Vulnerability and Security: A Paradox Based on a Theology of Incarnation


[1] The juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory notions, namely, vulnerability and security, makes for a wonderful paradox in the best of Lutheran tradition. They seem mutually exclusive but, in fact, comprise two basic, coexisting human characteristics: all human beings desire security, safety, protection, and shelter. As human beings, however, we also experience that we are vulnerable, dependent, and finite. Security is one of the basic human instincts. In child development, it is noticeable that children deprived of this basic need will be less confident and self-assured. Yet, to experience oneself as vulnerable is equally important. While it reminds us of human limitations, it also leads us to rely on others and undertake collective efforts to overcome shortcomings. This paradox reveals the complexity of human existence.

[2] In a study done in Northeast Brazil, among workers in the sugar cane plantations, it was discovered that most parents locked their children up in their small shacks when they left at 4 o'clock in the morning to work as seasonal workers, cutting cane. The children grew up not having their basic needs fulfilled. When they cried because they were hungry, soiled, or simply scared, there was no adult to take care of them. Usually left under the care of a slightly older child (one not old enough to work in the fields), this older child would usually make use of spanking to stop the crying. Their need for security - translated in this particular context as having access to food, shelter, clothing, and love - was never satisfied. It created generation after generation of passive human beings.  

[3] Vulnerability and security are intertwined: both are needed to foster healthy, well-integrated human beings. Excessive vulnerability or excessive security leads to problematic situations. The example from Northeast Brazil also demonstrates how issues of vulnerability and security are dependent on a multiplicity of factors. The physical and emotional vulnerability of the children reflects the social and economic vulnerability of their parents. The apparent security of the older sibling (who can spank the younger ones) compensates for the insecurity of being left at home in charge of others. Being made responsible does not empower this child since she or he does not have the appropriate means to feed, clothe, or protect the siblings.  Children themselves employ violence to resolve conflicts, since it is the only model they know.  It masquerades their sense of inadequacy and gives the strongest ones a feeling of control. They know that they are vulnerable and at the mercy of the larger powers. They repeat, in a smaller scale, the power dynamics between their parents, who are poor and underemployed, and the large landowners and their thugs, corrupt politicians, and century old oligarchies. The story of these small children is a microcosm that reflects a broader picture.

[4] In Latin America, issues of vulnerability and security have been addressed especially in the 20th century, in light of the socio-economic theories of dependency and the appearance of liberation theology.[1] From an economic and political perspective, security was at the forefront, a key element in a rhetoric that maintained the status quo. Security always came associated with other concepts such as national security, economic security, and political security. However, such concerns were expressed by those in power. Particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of national security was employed to curtail freedom, upholding a military dictatorship. Concerns for vulnerability were not voiced in light of solidarity with the poor or disenfranchised. Security was the ideological mantelpiece of a system that maintained the status quo, proliferating poverty and reducing people's freedom.

[5] This background helps to explain why Latin Americans may be suspicious - it not openly doubtful - when security becomes a paramount issue for political leaders. Security is usually the means to assure the privileges of a few at the cost of the many. Latin American history teaches us to be skeptical about security. The State never saw it as its role to assure the rights of the common people or to promote a welfare system. The State was not created for a common good, but to develop a system in which the goods could be better appropriated by the financial and political oligarchies.[2] Security for the powerful meant insecurity for the poor and marginalized. Social and political vulnerability could only be overcome though efforts of solidarity among those disenfranchised. Rights were conquered, not given.

[6] After more than five centuries of colonialism and post-colonialism, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean today are facing a neo-liberal economy. If, in the past, wealth was drained, plantations were established, and dependency was fostered, the reality nowadays, in a globalized economy, is more complex. There is no longer a distinct separation between rich and poor countries, colonies and colonized. Countries that formerly were part of the "after-dinner economy" (they exported primarily coffee, sugar and cocoa - items served as desert, after dinner, and therefore not as valuable) are now playing in the global market. In addition, the categorization of countries as either rich or poor is both artificial and simplistic, considering the existence of both extreme wealth and poverty within any given country. 

[7] Transnational companies also make it difficult to demand accountability. They play into a global market, drawing wealth from local sweatshops, where labor unions are less strict or less organized. Local governments offer more incentives to foreign business than national ones. A sophisticated banking and investment system gives the impression of affluence in a system that creates illusory money, also in the southern hemisphere. Ironically, the search for financial security leads to invest in less palpable things (particularly fiscal paradises). This brings us to yet another facet of the paradox: the sense of vulnerability of the secure. The more vulnerable people fear the more they search for security. Among the affluent in Latin America, this led to the build-up of a military economy (including war efforts), opening of markets to exportation, investment in a cash crop economy, and a general weakening of local government.

