To Believe is to be Vulnerable – The ‘disadvantages’ of being a believer
The arrest, harassment, inhumane treatment and finally death in custody of Father Stan Swamy in India on July 5, 2021, reveal some important consequences of our faith. Among them, there is the apparent helplessness and total vulnerability of a believer in the face of certain operatives in the state machine and of those forces for whom fairness, justice, peace, and ultimately any noble principle of civil morality are meaningless.
In such circumstances, a believer, whose faith life is based on justice, peace, fraternity, freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation, and who tries to live in a manner consistent with what he or she professes, ends up becoming an easy target for fanatics and fundamentalist forces that aim to destroy every trace of diversity and dissent in order to impose on the nation an ideological tyranny that homogenizes culture, religion, language and government.
In this article we will try to reflect on the “vulnerable” dimensions of faith in the contemporary conflictual context. Obviously, it is not always easy to distinguish between genuine faith and fundamentalist fanaticism, the latter being either sadistic and violent, or masochistic and non-violent. Therefore, our reflections will go beyond this specific issue. We will also explain the ways a believer’s vulnerability can come to be seen as his or her true strength.
The act of faith and its content
The content of faith (fides quae) is defined in reference to intellectual assent to and profession of a set of beliefs. The act of faith (fides qua), on the other hand, consists of a personal and devout orientation to God. These are two essential dimensions of faith. It can be said that the latter is more important than the former, yet the former is also part of the faith that is professed.
Authentic reasons for believing can only be found if one embraces a relationship and commitment to faith. What must take place, then, is a real personal leap of faith, which involves risk and a sense of vulnerability. As one grows in faith, this vulnerability probably will move to the unconscious level. But sometimes it can surface in consciousness, even in the case of a staunch believer. For example, it may happen that some dimensions of a believer’s faith are challenged by factors such as scientific perspectives and discoveries, the suffering of the innocent, the enormity of evil in the world, the unanswered prayers of the distressed. In such circumstances, a believer may become vulnerable to the onslaught of serious doubts, and then the faith by which he or she turns to God (fides qua) may be weakened.
The wise fool versus the foolish wise
The vulnerability involved in one’s commitment to faith also emerges from the paradox that the “wise” prove to be “foolish,” and the “foolish” prove to be “wise.” It is not part of normal common sense that one would put oneself at such risk for matters relating to faith, that is, for beliefs that are not really visible or obvious. Therefore, those who pursue this avenue and take on such dangers appear “foolish” in the eyes of those who do not believe. Yet the “wise” who make their choices only if they ensure an immediate and visible return, or those who pursue a secure and protected life in this world, prove to be the true “fools” (cf. Luke 12:20) because of their inability to distinguish between what are transitory things and what is lasting. As much as the “wise fools” will fare better in the end, nevertheless in the immediate present they are exposed to mockery, criticism and even persecution.
After the martyrdom of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and the latter’s 15-year-old daughter in El Salvador in 1980, a simple, uncultured woman who understood the significance of that event exclaimed during a memorial service, “Do not mourn their deaths… imitate their lives.” Precisely because vulnerability is connected to faith, a life sincerely based on faith becomes a living witness to the Gospel. Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, Archbishop of Paris during the Nazi occupation, described the experience of faith as “living in such a way that one’s whole life would be inexplicable if God did not exist.” Indeed, a faith devoid of all risk and vulnerability cannot bear witness to the Gospel.
Faith is an invitation to recognize strength in weakness
“Deep in the structure of God’s redemptive plan,” writes Edmund Clowney, “is the principle that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” In the Bible, this paradoxical principle stands out in the lives of certain characters, such as the prophet Jeremiah, Paul, Mary, some communities, the Suffering Servant, representing Israel and in Christ himself. Although Paul had been chosen to be God’s instrument (cf. Acts 9:15), he confessed to the Corinthians that he was suffering because of the thorn that had been inserted in his flesh by Satan’s messenger (2 Cor 12:7). He also found his strength in the weakness brought about by insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, and perhaps even in his own spiritual weaknesses. The “weaknesses” listed in 2 Cor 12:10 might allude to these. While experiencing his own vulnerability in the face of attacks from the forces of evil, both outside and within himself, the Apostle found strength in his frailty, and even boasted of it, so that the power of Christ might shine forth from his life to bear witness to his Lord (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). For Paul it was very clear that God was manifesting God’s own strength in his weakness, when he observed that God made God’s own wisdom perfect in the foolishness of the cross and that God’s power shone forth in the “powerlessness” of the cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16.) It is precisely the fact that we bear witness to the faith in our weakness and vulnerability that makes us credible witnesses.
