Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

Hacksaw Ridge: Teaching Us to Hear One Another

 

Let me begin by saying that at this moment I have no settled convictions about pacifism.  I have my thoughts and concerns, of course, but this article is not an argument for or against pacifism.  This is about urging us to listen to one another.

In person, on Facebook, and on Instagram I often see disagreements take place where the participants fail to listen to each other.  It appears–I say “appears” because I cannot be certain of the motive–that participants have preprogrammed responses to certain words and phrases which serve as triggers.  Things like “religion”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”, “redneck”, “hick”, “racism”, “Christian”, “feminist”, “slut”, “player”, “constitution”, “rights”, “peace”, “war”, “terrorism”, “Muslim”, “gay”, “environmentalist”, “hippy”, “sexist”, “guns”, “gun control”, “evolution”, “second amendment”, and others.  The hearer/reader, without listening, then takes the things which he/she associates with those triggers and attributes them to the speaker, regardless of the speakers objection, “That’s not what I’m saying.”  And, as an observer (and occasional participant) of the conversation, I often agree.  That’s not what the speaker was trying to say at all.  On such occasions I have tried my best to facilitate conversation between both sides, and this is one such occasion.  I want to encourage readers to see the upcoming film Hacksaw Ridge (you can watch the trailer here) and to “hear” what the film has to say.  It is the true story of Private first class Desmond T. Doss.  As a devout Seventh-Day Adventist he believed he could not touch a gun, much less take another’s life.  Still, he served in WWII as a medic and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after successfully saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers.  I believe this film helps to overcome two common associations I witness in regard to the triggers “pacifist” and “non-violence.”

First, as pictured in Hacksaw Ridge, some associate non-violence with cowardice. One of Doss’ fellow soldiers says to him, “I don’t think this is a question of religion. I think this is cowardice.” In his excellent lecture “Why I Am Not a Pacficist”, which can be read with benefit regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement, C.S. Lewis also suggests that pacifism (he suspects) may be motivated by cowardice.  He makes the suggestion gingerly, even indicting himself, not wishing to insult his hearers. “Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself.  But let me also say that there is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.”1  He goes on to give one of the most succinct and vivid accounts of war anywhere written:

 

“All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service.  Like sickness, it threatens pain and death.  Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger.  Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule.  Like exile, it separates you from all you love.  Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions.  It threatens every temporal evil–every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”2

 

If pacifism did in fact call men to avoid that which threatened the realities described above then we would be right to consider whether or not our “conviction” was inspired by a personal wish to avoid such horrors.  We find, however, that Lewis’ picture of pacifism is not nuanced enough.  He goes on to say, “[I]t is certainly a fact that Pacifism threatens you with almost nothing.”3  Whereas this may be the case with some pacifists (I have not known any) it is not the case with all.  If we take the time to listen we will discover that this is so.  In fact, some shirk the label “pacifism” all together believing it to be too “passive” (though this mistakes the meaning of the word).  They instead prefer the term “non-violent resistance” indicating their commitment to fight evil.4  This sort of pacifism is quite the opposite of what Lewis specifically describes as “nonresistance.”5 This sort of pacifism is that sort pictured in Hacksaw Ridge. Private Doss, nicknamed “Doss the Coward,” proves to be quite courageous. In one scene an officer says to him, “Private Doss, you are free to run into the hell fire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.” I feel safe saying that it would seem to take less courage to run into battle with a weapon than without one. Whereas there may be forms of pacifism which cater to cowards we ought not to hear “pacifism” or “non-violence” and simply assume the person advocating non-violence is thereby advocating cowardice. Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge will help train us to really hear one another, to listen to those who think differently than we do, and to learn to consider other ways, other perspectives. It does so here by showing that pacifists need not be cowards.

Second, in conversations I have had in regard to the topics of war, peace, non-violence, and nationalism some have objected on the grounds that pacifism somehow disrespects the soldiers that have fought and died to secure our freedom. It is believed that the suggestion of pacifism somehow belittles the courage and sacrifice of past and present soldiers. It should be noted briefly that though this objection may win a crowd rhetorically it is no accurate measure of truth. There are a great many truths labeled disrespectful regardless of how respectfully they are expressed. Even so, Hacksaw Ridge once again shows that associating disrespect with pacifism is unnecessary. Doss showed great respect for his fellow soldiers as well as his country. He respected others so much, in fact, that he could not simply send others to make a sacrifice on his behalf. He says, “I can’t stay here while all them go fight for me.” We make a mistake when we make people equal to ideas. The result is that when I disagree with a person’s belief that I am somehow perceived as being unjust towards that person. That is not the case. A person may disagree with the use of violent force without insulting or disrespecting those who support violent force. Again, Desmond Doss leads the way.

If our preconceived ideas about pacifism can so successfully be exploded, what other things might have been misunderstood?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood gun control or Just War Theory?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood evolutionary science as well as fundamentalist Christians?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood the Democratic party as well as the Republican party?  Could it be that we have misunderstood Islam and atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus?  Some of these things I agree with and others I do not.  But I do not want to make the mistake of disagreeing without first understanding.  I do not want my prejudices and my fears to make me ignore a differing view.  Sometimes a film comes a long that makes us take stock of our assumptions and question our beliefs.  Maybe Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films.  I believe that it is.

I am hopeful that Hacksaw Ridge will receive a wide viewership. I am further hopeful that we will not view the movie as simply entertainment or “about” pacifism. My hope is that this movie will do much more. I hope that Hacksaw Ridge will cause us to reflect upon all perspectives which may differ from our own. It is my wish that we will learn that those who think differently than we do are not necessarily our enemies, indeed they may be our dearest friends in time of need. I hope this film will help us learn to hear one another–to slow down, listen, and give others fair consideration. This is a Christian virtue (James 1:19), not to mention basic human decency. So join me in being simply human. Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “What I Am Not a Pacficst” (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 88.
2. Ibid, 89.
3. Ibid.
4. Preston Sprinkle actually entitles his book on non-violence Fight to reflect this commitment. See Fight (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2013), 25, 29, 30, 35.
5. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 85.