[8] Socially, the paradox between vulnerability and security is thus constructed: the security of some is the vulnerability of many, and the vulnerability of a few (in those aspects that affect power, might, status, and stability) leads to the lack of security for all.

Theological considerations

[9] In Latin America, vulnerability has been addressed particularly in light of Jesus' life and death. Such message emphasized vulnerability (not security), considering that this is the social and theological locus of the majority of the people. Theologians such as Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff wrote dramatic accounts relating the suffering of Christ with the suffering of the poor and marginalized in the continent.[3]  The vulnerability of God, in Jesus Christ, is recalled yearly in El Salvador, when martyrs are remembered. But the cross is a powerful symbol everywhere. The blood of the innocent, shed by military powers, the blood of the poor, shed by economic injustice, and the blood of children, shed by famine or disease are as painful and concrete as the death of Jesus on the cross. Liberation theologians have long stressed that the role of Christianity is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In our context, this demands a prophetic role: denouncing injustices and announcing a new reality of life in abundance.

[10] In more recent years, feminist theologians have gone a step further in addressing how to go about doing this. Again, the issue of vulnerability and security - although not exactly in these words - can be traced. The emphasis is not exclusively the macro structures of power, but an analysis of the multiple ways this system affects people, particularly women, in their concrete life stories. The interconnection of economic and political security vis-à-vis social and political disenfranchisement is spelled out by feminist theory and theology by stating that the personal is political.[4] There is no dichotomy between the violence experienced by women and children, at home, and the violence suffered outside the home.

[11] The interconnectedness of the elements is also valid for the security-vulnerability paradox. To overemphasize security, from a religious perspective, can lead to a theology of prosperity, justification by works, or a spirituality that denies God as the ultimate. To over-stress security is to deny our dependence on God and the fact that, as human beings, we are bound to a finite reality. A theology that solely stresses security does not need to rely on God's grace, because it is sure (similar to the Pharisees) of its own merits. On the other hand, a theology that only preaches vulnerability can easily perceive its members solely as victims, and not as agents of transformation. To stress vulnerability alone may prevent accountability, responsibility, and active participation. Therefore, to acknowledge vulnerability does not mean to enforce passivity or resignation. To recognize the need for security does not mean a compliancy to power structures. How can security and vulnerability be maintained in such a creative tension?

[12] An example of a theological reflection that sustains such paradoxical tension can be given through a biblical analysis of Matthew 1:18-25, which narrates the birth of Jesus. This account, unlike the mostly used version in Luke, gives a brief yet powerful description of the events that preceded Jesus' birth. In my opinion, it offers crucial information about the incarnation. Incarnation, in itself, is a paradox since it combines both divine and human natures in Jesus. It is one of the most puzzling, awesome and invigorating faith statements: that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The fact that God becomes flesh, fully assuming his human body, reveals a God who rejoices and suffers with the whole creation. It embodies power and weakness.

[13] The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary were engaged (practically married). According to the Jewish tradition, this was a two-step process. One was the legal procedure, and the other the actual living together. The fist part of the ceremony had been performed but, apparently, not the second. When Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph seems quite sure that the child is not his. This creates a difficult situation. The text says very little about Mary. It does say, in verse 19, that Joseph was a just man and unwilling to put her to shame. Therefore, he decided to divorce her quietly. We do not know if he was just because he wanted to divorce her quietly (if he did not want to shame her) or because he did not follow the legal procedures. Being already married, Mary's pregnancy was a concrete sign of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning. Divorcing her in public was not only a shame, but a threat. Mary could have been stoned to death.

[14] It has always surprised me how favorable Jesus looks at the adulterous women (John 8:1-11). In fact, seeing Mary as a potentially adulterous woman might seem shocking to many Christians. However, a closer look at the other women in Jesus' genealogy shows that his lineage is far from pristine. Tamar (Matthew 1:3) is a woman remembered for being clever when a patriarchal system benefited her father-in-law. She dressed up as a prostitute and become pregnant. Under the accusation of adultery, she was able to produce her father-in-laws staff and ring, proving that he was the father, thus assuring her survival through the law of levirate.

[15] Rahab (Matthew 1:5) is also in Jesus' genealogy. A well-known prostitute, Rahab plays an instrumental role in the occupation. Ruth (Matthew 1:5) is a foreigner, and she is remembered for her strategy and survival skills, devised with the help of her mother-in-law. Next comes the wife of Uriah (Matthew 1:6), better known by her name Bathsheba. This is a sordid story of how David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he could keep his wife.