Obviously, awareness of one’s own unworthiness or weakness, on the one hand, and absolute powerlessness in the face of the enormity of evil or the preponderance of adverse external circumstances, on the other, can make one vulnerable to discouragement. But the texts cited above show clearly that it is in such vulnerability that God’s support and strength are manifested.
Vulnerability related to not being able to practice what you profess
Those who profess neither faith nor moral values have the luxury of considering themselves “free” from all constraints, including any potential criticism of the gap between professing one’s faith and practicing it in one’s life. This is not the case for those who practice faith and the morality that comes with it. This is why one becomes vulnerable to criticism when, in one’s life, one manifests an obvious deficiency in the values and beliefs one affirms. The remedy, however, is not to give up proclaiming these values and beliefs, but to see in that situation a call to humility and greater trust in God.
That same vulnerability, if embraced, can have great witness value in certain circumstances. For example, Pope Francis’ humble admission of his own imperfections and the mistakes made by the Catholic Church as an institution has greatly enhanced his personal charisma. In contrast, the luxury of “freedom” claimed by those who do not affirm a faith could cause them to fall into the bondage of their instinctual drives.
‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Yes, you are!’
Faith implies the responsibility of social engagement. Since “God is love” (1 John 4:16), “whoever does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8). This responsibility can place limits on one’s “freedom.” Since the greatest of the commandments is about love, the demands of faith become demands of love. The passage in 1 Cor 8:1-13 gives us a fine example: one can be convinced, and rightly so, that eating meat offered to idols is entirely legitimate, and yet Paul, moved by concern for those weak in faith, exhorts the Corinthians to abstain from that food. Believers cannot prevent their senses from perceiving the painful reality around them, and so they cannot shirk their responsibility to do all they can to alleviate it. One becomes vulnerable to those demands because one believes in God who is love. It is the commitment of faith to a God full of love, compassion and mercy, a God of justice, that gives rise to an irresistible inner urge to raise one’s voice in protest against the blatant exploitation of the weak by the strong, and to stand firmly on the side of the victims of systematic oppression, even at the cost of terrible hardship, great sacrifice, relentless persecution, and even undeserved death.
‘Where is your God?’ (Psalm 42:3) – The derision of the tormentor
We can recognize such derision in many forms in the history of all peoples. However much theodicy may offer a philosophical-theological path to address this problem, mockery per se has never lost its edge. It thrives on the vulnerability of the believer, who in some particularly difficult circumstances fails to experience God’s comforting and active presence. The scorn of the tormentor rubs salt into the wounds of the already ill-treated and battered, adding insult to injury. Job successfully faced a similar taunt (cf. Job 2:9-10). Jesus on the cross also faced mockery (cf. Matt 27:40-43). Both did so by means of total surrender to God, without succumbing to self-pity because of those provocations. Theirs were truly perfect acts of faith.
In this context, a question arises: Does God’s apparent silence in the face of human suffering reveal God’s absence, or rather God’s profound solidarity with suffering humanity? The significance of the crucifixion of the Son of God points toward the second alternative. Our natural instincts for revenge, retribution and retaliation may give rise in us to the desire that God might somehow take our side and intervene, crushing our oppressors. But, as Isaiah tells us, God does not think as we think, and God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isa 55:8). Rather, as Paul reminds us, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). This is the lesson of Calvary. There, God’s tremendous silence proclaimed a resounding message, loud and clear, to be found in the action of God in turning things totally upside down, when those who had tasted defeat, darkness and desolation on Good Friday experienced overflowing joy, triumph and hope on Easter morning, while those who had celebrated their victory on Good Friday were later soundly defeated.
