In Defense of Courage

By Scott Bader-Saye

Even as a new administration takes office inWashington, questions about nuclear security remain both urgent and contested. Yet wise reflection on these matters will be hard to come by as long as the politics of fear, in subtle or explicit ways, continues to drown out measured deliberations.

From the Republican Convention’s use of 9/11 video footage to Hillary Clinton’s “It’s 3 a.m.” campaign ad, fear retained its hallowed place in the most recent election cycle. Its effectiveness was questionable, however, and the rhetoric of hope seems, for now, to have trumped the rhetoric of fear. This is welcome, but we still need to find ways to ask some honest questions about security without the distorting lens of excessive fear. I suggest that the most pressing political question is: What kinds of vulnerability are we willing to accept in order to pursue those goods that are greater than our security? Is self-preservation an end in itself, or are there social and political goods that are more important than survival and for which we are willing to take risks?

Illusions of Invulnerability

The Christian tradition understands human life as fundamentally vulnerable and dependent. We are creatures whose lives are bounded by birth and death and whose loves are threatened by transience and contingency. This vulnerability reflects something of how God chose to create us. God populated the earth with varieties of creatures whose lives were dependent upon one another. Eden was not just a beautiful backdrop for individual self-realization; it constituted an ordering of relations by which the differences of creation might contribute to the flourishing of all. It was not good for Adam to be alone; he needed another with whom to give and receive blessing. Theologically speaking, we live not simply for the sake of living but in order to reflect the self-giving love of the Trinity in our own relations of reciprocal generosity. Only in such relations do we flourish, yet such love requires a vulnerability to the other that is at times uncomfortably disarming. This truth seems to be behind Jesus’ words, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).

In a world that requires the risks of vulnerability for personal and communal fulfillment, courage becomes a central virtue – not simply because it helps us face our fears, but because courage helps us fend off the temptation to make security our highest good. Courage helps us keep fear at bay long enough to pursue those relationships and activities that constitute the good life. Courage – whether it is understood paradigmatically in the life of the soldier, as Aristotle held, or in the life of the martyr, as Aquinas would have it – remains intimately connected to vulnerability, since courage is the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to threat in order to pursue a good (such as honor, faithfulness, or justice) that represents a higher calling than mere survival.

The desire to be invulnerable is not courage, but an attempt to make courage unnecessary.

The desire to be invulnerable is not courage, but an attempt to make courage unnecessary. The invulnerable person has no fear and thus does not need courage, since courage has everything to do with feeling fear yet refusing to be dominated by it. The security promised by combining a missile defense system with a still-prodigious nuclear arsenal provides an interesting example of the illusion that we can become invulnerable. Yet such invulnerability is purchased at the cost of the increased vulnerability of others. In this way a security-driven politics exports fear only to find that the increased anxiety outside our borders returns to us in the form of resentment and rage.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while at Union Seminary in New York in 1939, wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. … Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose: but I cannot make this choice in security.”1 What is so remarkable here is not simply that Bonhoeffer was willing to embrace danger courageously in the name of a higher good, but that he was willing to make his nation more vulnerable, since the survival of the nation was not as important as the survival of a Christian vision of life that was in principle separable from the security of any particular state.

Fear’s Binding Power

In the end, the most important question is how we can keep our desire for security from threatening the goods that exceed mere survival. Of course, the question of how we name and rank the higher goods in a liberal democracy is a difficult one, given that liberalism as political theory refuses to make final judgments about the good. What this leaves us with, unfortunately, is the tendency to embrace what Judith Shklar called a “liberalism of fear” – that is, a politics in which we turn to fear as the glue that binds us together in the absence of agreement on the nature of the good. If we cannot agree on what final goods we should pursue together, we may at least agree on what evils we wish to avoid together. But such a “liberalism of fear” feeds a politics of security-at-all-costs, which in turn threatens goods such as hospitality, generosity, and peacemaking. The danger comes when survival and security rise from being penultimate goods to being ultimate goods – closing off any room for reciprocity and engagement with the stranger.

An important political question follows from this: can the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, or preemptive war, or the torture of enemy combatants be consistent with human flourishing, or do such practices, undertaken in the name of security, actually diminish our humanity along with theirs?

Scott Bader-Saye (M.Div, 1991), is Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He holds a Ph.D from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. His most recent book is Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press, 2007).


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), xvi-xvii.