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I was wrong to call Jean Vanier a ‘living saint’

The founder of L’Arche was widely regarded as a hero, and often dubbed a ‘living saint’ for his work among the disabled. Now, almost a year after his death, it’s emerged Jean Vanier sexually abused six women. Our editor Sam Hailes reflects on the news

For most of his life, Jean Vanier was lauded as a humble humanitarian, a truly Christ-like Christian and even a living saint. It’s those last two words which have bothered me the most, since the news emerged over the weekend that Jean Vanier was a sexual abuser. I wasn’t the only journalist to dub Jean Vanier a ‘living saint’, but that doesn’t excuse me. I was wrong to do so.

I know it can sound overly self-important, but one of the jobs of journalists is to hold the powerful to account. There are powerful figures in the Church as much as there are in the world. It was arguably a failure of Christian journalism that Vanier’s sins were not exposed until now. Investigative journalism matters in the Church world as much as it does the secular.  

Shortly after hearing the news about Jean Vanier, I read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:5 “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” It strikes me that many of us judged Vanier “before the appointed time”. We thought he was a hero. We were wrong. Paul seems to be suggesting we might be in for a shock on judgement day. Perhaps the people we put on pedestals will be exposed as frauds. Perhaps the people we wrote off as doctrinally un-sound will receive rewards much greater than our own.

What’s going wrong?

The news about Vanier comes as the Christian community is still reeling from a string of other high profile church leaders caught in serious sins. The tragedy of spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse seems to have polluted every church stream. This is not just a Catholic problem, or a megachurch problem, or an Anglican problem. It’s everywhere. And the consequences are heartbreaking. Our thoughts and prayers must be directed towards the victims in all of these cases, and the bravery they have demonstrated in speaking the truth.

I recently found myself watching a YouTube video from ten years ago. In the clip, seven then-prominent church leaders debated theology and leadership. The occasionally combative nature of their discussions made for entertaining and thought-provoking viewing. But then it hit me.  Of the seven leaders featured, four of them have been dismissed from their churches in the decade since the video was released. The reasons ranged from financial misconduct to alcoholism, and bullying to cover-ups. I was shocked to realise most of these leaders who I’d held in such high esteem had been caught in serious moral failure.

After posting the logical question (“What’s going wrong?”) on social media, the responses came swiftly - the dangers of pedestals and celebrity culture, a lack of accountability, believing your own hype. Some pointed out that the problems of ego and sin aren’t new, or confined to any one denomination or church stream.

What if I stumble?

Given that I’m four months in to leading a church plant, the “What’s going wrong?” question is not academic. I ask it, in part, because I don’t want to find myself in the same position as these leaders who I once looked up to.

DC Talk once sang: “What if I stumble? / What if I fall? / What if I lose my step and make fools of us all?” I don’t want to live in constant fear of making a mistake, but neither do I want to be complacent. I’m mindful of Paul’s words after he recounted the failings of God’s people in the Old Testament: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us...So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).

It's tempting to think we are “standing firm”, and not susceptible to committing certain sins. “I would never…” or “I could never…” But given how “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18), we must never think we are somehow untouchable.

Guarding ourselves from sin is something every Christian should care about, not just those in positions of leadership. RT Kendall’s suggestion that we live for ‘an audience of one’ is a wise one. As RT writes in this month’s cover story, the job of every Christian is to: “Live as if God alone is watching and listening. That’s what Jesus did.”

Justice will be done

There's a tendency in our society to view people as 'goodies' or 'baddies'. The latest revelations may lead some to write off all of Vanier's past work. That would be a mistake. In the much quoted words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

That isn't to draw a moral equivalence between Vanier and those who have committed lesser sins. We cannot excuse evil. But neither should we deceive ourselves into thinking there are only two options: idolising someone as a saint or writing them off as an evil monster. Neither positions are tenable, especially in the light of scripture, a book full of flawed heroes and redeemed villains.

For those who hold to a secular worldview, justice was not done in this case. And because Jean Vanier died before his wrongdoing was exposed, justice, they say, will never be done. But as Christians, we know that death is not the end, and God is the perfect judge.

How will the God of grace and the God of wrath (for surely he is both) deal with Jean Vanier? None of us know. But we do know his decision will be right and just. And so we can say, along with Abraham, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)

Judgement isn’t a popular subject nowadays, much less God’s judgement. But part of what it means to be a Christian, is having hope that ultimately, God not only knows all things and sees all things, but that he will supernaturally and miraculously put everything right in the end. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” asks Samwise of Gandalf at the end of The Lord of the Rings. For the Christian, the answer is always ‘Yes’.

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