Vulnerability and the Role of the Churches

We all learned, that terrible morning, that we could die while reaching for a piece of toast at breakfast.
Pete Hamill

God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:27

[1] We are still searching for a language to interpret the complexity of reactions and challenges following the terrorist attacks 9/11/2001.1 The language and logic of the righteous war against evil strike many of us as too primitive. Both our common experience and our spiritual heritage tell us that the distribution of good and evil is not that straightforward and easily detectable. How can we as Christians and churches contribute towards creating a platform situated beyond pure antagonism to understand the present situation?

[2] The terrorist attacks and the so-called “War on Terrorism” has led to a heightened awareness of human vulnerability. This paper proposes that a new look at the meaning of both human security and human vulnerability will lead to a more profound understanding of the present challenges-an understanding that is rooted in both our biblical heritage and in our everyday experience of the phenomenon of vulnerability.

[3] There are two basic responses to the challenges arising from a heightened awareness of human vulnerability. The first and most obvious is this: As churches we should support all the efforts that are made to eliminate domestic and foreign threats against our security and give all our spiritual support to the identification of and fight against the evils that are threatening us. All other responses would stem from a well-meant but naïve idealism that ignores or distorts the facts.2

[4] The second possible response is to see this new awareness of human vulnerability as an opportunity to rethink our understanding of human security. This is the course taken in this paper.

[5] Both a general phenomenological approach and an approach taking its departure in biblical faith find finitude, dependency and vulnerability as defining parts of being human. More than that, vulnerability as exposure and openness marks the human being as a fundamentally relational creature. The definition of human as dependent and susceptible is therefore prior to the determination of her as independent, autonomous and self-contained. Vulnerability is no lamentable fact; we find vulnerability at the heart of what it means to be human.

[6] In a culture that to an ever-increasing extent is characterized by the dream of control and predictability, security has come to be defined as the opposite of vulnerability. This security-concept runs the risk of detaching itself from human reality and thus of creating the opposite of what it wants. Rather than building a better and more secure world for all, it risks shaping a reality that is harder, more cynical and violent.

[7] If this is right, it has serious implications. The dream of invulnerability would have to be replaced by an ethics of vulnerability. This, in its turn, would have concrete consequences for policymaking and political decisions on all levels.

Vulnerability and biblical faith
[8] “Vulnerability” is not a biblical word. The notion of vulnerability, however, is central to a faith that finds its norma normans in the New Testament writings. The vulnerability of Jesus is pivotal to the Good News of Jesus as told in the Gospels. From the story of his birth to his crucifixion, Jesus is both depicted as vulnerable and as consciously holding on to this vulnerability, not as a weakness, but as strength. His crucifixion can only be understood as victory as long as we see and recognize this strength. His victory was won because he did not bow to the temptations of converting his heavenly origin into worldly power. He acknowledged his own vulnerability as essentially human. Moreover, his option for the poor, weak and marginalized points to a recognition of the vulnerability of the other as an opening to the coming of the kingdom of God.

[9] In this way Jesus stands as the fulfillment of the “ethical monotheism” of the Old Testament. From Amos forward one of the principal trains of thought in the great literary prophets is the reaction to a “hierarchical monotheism” identifying the power of the powerful with the blessings of God. In the literary prophets social injustice is seen as the kernel of idolatry. Even though much of the focus of some prophets is on the syncretism of the cult, it is repeatedly made clear that God will accept neither a right cultic worship nor a strict personal piety if it is not followed by social righteousness.3

[10] This is of special importance. The primacy of social justice means that the ethical potential of monotheism is brought out. Instead of legitimizing the power of a chosen people or political elite, as hierarchical monotheism does, monotheism here underlines the rights and equality of all before the one God. Idolatry, at its core, consists of shutting one’s eyes to the ethical demands emanating from the vulnerability of the other human. When the powerful fuse their interest with the will of God, they make for themselves an idol. Holding on to this idol, they exclude themselves from perceiving and receiving the gifts of the true God.4 Monotheism means social justice, not elitism. Vulnerability means a call for goodness and openness to God and fellow human beings. God is removed from the earthly throne, and in a double movement “the high and lofty One” is placed “in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.”5

