Security, Vulnerability, Theology

By Mirslav Volf

Why security? That seems so obvious. We live in an insecure world, and probably no other event as much as 9/11 has brought that fact to our public consciousness. Anything could happen at any time. Our lives could change and our livelihoods could be endangered in profound ways. But of course 9/11 did not create an insecure world; it became for us only an indicator, a symptom of the insecure world in which we live now.

It’s true that human beings have always lived with insecurity. Yet in the contemporary world, the modern world, we have peculiar forms of insecurities, of vulnerabilities, that we need to attend to.

It’s probably right to say – though maybe some sociologists might disagree with me – that we live in what Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have called a “risks society.” By “risks society” they mean that unlike in previous eras, when the majority of our risks came from natural sources, we live today in a society of what they call “manufactured risks.” These are risks produced by human activity, and above all they concern technological innovation because with technological innovation we are always entering new and unpredictable situations, so we do not quite know what kinds of risks we are going to incur by our own activities.

For example, last summer there appeared this news summary: higher levels of chemicals often found in plastic food and drink packaging are associated with cardiovascular disease. So something that seemed innocuous as an innovation potentially carries significant risk. The greater the technological prowess involved, the more risk potential it carries for society.

Risk Averse in a Risks Society

Interestingly, our life in a risks society – where risk is produced by human activity – also seems to have made us increasingly averse to risk. If human activity creates risk, we reason, human activity can also prevent risk. Hence we insist on high margins of security, primarily enforced by government agents and regulations. Children getting off and on school buses are protected; workers repairing our roads are protected with flashing police cars; homes and businesses are protected with locks and laws; nations of course protect themselves. One of the main functions of government is precisely to “securitize” a nation.

Consonant with the idea of enlarging the margins of security is the reduction of risk, even to the level of inviolability. Not only is the loss of any life one loss too many; more radically, the loss of anything of value is loss that we cannot quite accept. From one perspective it seems like the most natural of all goals. Why should one not seek inviolability? Why should one not seek total security? But: can we achieve it? More importantly: at what cost can we achieve such levels of security that approach inviolability?

I intend a friendly challenge to my fellow theologians – that we would consider these themes with far greater intensity and seriousness than we have done in recent years.

We often think of economic costs in this regard, demonstrated by the fact that almost never does an American politician have to defend increases in military spending. But here I have in mind primarily human costs. What does it cost to achieve high levels of security with regard to how we understand ourselves and live our lives?

As we observe these dimensions of the security question today across the broad spectrum of our life, we also, being at a theological school, try to take a look at religious faith and theological traditions to see what they might have to say about security. And to our surprise, we find very little reflection on such a fundamental issue.

This lack is certainly not due to an omission of primary religious statements on security in the tradition and in the Scriptures in which our traditions are based. The psalmist, for instance, often prays to God as “my refuge.” Or take a look at the very end of the New Testament, which concludes with the image of the New Jerusalem, a city that is utterly and completely secured – the city that can never be conquered, the city that can never be undone.

Yet theologians have, by and large, slept through their reading of these aspects of the Bible. We haven’t taken up this issue of security, or reflected much on what Biblical traditions say about security and how they relate to our contemporary search for security. The resources of our traditions are significant for these very pressing considerations of contemporary security.

A Theology of Finitude

Security may be obvious. But why then vulnerability? Well, vulnerability is clearly the reason why we pursue security. If we were not vulnerable, the question of security would never arise. I am a theologian, and presumably I can say with some degree of confidence that God needs no security force to protect God’s throne. God is by definition inviolable. Human beings are not by definition inviolable – quite the contrary. We need to have our existence and our well-being secured. That is why those lights flash on the buses when kids get on and off; that’s why we lock our homes day and night; that’s why we have a police force, and so on.

But vulnerability also touches on security in another way: human vulnerability places a limit on the pursuit of security. It determines in part, or at least shapes in part, the nature of what it means to be secure. For vulnerability is fundamental to who we are as human beings. To be inviolable is to be divine; to be human is to be, and I think is always to remain, vulnerable. This principle manifests itself in Genesis 3, when God expels Adam and Eve from the garden lest they eat from the tree of life and live forever in their fallen state. The condition of pain and frustration is introduced into their lives, now delimited also by death. But even quite apart from the fall, our very finitude entails fragility. Vulnerability thus becomes the essential condition of human life. No vulnerability, no human life.