It has always been so in the 2000 years of Christian history, whether it was the first Roman martyrs, the martyrs of later times, or those of our time, such as St. Oscar Romero, Blessed Rani Maria, the Jesuit missionary Anchanikal T. Thomas and others. It will be the same for the story of Father Stan Swamy. The true believer perseveres in faith, fervor and fellowship, “hoping against hope” and valiantly vulnerable, leaving aside any thoughts of revenge and the last word to God.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22:1)
The most extreme vulnerability a human being can ever experience is the feeling of having been completely abandoned by the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), by the One who has always been one’s absolute anchor, the rock on which one had founded one’s hope, the inexhaustible source of one’s capacity for self-emptying love. Our commitment to faith could lead us to the point of such radical anguish. We have an example of this in people, such as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who suffered long periods of spiritual darkness despite their saintly lives.
Those who live by faith are not given guarantees that their lives will always be full of peace and tranquility. There is only the conviction, trust and hope that God’s promises are reliable and that God will eventually see to it that they bear fruit. Faith, fueled by such hope, forms the “backbone” of a believer’s life. Therefore, apparent abandonment can lead to greater hope, stronger faith, and more ardent love. In an April 1960 speech, Martin Luther King illustrated this reality vividly and intensely. That is why we want to quote him at length here: “Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.
My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.”
Of course, there is no shortage of examples of people giving in to despair as well. We do not judge them. There are some who in difficult conditions abandon the “narrow way.” Let us try to understand their predicaments! However, those who continue to walk the “narrow way” in spite of everything become shining models to be imitated. Father Stan Swamy was one of them, one of those who continue to trudge through the thorns and stones of the narrow way, defenseless in the face of constant persecution, horrible harassment, unspeakable humiliation, false accusations, denial of a fair trial, and finally a totally undeserved death in captivity: a true Via Crucis.
Ultimate concern and ultimate demands
Faith operates at the ultimate levels of our existence. Paul Tillich defines it as “being ultimately concerned.” We may or may not agree with that definition, but we cannot deny the fact that faith involves us in an absolute way. Faith required of Abraham his only son; God’s faith in humanity and God’s love for us demanded from God, God’s only Son; faith required of Mary her only son; faith required of Paul the renunciation of all his precious “gains” (cf. Phil 3:7-10) including his hitherto “only righteous faith” – the faith of his ancestors.
Believers are vulnerable to such demands made of their faith. Even the onlys must be relativized when faith demands it. If we do not embrace the radical demands of our faith, and thus experience a “death to self,” can we honestly say we have faith? Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and countless other extraordinary men and women over time have given up their careers and ventured into the unknown, into uncertain and unaccustomed peripheries, and thus have shown us what it means to believe, to be vulnerable to the demands posed by faith, even to the point of giving one’s life for those whom they loved. Father Stan Swamy is just the latest in a long list of heroic but vulnerable witnesses to the faith.
The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone
Just as it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer before entering into his glory (cf. Luke 24:26), and before returning as judge of the world, so a believer must remain vulnerable, in many ways, on the journey to becoming a cornerstone. The proverbial “rejected stone” that becomes a “cornerstone” (cf. Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Eph 2:20) is not only a load-bearing stone, but also a point from which all the dimensions and angles of a building are measured. Therefore, it is the stone which establishes perspectives, or even the touchstone. In this sense, a life of faith proves to be a shining beacon that shows the way to many who walk in darkness, a herald of hope that instills courage in those who are afraid, and a source of love for those who have allowed their first love to grow cold in the face of its demands.
From the doubts of faith to faith-based doubts
Although believers’ doubts, when it comes to faith, manifest their vulnerability, a firm and unshakable commitment of faith in turn challenges all that is opposed to the Kingdom. Indeed, this is a great paradox: vulnerable faith makes everything that is contrary to the Kingdom vulnerable to its critique. French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote: “Faith is a terribly caustic substance, a burning acid. It puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing. It leads me ineluctably to question my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs and policies. It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity.” Although faith doubts constitute a painful experience for believers, the doubts they themselves pose – based on faith and the actions that flow from it – make them prophets of their time, and we know from both history and current events that every prophet is destined to walk like, with and for Christ to Calvary, carrying the cross, and pay there the supreme price for being committed to the prophetic call.
Creation and Incarnation show the vulnerability of God
Perhaps we will never grasp this mystery: God wanted to be, in Jesus of Nazareth, a vulnerable human being rather than a powerful despot, to defeat the power of the Evil One. It seems that, on God’s part, there was a fundamental vulnerability at the moment of the creation of the human being: the vulnerability to being rejected by his rational creature, by the creature made in God’s image and likeness. God’s own trust in us, endowing us with our freedom and respecting it even when we abuse it, is not exempt from such vulnerability.