[16] All these life stories comprise the history of Jesus' family tree. Through so many twists and turns, it is clear how fragile, dependent, and little human beings are in the overall historical scheme. It is important to remember that these stories are part of Jesus' heritage, one that entirely assumes vulnerability and counts on God's liberating intervention to assure security. The biblical narratives about these four women are not included accidentally. There is intentionality. Each human being present in Jesus' genealogy is there because God acts in strange, mysterious, and even humorous ways.

[17] Martin Luther, commenting about his passage, also noticed the women of questionable reputation listed in Jesus' genealogy. His explanation conveys important aspects of a theology of incarnation. God could have chosen to be born in a palace, and yet chose a humble stable. God could have chosen any woman to give birth to the savior, and yet chose a young woman called Mary. God could have chosen somebody rich and powerful, and yet delighted in a maid. Luther, in his commentary on the Magnificat (1521), stresses Mary's humilitas (her humbleness). In a similar way, all the women in his genealogy are there to show that God did not choose perfection, but real life and real people. The history of Jesus' family is just like yours and mine, says Luther.[5] It is human history in its most fragile aspect. It is its vulnerability that makes it perfect.

[18] The genealogy closes with startling information: the Messiah had to be born from the house of David. This lineage, however, is given through Joseph, and not through Mary. If Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph, how can he be a descendent of David? Here again the biblical narrative gives us an example of how vulnerability and security maintain a creative tension in divine incarnation. As we have seen, a crucial theme is Mary's role, her reputation, the possibility of being stoned to death and the concrete peril that this pregnancy might never come to fruition. We think that Jesus' close encounters with death come with his ministry. Perhaps, we might phantom that danger in the Christmas narrative, as Herod killed other children. Yet, it starts even before that. We realize that Jesus is the incarnate divine, a vulnerable God who is at risk from the very beginning of incarnation.

[19] Another theme is his position in the genealogy. How can Jesus be the Messiah if there is no direct link with the house of David? The answer is given by divine intervention. Joseph had decided to divorce Mary, thus allowing the real father to step up and assume his role. However, the story makes clear that Joseph plays an important role, nonetheless due to his lineage. Now, the text emphasizes that Joseph is a just man. He is probably a respectable Jewish citizen, somebody the community looks up to. But he is also a man and as such a beneficiary of a cultural and social system that privileges males. The text stresses that he is a just man, making no reference about Mary being a just woman (although Luke, in the Magnificat, shows that she is also a prophetic voice in that family). In line with Joseph's ancestors, listed in the genealogy, he too could play the role of the omnipotent patriarch. The story could have ended before it even started.

[20] But the narrative has a twist: an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and Joseph is to call his name Jesus - for he will save the people from their sins. By naming the child, Joseph will officially assume his responsibility toward the child, as a father. By becoming Jesus' father, Joseph assures the messianic lineage, removes the danger of Mary's ill-reputation, casts away the threat of being stoned, and assures that Jesus will be born safely. His act turns vulnerability into security. It symbolizes how the paradox is present in the theology of incarnation even before Jesus' birth.

[21] Incarnation is God's option for vulnerability in a world that strives for security. In a most surprising manner, security is not achieved through might or power. It is achieved by assuring survival, the birth of a defenseless child. The link between the two pieces in this paradox (vulnerability and security) is survival: the continuity of life. This vulnerability includes a young woman capable of making decisions regarding her own body and saying yes to a pregnancy that would forever disturb the world. This vulnerability includes God speaking through angels. But it also includes a man stepping out of his patriarchal and omnipotent role. Security is assured by following God's vision, dreaming dreams, and following them. When men, like Joseph, dream, new things can happen.

[22] Incarnation draws on human capacity to depend on others, to trust one's dreams, and to rely on the cooperative efforts that make life possible. It is not surprising that Jesus would be born in a town called Bethlehem. Beth is house, lehem is bread. Or that Jesus would become the bread of life. Survival and abundance of life are ever-present themes in Jesus' preaching, teaching, ministering, and announcing the Reign of God. This paradox - vulnerability and security - is constantly addressed though an ethics of life in abundance. Not merely life, but superlative, with quality. It is not the definition of security and freedom as established by a few, who arrogantly claim to be able to "extend the benefits of freedom across the globe." Rather, it draws from a cooperative, dialogical, more humble approach. Once we recognize that it is a paradox, not one side can be overstated.

