Response to the Study prepared by the Commission on International Affairs in the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations, January 2001


[1] This Study takes as its starting point the conviction that "the vulnerability and defenselessness of humankind are the precondition for its capacity for openness and solidarity."   The study also identifies and rejects a second concept of vulnerability, which the authors apparently hope to defeat by way of reasoned argument.    Insofar as they proceed as if this were a live possibility, their study manifests, in my view, the very "idealism" that they explicitly repudiate.  

[2] They uphold, first of all, a kind of vulnerability that they relate to human dignity.  This is the vulnerability that they identify with the work of Levinas-one that "leads to the recognition of the security of others…as my-our-joint-responsibility."  This concern for the neighbor is not so far removed from the kind of vulnerability that Luther sees as dependent on faith for an inner security that promotes an outward openness to others in their need.

[3] But there is that second kind of vulnerability too, that cannot, I think, be so easily dismissed.  It is radically different from the first.  And this second kind of vulnerability can be identified with insecurity, despite the authors' insistence that vulnerability and security are never to be thought of as mutually exclusive situations.  This kind of vulnerability results in an anxiety that is an outgrowth of the quest for radical autonomy-what St. Augustine calls "deformed freedom."   While generally dismissed in the paper as a mistake that humanity can itself overcome, this second kind of vulnerability seems to me a matter of primary importance.  This is the kind of vulnerability that is expressed in the anxious attempt to protect the survival of the self at the cost of the neighbor's well-being.  This kind of vulnerability fails to cooperate with the neighbor precisely because it has lost the rational capacity to see the bigger picture in its fear.  Reason is distorted by the sin of standing apart from God, resulting in an inability to fully appreciate communal, environmental, and economic interdependency.  This kind of vulnerability cannot learn about the other kind of vulnerability and imitate it, since reason is (ineffectively) employed in the business of self-preservation.  As the view narrows the capacity to be persuaded diminishes.  Reason is bound to the service of an anxiety that narrows its scope and hence its effectiveness, and education alone cannot overcome it.  

[4] To counter such doubt, this study offers, as evidence of something better, the unexpected cooperation that survived a conflict between Senegal and Mauritania.   In the midst of a dispute over water rights that severed diplomatic relations and resulted in the killing of "a large number of people,  …the only place where representatives of the two major parties in dispute continued to meet during this period was precisely the OMVS (Organization for Development of the Senegal River)."    This claims the study, "demonstrates how important this form of cooperation, based on recognition of mutual dependence, can be in preventing conflicts from escalating into all out war."  Yet from the perspective of that "large number" of very dead people, this 'natural' mechanism didn't work as predicted.  Nor is the evidence conclusive that it was informed reason, recognizing the "security of others, of strangers, as my-our-joint responsibility" that won the day.  A much more careful study of the individuals involved would be required for such claims to be validated. 

[5] Might faith play a necessary role in promoting the other-directed sort of vulnerability?  I offer a counter example to the cooperation over water rights-one provided by the late Langdon Gilkey in his book, Shantung Compound: A Story of Men and Women Under Pressure.   As many readers doubtless know, this is a theologically informed account of Gilkey's own experience in an internment camp in China during WWII.  As a young idealistic teacher, reared in the rarified atmosphere of the University of Chicago, a recent graduate of Harvard College, Gilkey was confident that human reason could conquer the world, or at least provide a reliable ground for the cooperation that was so desperately needed in that small, over-populated, camp.  And initially it did.  We hear about the early days at Shantung, as an almost limitless creativity and spirit of cooperation spawned efficient kitchens, a hospital that was up and running in 8 days, lectures, music and drama events, a baseball team, dances-and the list goes on and on.  Though the rations were meager, and the space tight, people by and large were able to cope.  But over the years, as the rations diminished, as the fear of starvation became a constant worry, the level of community cooperation, which was so desperately needed for their survival, began instead to break down.  The custom of allowing 'perks'-a little left over coal dust-an extra crust of bread--these grew into a community-wide problem of theft, and a resulting loss of trust that threatened their very survival.  For, as Gilkey suggests, there simply was not enough food for any one person to live on the tiny bit that would be their individual portion.  The only way for people to get enough was to share-to make a soup from all the tiny slivers of meat, or bread from many handfuls of flour.    This was a community that was completely interdependent in every detail of its existence.   And as Gilkey struggled to help keep the community afloat, we see his idealism fall away.   People, whose generosity he was certain of, disappointed him, rationalizing their narrowing perspective-their growing selfishness.  Indeed, it seems certain that the camp would have fallen into a self-defeating anarchy had the end of the war not intervened just in time.  Gilkey returned to Chicago, then, only to see the same telltale signs of that irrational self-preserving selfishness in the American hesitancy to support the Marshall Plan.   Able to see with new eyes the overflowing plenty that America had in relation to the rest of the world Gilkey began to discern the patterns of behavior that had almost destroyed the camp, played out instead in this larger, global setting.  Gilkey's conclusion was that only faith can overcome the narrowing of reason, itself the effect of an underlying anxiety which emerges from an insecure vulnerability. 