[11] The four so-called “Servant Songs” are of special importance here.6 In all four passages the servant, as the one who is leading the remnant to its restoration is portrayed as meek (42:2-3), powerless (49:4), despised and taunted (50:6). In the fourth and last of the songs, the servant is desolate all the way to death (53:8). He is carrying the pains and the illnesses of the ones to be saved, even their misdeeds and guilt. The locus of salvation is removed away from the throne into the depths of human vulnerability and suffering, where a certain identification of the one bringing salvation and the ones receiving it is taking place.

[12] Thus, neither the ones making out the righteous remnant of Israel nor the recipients of the gifts of salvation are characterized by worldly wealth, wisdom or power. In the same way as the powerful exclude themselves from the gifts of the one God, the poor, downtrodden and desolate are open to the same gifts. Through their deep recognition of vulnerability and through their acknowledgement of dependence on the mighty and merciful God they are receptive to the grace of God.

[13] In the prophetic message, therefore, humility, powerlessness and vulnerability were ultimately seen as openness to the coming kingdom of God, a kingdom seen in opposition to the kingdoms of the apostate earthly rulers. The judgment of God would befall the latter. Upon the poor ones, the gifts of God would be bestowed, either directly or through human agency.

[14] This all-important layer of the Old Testament tradition prepared the ground for understanding Christ as the suffering servant of the second Isaiah and the recipients of salvation as the wounded and powerless. The New Testament can rightly be seen as the conclusion of this development and cannot be understood properly without it. Putting it boldly, the approach towards vulnerability that is found in the literary prophets of the Old Testament is the key to interpreting the central message of the Gospels.

[15] One example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.7 This parable is, in many ways, the zenith of a message seeing vulnerability as openness to the coming of the kingdom of God. That which is hidden to the authorities is revealed to the despised Samaritan. The content of this revelation is that all are equal in the eyes of the one almighty and merciful God and that this equality has concrete ethical implications. This again points to a human fellowship that breaks all borders of social status, faith and nationality. At the same time, the one telling the parable is seen as the one coming down to save humankind from its misery. In the grand narrative he is identified to such a degree with the vulnerable and wounded of this world that we really cannot decide if he should be understood as the savior or the one saved in this parable. All together this means that the parable of the Good Samaritan, and with it vulnerability as essentially human and as a call for goodness, is placed at the center of the Gospel of Jesus as the Christ.

Security and Vulnerability as opposites
[16] I started this paper by observing that terrorism and the “war on terrorism” have led to a heightened awareness of human vulnerability. Following this, security is more than ever on top of the current political agenda. The ruling definition of security places is in opposition to vulnerability. According to this definition, an increase in security is equivalent to a reduction in vulnerability. Security is good-it is what we want. Vulnerability is bad-it is what we do not want.

[17] This, both the focus on security and its definition, is the end result of a long development. The successes of science and technology have led modern man and woman to take features essential to human existence-interdependence, dependence, vulnerability and death-as accidental. The bearing values of modernity tell us that the ideal human being is independent, self-sufficient and invulnerable. All limits to human reality are either defined as illness or evil.

[18] This is an oversimplification, but the general trend is there, and it has consequences on all levels of human reality. The image of self and the image of the other get distorted; this applies both to the individual self and other and to the collective self and other (i.e. my own nation, Islam and so on). The independent and self-sufficient self perceives the otherness of the other as a threat. Security is then defined in opposition to vulnerability. To be secure is to be invulnerable. Following this, we should note, ethics has been suppressed in the fields of politics, economics and science.

Human security as Preconditioned by Vulnerability
[19] There is another understanding of security, though. Please follow me in a simple illustration: The security of a city, let us say New York, can be of two categories: It can be brought about by armed police on every street corner, surveillance-cameras and checkpoints. This is a security feeding on and breeding fear. It is not the basic form of security in any society, although some societies have approached and are approaching such a situation.

