning disabilities are refusing to be held back by other people’s ideas about what they can and cannot do. I have also just learned that Gavin Harding, a leading self-advocate with learning disabilities, has just become Mayor of Selby.
For me Vanier has already had a tremendous impact on my own thinking. In his commentary on the Gospel of St John Vanier writes:
Frequently it is only when those who are powerful experience failure, sickness, weakness or loneliness that they discover they are not self-sufficient and all-powerful, and that they need God and others. Out of their weakness and poverty they can then cry out to God and discover God in a new way as the God of love and tenderness, full of compassion and goodness.
I must say that for myself it has been a transformation to be in L’Arche. When I founded l’Arche it was to “be good” and to “do good” to people with disabilities. I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me! A bishop once told me: “You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: up until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor. You are saying that poor are doing good to you!” The people we are healing are in fact healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love and awaken within us what is most precious: compassion.Jean Vanier
Trying to ‘do good’ can quickly be a trap – it becomes about us, our pride, our glory, our achievements – and we can quickly tire and turn to blaming others. When we’re tempted in this way, we must see how empty all of this is. We all know we must die, and all our moments of power and glory are just vanities – that quickly pass away. What abides – is love.
Personally I am interested in exploring further what this Copernican revolution might look like for the welfare state as a whole. How can we live together in a way that accepts and honours mutual dependency? How can we invite contribution and challenge from those of whom society expects too little? How can we live in community? As Vanier says we need community, but real community is mucky, a little bit crazy and often quite annoying. But it is only this kind of community that can create the beauty, truth and the love we all need.
These kinds of questions demand that we reconsider many of our common assumptions about how best to organise society and the welfare state:
Income security – Does it make sense to impose the highest taxes on the poorest, and to load people with stigma or try and control them with sanctions and the patronising Work Programme?
Education – Why do we need to regulate teachers and schools as if Whitehall knows best? Why do we rank and exclude children who need more help to learn?
Health – Why do we heap unrealistic expectation on doctors and nurses? Why do we keep people in hospital when they would thrive better at home or in community?
Disability – Why do we force people to give up freedom just because they need some assistance? Why do we load special taxes on disabled people and the elderly?
Housing – Why are only some able to buy their own home? Why is it acceptable that some people can no longer be able to afford to live in their own communities because prices or rents have gone up?
The social problems we face today reflect the challenges Vanier describes. Justice means not just a fair set of rules and rights which individuals enable people to live decent lives; much more it means living together, valuing each other and creating a better world.
I will end with the Benediction (blessing) which was composed by Jean Vanier’s sister Therese and which ended the award ceremony:
May oppressed people and those who oppress them, free each other.
May those who are disabled and those who think they are not, help each other.
May those who need someone to listen, touch the hearts of those who are too busy.
May the homeless bring joy to those who open their doors reluctantly.
May the lonely heal those who think they are self-sufficient.
May the poor melt the hearts of the rich.
May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love.
May prisoners find true freedom and liberate others from fear.
May those who sleep on the streets share their gentleness with those who cannot understand them.
May the hungry tear the veil from those who do not hunger after justice.
May those who live without hope, cleanse the hearts of their brothers and sisters who are afraid to live.
May the weak confound the strong and save them.
May violence be overcome with compassion.
May violence be absorbed by men and women of peace.
May violence succumb to those who are totally vulnerable, that we may be healed.