Within the recent conversation about Hauerwas and feminism over at WIT Halden embedded a question about Hauerwas’s engagement with profound disability. He asks if there is a parallel concern in regard to his treatment of profound disability, namely is this “theology of privilege”? I gave a cursory response but I thought it might be helpful to lend a bit more insight.

Hauerwas was sensitive enough to this critique that he decided to stop writing about intellectual disability full stop, somewhere around 1998. Hans Reinders responded to this decision in an article pointedly titled “The Virtue of Writing Appropriately or Is Stanley Hauerwas Right in Thinking He Should Not Write Anymore on the Mentally Handicapped?” (a chapter in God, Truth, Witness, ed. Gregory Jones, et al). In it Reinders explores the flaw in Hauerwas’s own evaluation of his writing. Reinders points out that Hauerwas never writes about “ethical issues.” He does so out of a desire to resist a turn towards ethical expertise as achieving a moral consensus. Instead, Hauerwas is concerned with Christian witness.

In other words, when it comes to disabilities he is raising a theological issue, and in particular how moral questions arise in the way that certain question emerge (e.g. why do we begin with the assumption that disability must be prevented and then move on to solutions from here?). According to Reinders, Hauerwas wants to dig up presuppositions regarding suffering and its relationship to profound disability.

Reinders offers a critique of Hauerwas’s own dis-ease regarding writing for and not with the disabled. Hauerwas agrees that he has fallen into the “Kantian narrative” wherein we can never use people towards our ends, curious logic for a Aristotelian/Thomist. Reinders goes on to point out that the primary question for Aristotle is not whether or not we use the disabled for an agenda but “what are we giving up by depriving ourselves of their friendship.”

What Hauerwas does consistently, and quite well, is to situate his critique within the lived experiences of those who ask us this very question. He writes about the experience of parents who have welcomed children with disabilities and people of the L’Arche community who share life with the disabled as a witness. I’m guessing this is why more recently Hauerwas felt comfortable speaking and writing alongside Jean Vanier as a way to talk specifically about the gift of vulnerability available in L’Arche communities. In his address on the “Politics of Gentless” he writes:

I am going to make the most from being drawn into the world of L’Arche and try as best I can to say why I think that world has so much to teach us about how we should live to enhance the moral and political character of our lives.

This also provides insight into where feminism parts ways with disability theory (at least as it pertains to those who lack a reflective self, or at least a sense of self that allows for self-advocacy). There is no “listening to the poor” without a commitment to the slow and patient work of actually living alongside the disabled, and by allowing your own vulnerability to be brought to light. Even then we must contend with a skewed structuring of power that can never fully be resolved since we are talking about someone completely dependent upon another for needs they cannot articulate. I think it’s fair to say that, especially for a feminist, creatively formulating mutual submission in a context where every action entrenches the dichotomy of powerful and powerless is gut-wrenching work.

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