[20] The basic form of human security, in New York and in all places, is a fundamental and unarticulated feeling of safety-a sense of security that brings people near to each other, without fear, seeking or giving help. This other kind of security is as constant and ineradicable as human vulnerability itself, and it cannot be defined as the opposite to vulnerability. Vulnerability is a precondition of human security. Security in its basic human form rests on a mutual recognition of shared vulnerability. This mutual recognition of vulnerability leads to a restoration of the distorted relationship between self and other.

[21] Therefore, the goal of security politics can never be to remove human vulnerability, but as we leave aside the hubris of the modern mind, the goal is to develop a culture of confidence, trust and peace to protect indelibly vulnerable human beings.

High Politics and the Primacy of Ethics
[22] The terrorist attacks and their consequences have brought about a new and shared sense of vulnerability. In these times of fear and insecurity the basic understanding of human security is reemerging as an alternative possibility to interpret human existence. Reaching the forefront of our consciousness, this interpretation forces us to conceptualize and theorize anew. The reemergence of the basic understanding of security is also and at the same time the reemergence of ethics in public and political space.

[23] This infringes upon the prevailing conception in many circles that ethics has to be separated from politics, and especially from high politics. The ethics of shared vulnerability, as I have described it, is primary, and therefore prior to all other fields of knowledge and praxis. As such, it is primary to the traditional separation of politics from ethics. Seen in this light, the view of high politics as an a-ethical field is untenable.

[24] What are the consequences of a conception of security based, not on its opposition to, but on a shared sense of, human vulnerability? They are many and important. I will, inside the limits set, point to some of them with a few sentences of explanation attached to each point:

[25] 1. Political legitimacy
The first point is political legitimacy. The legitimacy of political power is always and ultimately derived from the right to protection emanating from the vulnerable other. The vulnerability of the other human underlies the legitimacy of political authority. The origin of political power, authority and sovereignty is the right and responsibility to protect the vulnerable other.

[26] 2. The right to protection and the limits of the use of force
The ethics and politics of a shared vulnerability do not do away with political power and the use of force. As founding a political praxis it belongs to this world and is not idealistic in a “utopian” sense. Enforced security will be necessary as people will take advantage of and abuse the vulnerability of the other.

[27] But the anchoring of political authority in the right to protect also sets limits to its tools and ways of execution. The responsible decision-maker thus has to operate with both of the two approaches to security that I have outlined. One based upon constraining security measures, the other and more fundamental one taking mutual vulnerability as its point of departure.

[28] 3. The asymmetry and the power of the powerless
The third consequence is that the demand for protective action is asymmetrically distributed. As vulnerability and the misuse of this vulnerability are not equally distributed, neither is the entitlement to protection. The need for protection resides primarily with the wounded and the poor-with the victims.

[29] 4. Implications for all levels of human existence
In so many cases the separation of ethics from politics has led to an exemption from responsibility-leading to propaganda, lies and unjust wars. This is no longer a tenable position. The ethics of shared vulnerability joins a long-time trend of making the leaders of our nations wholly responsible, suspending impunity and making rhetoric, propaganda and lies intolerable strategies to convince the public. An ethics of shared vulnerability enhances responsibility, transparency and accountability for decision-makers at all levels: in the family, the local community, in congregations, organizations and for political leaders.

[30] 5. The ethics of vulnerability versus the doctrine of prevention
Recognizing the vulnerability of the other makes his or her otherness signify responsibility and care. A mutual recognition of vulnerability is an entrance to security as trust and confidence. In time, the dynamic mutuality of this recognition will lead to a culture of peace on all levels of society.

[31] This peace is both to be respected and protected through the strict limitation of the use of armed force. The only exception to this limitation is when all other means have been tried to end misuse and abuse of vulnerability. The only one to sanction this exception is the proper collective body.

[32] Today, the otherness of the other is so often seen as a hostile threat. The doctrine of the preventive use of aggressive force makes this enmity reciprocal. When this violent prevention becomes a doctrine, it runs counter to the culture of human security and peace that the ethics of shared vulnerability seeks to support. Legally it is as illogical as a law-based vigilantism. Therefore, we as individuals, churches and organizations stand before the joint and vital effort to reintroduce the UN as the only right authority to sanction the exception of armed enforcement in international affairs.