Ultimately, it is this divine vulnerability that we share when we make a radical commitment of faith to God, and, surprising as it may seem, it is because we share that vulnerability of God that it will ultimately be exalted. That is why we are able to believe in the face of events that raise doubts; why we can still hope in the face of clear violations of human rights that engender desperation; why we are able to continue to love even when everything seems dark and desolate, devoid of any light of truth or justice.
The beatitudes of the vulnerable
Contrary to what some believe, the gospel beatitudes (cf. Matt 5:1-11) are not mere Christian moral norms, nor are they a set of transitional ethical principles to be followed until the coming of the Kingdom of God by practicing which one can experience the Kingdom. Instead, they are the Gospel itself, its synthesis and substance. However, each of them reflects a high level of vulnerability, and for this very reason it is not easy to accept them as a viable criterion of practice. Yet, because they are Gospel, they represent a way of life that is the consequence – not the precondition – of the experience of the Kingdom. Being vulnerable matters little once one has experienced the Kingdom. Those who do are truly blessed. We must experience the Kingdom before we can serve it. Justice presupposes faith. The justice we work for is that of the Gospel, of the beatitudes, of the Kingdom. The believer who works, struggles, sacrifices, and even dies for righteousness is inflamed by zeal for the Kingdom, by the spirit of the beatitudes, by the ideals of the Gospel.
We must be wary of a faith without vulnerability
Every human being instinctively tries not to be vulnerable. This explains the human desire for power, influence, physical safety, and so on. But true faith sometimes makes choices of the opposite kind. Only those who have deeply contemplated God’s vulnerability can find meaning in embracing a faith that demands such dedication from their lives. Paul understood this well; for this reason he was able to affirm: “ I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And again: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).
What might it mean to proclaim Christ, and him crucified, in today’s society? What kind of Christ do we actually represent? What is our attitude toward the powerful? Is it marked by admiration, awe or deference? Flattery or adulation? A desperate attempt to win their favor? Or is it one of critical respect? Does it involve a regard animated by discernment? Is it marked by the freedom of the poor? The courage of the meek? The passion of the seeker of justice? The impartiality of the peacemaker? The vulnerability of the disciple? How do we live out our faith-related vulnerability in our parishes, institutions and communities?
The “disadvantage” of being a believer, then, involves a paradox: the faithfulness of the believer, while vulnerable in the face of attack, itself becomes the norm that manifests the error of the attackers (cf. John 16:8-11). Indeed, true witness to the Gospel occurs when believers refuse to compromise and live out their vulnerability as believers. Those who do the piercing are made to look upon the one they have pierced (cf. John 19:37). May the vulnerability experienced for so long by Stan Swamy, and by many others who still suffer, be a beacon of prophetic light for all of us, inviting us to a radical conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to a full commitment to the Kingdom and to a relentless struggle to transform human society into one family, of brothers and sisters, under the common fatherhood of God, where all the marginalized, the defrauded and the discarded find a new home of faith, communion and freedom, where minds are unafraid and heads are held high!
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.6 art. 3, 0622: 10.32009/22072446.0622.3
. Cf. S. Alla, “Stan Swamy’s Arrest: The need for a prophetic Church”, in Civ. Catt. En. Edition November 2020, in laciviltacattolica.com/stan-swamys-arrest-the-need-for-a-prophetic-church/
. Quoted in R. McAfee Brown, “The Vulnerable Posture of Faith”, in The Living Pulpit, 2, 1992, 18.
. E. P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament, Phillipsburg, NJ, P & R Publishing, 2013, 84. Cf. J. Edwards, “Religious Affections”, in J. E. Smith (ed), The Works of Jonathan Edwards, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1959, 139f.
. Cf. Mother Teresa, Come be my Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, New York, Doubleday, 2007.
. R. McAfee Brown, “The Vulnerable Posture of Faith”, op. cit., 18.
. See Martin Luther King, “Speech of April 27, 1960”, in Martin Luther King Jr., “Suffering and Faith”, Research and Education Institute, Stanford (kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/suffering-and-faith).
. Quoted in D. J. Hall, “Against religion: The case for faith”, in The Christian Century 128 (2011) 33.