As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s fair to say that the term “risk” is having a moment. Rhetoric, both casual and official, applies the language of risk to decision-making (“you’ll have to determine your personal level of risk tolerance”), situations and activities, and even people themselves (“high-risk individuals over the age of 55 or with x number of comorbidities”). Risk is, according to this framing, something that inheres statically in persons, objects, situations, and acts. It is also something that is atomistic, a matter of individual discernment and personal responsibility.
These accounts, however, obscure an important truth: risk, far from being a quality that applies discretely to individual people or situations, is indelibly and fundamentally about connection – about vulnerability, permeability, and exchange. Furthermore, the extent to which it is possible to pretend otherwise, and to insulate oneself from this truth and the boundary-blurring to which it points, is in important ways a useful, if contingent, index of social and material power.
Risk, in its most basic sense, means uncertainty of outcome. It spans from the quotidian to the cosmic; depending on your theology, even the Divine may be vulnerable to it. In Hans Jonas’ “speculative myth” of creation, which posits a fully invested, vulnerable, and becoming God, he imagines that “in the beginning, for unknowable reasons, [t]he Divine chose to give itself over to the chance and risk and endless variety of becoming” (134). Rabbinic stories, too, such as the well-known “Oven of Akhnai” story in Babylonian Talmud 59a-b, offer accounts of a God at risk, as well as accounts of rabbis and others engaging in acts of shocking interpretive and metaphysical edgeplay, even as they also offer minutely detailed accounts of determining the appropriate mitigation procedures for the various sorts of ritual impurities that a Jew who participates in society risks acquiring.
Risk is an unavoidable consequence in a world of unavoidable connection. But it is not a single coherent thing, nor does it affect all people at all times equally, as the COVID-19 pandemic, fictions of normalcy aside, continues to brutally demonstrate. What’s more, the very idea of risk can be weaponized. When members of marginalized classes balance risks in ways that regnant structures disapprove of, those choices become “evidence” of the marginalized actor’s basic unfitness as an agent and serve to justify further marginalization. Risk can be deployed as a reason to ostracize classes of people, as with queer people during the early years of the AIDS pandemic, or to limit their agency, as happens with disabled people’s basic self-determination or with transgender youth’s access to gender-confirming care. Regnant structures can even figure entire classes of people themselves as risks to be managed or eliminated, as carceral systems do to Black and Indigenous people, sex workers, and drug users, and medical systems do to fat, disabled, and chronically ill people.
Risk studies, named as such, has been most obviously adopted as a genre in the social and data sciences. Bioethicists also work with a range of concepts around risk, with particular attention to its relationship to questions of informed consent and medical decision-making on the parts of patients and clinicians alike. In the field of Jewish bioethics in particular, Benjamin Freedman has drawn on halakha, or Jewish law, and its categories of tzaar, or pain, and sakana, or danger, to distinguish between the risk of experiencing suffering and the risk of sustaining harm.
The critical humanities have also dealt with the concept of risk in important ways, especially in fields that engage the experience and expertise of marginalized and subaltern groups, even if the term “risk” itself has been less prominent (though Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, which bridges the social sciences and critical humanities, is one notable exception). Sara Ahmed’s work has engaged the ways in which marginalized people who deviate from prescribed affective displays—not being sufficiently happy, being a feminist killjoy, articulating complaints — pose risks and obstacles, both granular and broad, to hegemonic structures. Ahmed also explores how those who cannot or will not comply with these affective dictates have greater risk burdens imposed upon them.
Womanist and Black feminist thinkers including Karen Baker-Fletcher, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, and Katie Geneva Cannon have articulated the rich social, political, moral, and theological contours of what it means to embrace connection in a world where one is at a more acute risk of personal and structural violence, often precisely because one’s very body has been identified as a risk in itself. Emilie M. Townes’ Breaking the Fine Rain of Death offers an account of the power of communal lament in the face of medical violence, and issues a call to face and name the violence done to Black people in order to maintain and reproduce systems that insulate white people from the risks they prefer not to face. Though “we are led into a life of risk,” in the face of violence, denial, and deceit, Townes calls her readers to embrace a Divinely grounded hope, to take the risk of facing harm and telling the truth (175).