[33] 6. Living within limitations, the dream of invulnerability
The responsibility to protect is not to remove human vulnerability, but to protect indelibly vulnerable humans from the abuse of their vulnerability. Any effort that has as its only goal to eradicate human vulnerability is at the same time reducing the humanity of the human. A politics following the dream of invulnerability stands the risk of reaching the opposite of its intentions: rather than reducing vulnerability, it risks making human interaction colder, harder and more violent.

[34] 7. Mutual recognition of vulnerability as basic for a good life
The last and positive consequence is that the indelibility of these basic features-vulnerability, finitude, sensibility and the possibilities both of being caressed and hurt-is not a lamentable fact, but the basic precondition of a good and meaningful life-of joy, proximity and community. They implicate openness to the surroundings, to nature, to fellow human beings and to God.8

Concluding notes and quotes
[35] We still live in the shadow of meaningless terror and spiraling violence. The purpose of this paper has been to show that inherent in a more honest and human approach to the relationship between security and vulnerability lies the possibility of a culture of peace. The churches can play an important part in making this possibility real. The central message of the Christian Gospel strengthens the ethical call coming out from life in community.

[36] A mutual recognition of human vulnerability has important consequences for supporting a culture of peace and human security, and it makes actors on all levels responsible for taking part in this effort.

[37] After the attacks in 2001, the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, invited leaders from the global church to discuss the situation. Following several days of talks, Raiser pointed to “the genuine manifestation of solidarity and sympathy with the people of the United States.” He also asked a question: “Will the people of the United States now be prepared in turn to share in the condition of vulnerability and victimhood which has been the dominant experience of people in other parts of the world?”9

[38] From where I stand, I cannot see that the United States and its coalition partners have lived up to that part of the challenge. Now the time has come to do that. There are now new voices in this country that give us reasons to believe that future efforts will use a shared recognition of human vulnerability as a starting-point to make better world for all.

[39] Allow me, reaching the end of this paper, to quote the full paragraph of how one year after, the New York journalist Pete Hamill remembered the terrorist attacks:

We stood on street corners together, manual laborers and dot-com workers, mothers and children, all staring downtown at the smoldering stumps of the towers. We asked about children, and dogs, and survivors. The emotions of awe, horror, rage were gone quickly, replaced by a shared sense of vulnerability. That is what remains: vulnerability. […] We all learned, that terrible morning, that we could die while reaching for a piece of toast at breakfast. Where I live, that knowledge has made us more human.10
My hope is that this shared sense of vulnerability can lead our ethical thinking and political strategies towards strengthening human security for all people. Keeping close to the central message of the Gospel and not yielding to the pressures and temptations of the powers of this world, the churches should be one of the principal actors contributing towards reaching this goal.

End Notes

1 This paper was presented at a seminar in the Church House of the United Nations on October 31, 2003. I have rewritten the Introduction and added the part “Vulnerability and biblical faith.”

2 This is the basic argument in Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Basic Books, New York, 2003.

3 Even though much of the focus of some prophets is on the syncretism of the cult, it is repeatedly made clear that God will accept neither a right cultic worship nor a strict personal piety if it is not followed by social righteousness. See Amos 5:21-22; Isaiah 1:11-17; 58:6-7. See also Proverbs 21:27: “The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable-how much more so when brought with evil intent!”

4 See Isaiah 59:1-4.

5 Isaiah 57:15 (NIV).

6 (1) Isaiah 42:1-4; (2) 49:1-6; (3) 50:4-9; (4) 52:13-53:12.

7 Luke 10:25-37.

8 An elaboration of these themes can be found in my article “The Need for a New Understanding of Security after September 11” in PACEM 2:2002. The article can also be found at

9 The talks were held in Geneva 29 November-2 December 2001. The Concluding Remarks of the General Secretary can be found at

10 National Geographic, September 2002.