Ethical considerations from a Latin American perspective

[23] An ethical debate from a Latin American perspective will, of course, draw on an ethics of vulnerability instead of one of self-assurance and pseudo-security. Vulnerability is not only our most human characteristic, but it is the ethos of Christian love, as embodied in a theology of incarnation. The human capacity to creatively rely on others and build a society that fosters cooperation is something very dear to Latin Americans. It is part of living at the margins of a system that excludes. People only survive if networks of cooperation are created.

[24] It is a different outlook when one takes vulnerability, and not security, as one's life experience. Latin Americans in general can hardly rely on government to assure welfare. One doesn't presume that the social, political or economic system will work for the individual. That is not a constitutive part of our history. The rights of the individual are not an a priori. Being aware of one's vulnerability does, however, teach us to rely on each other, to create alternative networks, to device ways to assure that basic rights will be respected. It is a powerful process to become aware of one's citizenship. Around this concept, scholars such as Paulo Freire emphasized consciousness-raising, that is, the capacity of each human being to critically read reality and transform it.[6]

[25] This can only be done collectively. Through collaborative efforts, citizens become aware that politics, the economy, education, healthcare, and security are not topics decided by others and that affect them directly or indirectly. These are concrete realms in which Christians act and live their faith.[7] This collective and conscious participation acknowledges that a nation is not built by old oligarchies who keep themselves in power through corruption and force. From a Christian perspective, citizenship is not merely a right or a privilege. It is a responsibility.

[26] This, of course, is not a new idea in Latin America, although it is a recent one. It is necessary to say that the election of the Brazilian president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva - a man who comes from a very poor background, who doesn't have a college degree, and who made his political career through the labor movement - is only possible due to a major shift in political paradigms. The democratic idea that political leaders will serve the interests of the people (and not their own) is quite novel. Yet, such change only happened because of consciousness-raising, because of Christian base communities, and because an alterative network was created.   

[27] Citizenship has become a key concept in terms of decision-making processes in politics and economics. It has concrete ethical implications because it presupposes agency, active participation, role modeling, and pursuit of values such as justice, equality, respect for diversity, and assurance that people's needs are both met and respected. Such model draws on cooperation and active participation, accountability and service. A good example of this is the participatory budget, whereby the municipality decides where the money collected through taxes will be invested. Usually such decisions are made exclusively by the elected representatives, in the City Hall. However, through a participatory budget, citizens meet in local assemblies and make these decisions collectively. Of course, there is not enough money to do everything that is needed. But this is why and how common people learn to negotiate and establish priorities. There is a strong ethical component in the whole process, as people decide which projects take priority.

[28] This concept can be taken one step further when we also acknowledge that citizenship is a concept that goes beyond the boundaries of one's nation.[8] We all are global citizens, deeply affect by what happens in our planet (whether it be by weather, forces of nature, warfare, or the economy). Such awareness that we are simultaneously and paradoxically local and global is expressed creatively in the term glocal. Glocal concerns and initiatives are being carried out by churches, ecumenical organizations, NGOs, political parties, and governments.

[29] A good example of how the global community is addressing issues of vulnerability and security is the World Social Forum, held every year concomitant to the economic summit of Davos, Switzerland. The last World Social Forum, held in Porto Alegre (Brazil) brought together more than 100,000 people under the firm belief that "Another world is possible". This is a momentous occasion to celebrate a plethora of economic initiatives, grassroots organizations, human rights groups, ecological programs, and a growing ecumenical movement built on concrete initiatives of peace and justice. It is a beautiful festival of life made possible only because people are aware of human vulnerability.

[30] A theology of incarnation is ultimately an invitation to live the paradox of vulnerability and security. It is an invitation to recognize the powerful God-given gifts bestowed on us: creativity, solidarity, talents, community, food, shelter, and love. It is also an invitation to denounce systems of evil that prevent life from flowing abundantly and to join forces against such systems. Finally, it is an invitation to live our present lives as true experiences of grace, because life is a gift and deserves to be savored fully.


[1] GUTIERREZ, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973; BOFF, Clodovis. Theology and Praxis, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

[2] GALEANO, Eduardo. Open veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.

[3] SOBRINO, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1978; BOFF, Leonardo. Jesus Christ Liberator. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1978.

[4] JONES, Serene. Feminist theory and Christian theology: cartographies of grace. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

[5] KARANT-NUNN, Susan C. and WIESNER-HANKS, Merry E. Luther on women - a sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[6] FREIRE, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.

[7] For contextual appropriations of Christology, see STALSETT, Sturla (org). Discovering Jesus in our place: Contextual Christologies in a Globalised World. Dehli: ISPCK, 2003.

[8] Such powerful statement comes from ecofeminism. See GEBARA, Ivone. Out of the depths: women's experience of evil and salvation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.




© June 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 6