[6] What Gilkey had discovered, and documented, was the failure of precisely that mechanism which he had initially trusted so firmly-the ability of reason to overcome anxiety, to see its way clear to grasp the bigger picture.  Instead what Gilkey found was that the capacity we call reason was simply not up to the task-at least not without the underlying security that leans into on God. 

[7] Now none of this should be a surprise for Lutherans.  Nothing could be clearer from Luther's writing than the conviction that the sort of freedom that is capable of seeing and responding to the big picture is a freedom that rests in the faith that nothing "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."  This freedom alone allows us to see past what we so often take to be the immediate needs of self-preservation-needs indeed that may in the end undermine the very community upon which we depend for survival.

[8] The recognition of only one sort of human vulnerability in the study by the Norwegian Church misses this point.   Only the right sort of vulnerability will allow for the results they predict. When we are freed from the self protecting concerns that blind us to the real situation then, perhaps, we can agree with Levinas that in the encounter with another human being "we experience our own dignity most strongly.  [and] …we encounter ourselves at our innermost as responsible for the other person's need for shared humanity."   I do not deny that there is a human dignity in which we all share.  What I do doubt is its easy availability.  I share Luther's and Gilkey's doubts, that qua human beings we possess the sort of rational freedom that is required to observe, receive, and respond to this dignity in the other-especially when we feel personally threatened.   Education can go only so far.  If our ability to see properly is distorted by our fear, what we once learned will no longer be effective-at least I suspect that is the case in the vast majority of cases.  That's the problem with sin.  It separates us from what and who we were created to be. 

[9] And that's finally the problem with this otherwise hopeful and intelligent document-at least from a Lutheran perspective.  It does not really take account of sin.  It trusts that education and experience can do the trick-that we will learn to co-operate as we must.  But Shantung suggests otherwise-sin seems to run so deep that nothing but God's action on our behalf can relocate us properly in relation to God, and thereby to our neighbors. 

[10] This brings me to my second point.  In a proposal that is aimed at persons in general, and one which considers questions of global significance, it is not surprising that the particularity of religion is treated sparingly, and, if I read it rightly, somewhat ambivalently. On the one hand the document is eager to pull back from the most radical rejection of religion.  "The potential of the religions for generating conflict is often stressed [and] this is undoubtedly justified. …But it's important," they write, "to stress that the religions contain the potential for both conflict and peace."   And, given the "new relevance" of religion and religiosity that the document notes, it wants to position itself in support of the great religions of the world.  Rejecting Samuel Huntington's description of religions as "static, sharply divided systems that lead world civilizations into unavoidable antagonism" the document focuses instead on the fact that "great world religions have both similarities and fundamental difference."   And since "there is a deep correlation between world peace and peace between religions" the study emphasizes a focus on what draws us together rather than on what sets us apart. 

[11] So far, so good.  But then the document takes a bolder turn, gently suggesting that forms of particular revelation should be reconsidered in light of the criterion of human experience.  "… [T]here must also be a process of critical re-assessment of everything in the religious traditions that might kindle enmity between people and ethnic groups.  Religious texts and convictions need to be continuously re-examined in the light of new experience."  One cannot help but wonder how these authors would have been bearers of the insight that "God identifies with those who are at the mercy of atrocities" had revelation been always measured against the higher norm of human experience.  "God enters the world of sin and wickedness," they write, "tak[ing] the suffering upon Godself and sid[ing] with the victims."   But they cannot have it both ways, I think. 

[12] Indeed, the problems with this ambivalence run deeper than they suppose.  It is not merely a matter of epistemology.  The need for Christ strikes at the very heart of the proposal.   Assuming that sin is more than an inherited, but otherwise empty, concept-something received along with the family silver-it will require more than a passing reference to Christ to deal with it.  If, as I've suggested above, it is overly optimistic to suppose that a clear-sighted reason, coupled with an experienced need for political, ecological, and social cooperation, will itself lead us to a generous appreciation of the neighbor's vulnerability, then we will need a savior-a real one-to help us learn to love our neighbors better.



© May 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 5