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Events of the past several months (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic; the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks (among others) and the protests over policing, monuments, and the country’s long history of white supremacy that have followed; increasing incidents of political dysfunction and partisanship that ignores data, advances falsehoods, and harms persons) have continued to lay bare two truths that many people would prefer to ignore.
Not everyone is equally vulnerable. And not all vulnerabilities are the same.
Not everyone is equally vulnerable: depending on your age, underlying health conditions, job, class, race, gender, geographic location, and the political sensibilities of your local, state, and national governing officials, you are more or less likely to contract Covid-19, to suffer from violence (state-sanctioned and otherwise), and to otherwise live in conditions that allow you to flourish or prevent your flourishing.
Not all vulnerabilities are the same: being vulnerable to a disease like the SARS-CoV-2, which can infect just about anyone and proves life-threatening to a small percentage of them, isn’t the same as being vulnerable to police violence, which immediately impacts a comparatively small percentage of U.S. citizens but has widespread repercussions in many communities and, ultimately, reverberates through the whole of American public life.
And the fact that so many contemporary crises are nested, matryoshka doll-like, inside each other, exerting differential pressures among distinct communities, is revealing that we can’t even compare different levels and types of vulnerability without recognizing the way that such crises impact each other.
What are we to do in the face of so many intersecting vulnerabilities?
The American liberal democratic project answers that question by arguing for a robust public square in which citizens are empowered to shape systems that can prevent, minimize, and mitigate unjust distributions of vulnerabilities.
Defend and promote rights.
Recognize that our unum comes from our pluribus.
Shape deliberative bodies composed of public servants that are capable of gathering data, reflecting on it, and shaping policies.
Protect particular spheres (the family, religious bodies) from the intrusive behavior of others. Build a body politic capable of addressing vulnerabilities with wisdom and empathy.
The obvious problem in the midst of this answer is that these nested vulnerabilities are, themselves, political in nature: not all citizens have equal access to such a public square, not all public squares have equal access to the levers of power, and not all levers of power can exert the same amount of force to bring about change.
Said differently, dysfunctional political systems of the type we are experiencing today not only exacerbate vulnerabilities and the differentials between vulnerabilities but inhibit, distort, and sometimes prevent access to the very resources designed to address such vulnerabilities.
Such has always been the case, which is not only why we find ourselves in some of the crises we’re in but also one reason that U.S. citizens, as citizens have a responsibility to listen with increased attentiveness to those who are or have been made more vulnerable.
Failure to listen ends in political and social reckonings.
Since the church’s mission has always included attention to and care for the vulnerable among us, it has its own interests in promoting better politics and more robust public squares.
But how to do so–especially when the church has its own internal politics to deal with?
Come participate in a wide range of workshops that address that question. Hear from scholars who have spent their careers addressing that question.
Join in conversations with others about their own best practices.
Imagine theologies that are alert to and responsive with the vulnerable among us.
All of this–and more–will be part of the Center for Lifelong Learning’s “Talking Politics During Turbulent Times” online conference this fall.
Mark Douglas is a Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. His wide-ranging interests include ethics in neo-orthodox theologies, medical and business ethics, the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and the role of religion in political philosophy. He is currently researching and writing at the intersection of environmental issues and conflict studies.