Now that has very important implications for what it means to pursue security and, I think, places certain limits on security. We tend to think that the more secure we are, the better off we will be. But inherently vulnerable persons can never be fully secure, if that means creating the conditions of inviolability.

Consider some of the contradictions we encounter when we pursue security ad absurdum. Would it be good to create a world of total security? What kind of world would it be – and who and what would be secure in it? At a certain point it would seem that the pursuit of inviolability would force us to choose between the individual and the institution purporting to guarantee the individual’s security, since the total security of one precludes the total security of the other. Certainly freedom and unpredictability – the latter being related fundamentally to the former – would not be secure in an inviolable world.

Further, inviolable security taken on an individual level would profoundly threaten or undermine the interdependence that qualifies us as human beings and makes our lives rich. Wouldn’t inviolability be the equivalent of being an individual fortress, a completely autonomous individual or nation? And given human nature, would we not as such precisely be a danger to others?

One does not have to turn this soil very much to realize that theological riches abound in it. So I intend this essay as something of a friendly challenge to my fellow theologians – that we would consider these themes with far greater intensity and seriousness than we have done in recent years. Let me stake out one particular problem, in addition to the speculative questions articulated above, which might yield productive investigation.

I am particularly concerned that we consider how our technological aspirations to security actually intensify our vulnerability. To a large degree we seek security by the deployment of force aided by technology. Yet there’s a problem when we employ that approach: we reinforce the competitive relationship that exists between the thing we want to secure, and the threats to it. That’s an inherently unstable situation. The means of security call forth ways of undermining that security, and new ways of undermining security demand new means for achieving security. We are made vulnerable not just by external threats but by the very means we keep them at bay. So there is the potential of an ever escalating threat – and therefore the potential of increased vulnerability.

Mutually Assured Insecurity

This very dynamic was abundantly clear in the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, in which the U.S. and Soviet Union continually sought to maintain an edge over the other’s nuclear capabilities. The only way to slow this furious escalation was to enshrine a mutual vulnerability between the two nations codified by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which ensured that neither could build defenses against the other’s ICBMs. It was negotiated and signed precisely because both nations realized that the alternative was an endless cycle of offense-defense that would bankrupt them both. The 1986 Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, which came extraordinarily close to eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide, broke down over the fervent U.S. desire to pursue missile defense research, and the equally determined Soviet desire to prevent it. The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the treaty in 2002, and today the question of missile defense is still a major irritant to U.S.-Russian relations; the U.S. seeks security from “rogue” ballistic missile threats like Iran or North Korea, and Russia perceives American advances in that direction as a stepping stone toward U.S. hegemony. The very means with which we seek security can stimulate actions by others that actually increase our net vulnerability.

A related situation occurs whenever new means of “securitization” create their own risks. One of the reasons we decided to pursue the nuclear question at the YDS Sarah Smith Conference in 2008 is that it is a paradigmatic case of the vulnerability-security paradox: nuclear weapons pose not only an escalating threat but also serve as a prime example of a presumed means of security morphing into a clear threat to security. As Mikhail Gorbachev said in 2007, “It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security. In fact, with every passing year, they make our security more precarious.” The weapons that the nuclear powers built to deter their use are in fact now the greatest stimulant to the global proliferation that would virtually guarantee use via regional war, accident, or terrorism.

We are confronted with an unenviable situation: damned if we hold on to them, maybe not damned if we don’t – hardly the sort of security guarantee that our varied global publics demand from their elected leaders. That character of increased risk created by the means of security must be dealt with as an essential component of analyzing risk in a technologically driven risks society.

I close with the hope that this will be the beginning of a renewed theological investigation of security and vulnerability. What human loss is entailed in pursuing security to the point of inviolability? Is the pursuit of inviolability ultimately a vain show of hubris and pride, something to be renounced? What modes and means of security are appropriate to beings whose vulnerability belongs to their very character? What contribution can religious tradition, in our case the Christian faith, make to rethinking the security issue?

I hope that the question of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, resurgent in this second nuclear age, will be a key test case for these and other challenges to which theologians will apply ourselves today.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at YDS and the founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He is also a member of the Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum. He is the author of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Zondervan, 2006) and other books. Born in Croatia, he regularly lectures in Central and Eastern Europe.