Vulnerability and Security: Threads from a Conversation

1] Vulnerability and Security-the theme of the 2005 Lutheran Ethicists Gathering in Miami-focused on nation-states and other actors in international affairs. Three major events and probably several minor ones helped frame this discussion. The major events (from an American perspective) were the Al Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, the subsequent U.S. retaliation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that followed. The so-called minor events included the civil war in Southern Sudan and the separate chaos in the Darfur region of that country, the civil conflict in Peru, the drug war in Columbia, terrorist attacks in Spain, the now-almost-out-of-mind genocides in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Rwanda, and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others. These events are not “minor,” of course, to those whose vulnerability is heightened and whose personal security is compromised by them or who may look at them from a perspective other than an American one.

[2] This report teases out threads from the conversation about vulnerability and security that took place at the gathering around two documents and responses to them by a number of Lutheran ethicists. The purpose of reporting on threads from this conversation is so that not only the presentations that appear on JLE but also the conversation itself may have a wider audience and give rise to further deliberation. These threads also suggest both avenues toward, and a need for, future ethical work around the issues raised both by the documents and by the responses to them. The two documents around which both the responses and the conversation focused are Vulnerability and Security: Current Challenges in Security Policy from an Ethical and Theological Perspective prepared by the Commission on International Affairs in the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations, and The National Security Policy of the United States of America, prepared for President George W. Bush by the National Security Council.

Vulnerability of Persons and States

[3] There was general appreciation for the fact that the Church of Norway document helpfully raised the question of vulnerability and its value in human affairs, and that it called into question the view that vulnerability is automatically something to be avoided. Participants wondered whether the same criteria of vulnerability applied to both persons and states, however, and also what criteria were applicable to each. It was said that the analyses of vulnerability at the two “levels” were parallel. Some argued that the idea of vulnerability needs further work to address such questions, and to address the role that communities, governments, and the exercise of political power play in the interaction of human concerns for vulnerability and security.

Vulnerability and the Perspective of Faith

[4] Participants discussed the contributions of religious interpretations of vulnerability. Vulnerability never speaks for itself, according to Hans Tiefel, for the voice of faith reads it differently. Wanda Deifelt noted that some Latin American theologians, e.g., Jon Sobrino, saw connections between the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross and the suffering of the poor today in a common thread of bodily vulnerability to the earthly powers that be. A theology of the cross holds that true knowledge of God is found in the lowliness, suffering, and saving action of the crucified one-Jesus Christ.

[5] Some participants remarked that the Incarnation shows us a God who rejoices and suffers with the whole creation. They also noted that this is an implicit critique of Gnostic views of human invulnerability to suffering or oppression. Approaches to the moral responsibilities of persons or groups toward others who we encounter are based in creation and tend to imply the applicability of Natural Law. But what are the strengths and problems of various theological perspectives such as a creation-centered view or a Christological one in approaching the subject of vulnerability? One participant asserted that an approach from creation enables conversation with non-Christians.

[6] Participants discussed whether vulnerability should be considered an ethos of Christian love, cooperation, and reciprocity. There was a call to consider interpretations of Lutheran theological themes in light of this possibility. Yet, there is also a counterpoint of prophetic critique of human powers and institutions that threatened the security of at least some people in efforts to enhance their own security which is implied by this Christian view of vulnerability.

[7] Views of God’s vulnerability differ among the world’s religions, making inter-faith dialogue complicated. For Christians, God is vulnerable in various ways, especially in the person and death of Jesus. For Muslims, God is not vulnerable. God’s vulnerability in the Bible results from God’s being loving. For Muslims, God is a merciful and compassionate, but wholly transcendent, Other.

Vulnerability and Capacity for Human Agency

[8] Participants raised questions about whether the conception of human agency-the capacity of human beings to act-in the Norwegian document’s discussion of vulnerability was either clear or adequate. How does a vulnerable, suffering, or oppressed person find the capacity to act? Or, how does this discussion of vulnerability account for the agency of social movements, that is, the capacity of people to act together in society for a common purpose?

Vulnerability and Human Relationships

[9] The different perspectives of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the theologians Knud E. Løgstrup and Martin Luther helped to illuminate the theological issues of vulnerability and human relationships for participants. Levinas argued that responsibilities emerged out of our encounter and relationships with others. But it was claimed that Levinas didn’t see any opposition between the fact of human relationship and the capacity of humans to act. For him, responsibility of the subject is constituted in the relationship. Løgstrup understood relationality with others as natural law; my encounter with them presents me with an ethical demand to act in certain ways toward others. Luther argued that sinners justified by faith in Christ through grace were freed to love and serve the neighbor, and were prepared even to suffer with her or him. Luther presupposed that people can act decently, knowing the law. But the Christian acts out of love for the neighbor.

