The Politics of Tenderness

We originally shared this note in March 2019. Jean Vanier died on May 7, 2019 in Paris, France.

The French-Canadian humanitarian and philosopher Jean Vanier invited two intellectually disabled men to share life with him in 1963 and thus launched the L’Arche Movement. L’Arche “provide(s) homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.” These homes number in the hundreds and are found in 38 countries on five continents.

L’Arche is a sign of contradiction in a world that is driven so powerfully by competencies, good management, strategy, and algorithms. It is a sign of contradiction because the people who live in L’Arche communities find no success when judged according to the criteria of our global economy and political culture. They are too often discarded and hidden from view. L’Arche communities provide the intellectually disabled places where they are intrinsically valued and loved.

It is tempting to reduce L’Arche to a saccharine, sentimental story of do-gooders taking care of the weak, but we must not make such a reduction. L’Arche points to a type of politics — a politics of tenderness — that we need. For those who care about children and families it is incumbent upon us to take seriously the need for this kind of politics. Here’s why: the market state’s enforcement of individualism inherently leaves out the vulnerable child, a definite loser in the economic world order, unable to assert herself as an individual and devalued by the market. The same is true of those who suffer from intellectual disabilities.

While L’Arche serves adults with disabilities and our focus at Capita is upon the well-being of young children and their families, L’Arche points a way towards a new kind of politics that privileges the weak and the poor, that considers the well-being of the weak to be an essential feature of the common good, and positions relational health at the heart of optimal human development. Any politics of the common good must make room for the tenderness and relational reciprocity that L’Arche models.

Liberal economics and politics finds it difficult to provide moral standing to the disabled. It also finds it difficult to provide moral standing to the child. In Living Gently in a Violent WorldStanley Hauerwas shows us that the heart of the problem here is the inability of the disabled to choose their own story. We assume that the disabled lack the reason and willful freedom to choose the story of their own lives — to curate themselves, their lifestyle, and their personality — for consumption, economic gain, and political strength. It is assumed that they lack the capacity to craft and to choose their own identities, and to assert those identities publicly. The disabled are therefore excluded from our dominant strains of politics and economics, and it is assumed that they are merely poor unfortunates, incapable of teaching us anything about ourselves, our politics, and our societies.

Hauerwas says: “Without examples like L’Arche, we will assume that there is no alternative to the politics of distrust that comes from the wound of our loneliness.” For those who work on behalf of children (and others who have muted voices in the liberal political and economic order), we need to do more than just tweak our existing policies supporting children and families; we need to imagine a different kind of politics entirely. L’Arche embodies the type of alternative politics that we need to pursue to ensure justice and tenderness towards the weak — children included.

For more on L’Arche and the politics it embodies, I recommend Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier (IVP Books, 2008). Krista Tippett’s interview with Jean Vanier — “The Wisdom of Tenderness” — is also a helpful primer on his life and thought.

Hilary Rikard