[10] Mary Gaebler posed a dilemma for further work, saying that ethicists have to think about vulnerability and relationality from the perspective of creation, but she doubted that from that perspective we have the capacity to act according to ethical demands and responsibilities to which our relationships give rise. Arguing that autonomy is rooted in relationality, she asserted that a more basic consideration for theological ethics is the connection between autonomy and theonomy.

[11] Analysis of vulnerability sometimes proceeds on the basis of how vulnerability presents itself and is experienced by people. This is what is known as a phenomenological approach. How such an approach could move from people’s perceptions of reality to ethical or moral judgments was not clear. David Baer also noted a lack of a phenomenology of power in the Norwegian document.


[12] The distinction between the vulnerability of persons, on the one hand, and social groups or states, on the other, has a counterpart in the discussion of security. And a similar question about the criteria applies here also at both levels; what are the criteria for security of individuals and for social groups or states? Participants discerned that a response to this question would involve complex considerations of self-interest, rights, the extent to which the self-interests of persons or groups tend to coincide, and what ethical considerations come into play if interests fail to cross some kind of threshold of harmony.

[13] Participants tended to agree that secular conceptions of security at the levels of individuals, social groups, and nation-states went in a direction toward maximizing invulnerability. But because this runs counter to Christian conceptions of vulnerability under discussion here, they also tended to agree that Christians cannot yield a definition of security solely to those with whom they disagree in the name of Christ. Participants also recognized, however, that de-constructing conventional secular views of security is a daunting prospect.

Vulnerability and Rights

[14] Some conception of rights is often appealed to in connection with questions of vulnerability and security. Rights, we suppose, make us less vulnerable to threats to our security because they give us a moral basis to which we can appeal in order to defend ourselves and our interests, and to call upon others to help us do so. For our rights tend to obligate certain other people, groups, or political entities on our behalf in particular kinds of circumstances.

[15] At least two traditions of rights were distinguished-a tradition of personal rights, and a tradition of rights to protection for the vulnerable. Americans often tend to appeal to the former against the backdrop of a presumed personal autonomy which diminishes any communal dimension of personal life; for them, rights protect interests against the state and against others. Participants found this tendency to exclude a communal dimension to rights problematic. Some thought that the role of self-interest needs examination, and that we also need ethical reflection on collective and community rights. Rights exist within a framework of moral and legal law. In this connection, some participants noted that human rights law is interdependent with other areas of international law, and that both together help to establish and buttress law as a whole and help to define rights.

The Common Good

[16] Conceptions of the common good play a role in defining our senses of vulnerability and security. But what constitutes the common good varies. In some settings, such as the United States and Brazil, there is a perceived or actual economic vulnerability among individuals. The U.S. feels its security vulnerable to terrorism. In the Middle East, a sense of national and personal honor has been violated by American policy and behavior which tends to ignore this dimension, so that many Arabs call the presumed benefits of modernization into question. What can a robust conception of the common good be today that has some significant depth to it?

[17] War and terrorism are among the things that disrupt whatever complex of factors constitutes the common good. Terrorism calls into question the existence of an international order which supports a common good. Upholding the common good requires not only some minimal mutual understandings of what it is, but also mechanisms of accountability. Participants pondered what means of accountability are appropriate to various circumstances. In the political realm, elections are means of accountability, but are by themselves insufficient. Civil organizations are also among the conditions that are needed. Public opinion and discussion, where they exist, not only provide a kind of accountability but also help articulate views of the common good. Persuasion may be a form of accountability that contributes to the common good. One of the things at stake is an understanding of the calling of citizens today, and how they can effectively live out that calling. The threat or actuality of war and other forms of coercion may be an effective means of accountability when others fail. This is part of the justification underlying the theory of the just war. But participants noted that the common good is not identical with order and accountability. Tyranny, for example, is a form of order that is generally unaccountable to most persons.

[18] Questions that arose in connection with discussion of the common good were, Could churches be effective in helping people discern the responsibilities of societies? and if so, How?

Just War Theory, Order, and Government

[19] For Gary Simpson, both terrorism and pre-emptive war call both the Just War theory and the criteria for legitimate authority into question. The former confuses preventive war with pre-emption. And it fails to respect legitimate authority of other nations, however distasteful their policies.

[20] Serious work about the following questions was called for: What is legitimate authority today? What is the proper role of government in relation to vulnerability and security? What is the proper role of political power in an international order? What is the basis for any international order? How does an understanding of vulnerability function in relation to the theory of the Just War? What is the basis of, and what are the risks of, preventive war? Theologically, Simpson noted, a problem for Luther was, how does God hold a sovereign

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.