These thinkers, as Cheryl Townsend Gilkes says of Alice Walker’s classic novel The Color Purple, “[engage] the messiness of experience and the connectedness of that messiness to things that are also grand and glorious” (279). Indeed, Sharon Welch argues that this scholarly tradition comprises an articulation of a “feminist ethic of risk,” in which “actions begin with the recognition that too much has been lost and that there are no clear means of restitution. The fundamental risk constitutive of this ethic is the decision to care and act although there are no guarantees of success, [which] requires immense daring and enables deep joy” (68).
Risk is also a central concept in disability and crip studies. Disabled people often cannot ignore day-to-day risks that nondisabled people may take for granted, navigating myriad social hazards including ridicule and social ostracism; compulsory self-exposure for the sake of needed services that Mia Mingus calls “forced intimacy”; the lack of accessible toilet facilities; institutionalization and the abuse and neglect that regularly occurs in institutions (often in the guise of “therapy” or “treatment”); and execution by the state because one’s divergent embodiment, perception, or communication render one other — all risks that intersect massively with race and class.
Crip theory, which sits at the intersection of disability studies and queer studies, engages risk through its analysis of regnant discourses on the “right” ways to be sexual and the “right” ways to be embodied. Compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness are, as Robert McRuer argues, interdependent: cripness and queerness both diverge from a fixed norm. Like queerness, cripness, as Carrie Sandhal argues, resists the taxonomic fixity of systems of compulsory heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Cripness therefore already inhabits a basic uncertainty of outcome. Compulsory heterosexuality and abledness (impossibly) require static bodily and social wholeness: not only happening to be free of rupture but being free of the likelihood—that is to say, the risk—of rupture. By contrast, McRuer argues, queerness and cripness “[refer] to the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of bodily, mental, or behavioral functioning aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (156-7). If the absence of risk means that one’s being and one’s future signifies a single thing, the presence of risk means that one lives with uncertainty and multiplicity. This requires a continued connection and vulnerability, a continued unfolding and fluidity of meaning.
Crip experience thus demonstrates both the burdens and the rich personal and social benefits of attending to risk and vulnerability, something captured by Mingus’ corresponding concept of “access intimacy”— the elusive ease of having one’s access needs met without having to exhaustively explain or justify. The vulnerability that generates risk can also generate an intimacy that comes from shared identity and understanding. This intimacy, in turn, can help create the conditions necessary to form sustainable communities.
Daily risks are not exclusive to disability, or to Blackness or queerness or femaleness or any form of marginalization. All people always face a suite of risks that are part and parcel of navigating the world. However, white supremacy, misogyny, cissexism, classism, and compulsory abledness and heterosexuality serve to distance and insulate the classes of people they center from acknowledging and accounting for those risks. In doing so, they heighten the risk burden of those they marginalize. This is something that, yet again, the COVID pandemic—and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown people, service workers, and disabled and chronically ill people, while the “rest of us” race back to a pernicious “normal”—has demonstrated with devastating clarity.
That insulation is, ultimately, an unjust fiction. Connection, and the vulnerability it engenders, is unavoidable, though the burdens of risk can be shifted, often in ways that reproduce existing hegemonies. It is not accidental, then, that the theological accounts of risk I have briefly introduced here are those which come out of a collective human experience that is somehow marginalized and threatened, complex though that positionality may be. The classical rabbis lived, thought, and argued in a world in which the physical center of their tradition had been destroyed by the Roman empire. Hans Jonas posited an at-risk deity as part of his attempt to grapple with the enormity of the Shoah. And Womanist theology insists on the wisdom and power of Black women’s experience and embodiment, in direct defiance of a system that continues to frame them as risks in and of themselves.
Any morally adequate theory of risk, any theory grounded in the experience of marginalized people, is therefore one that must be attentive to the risks that the status quo allows “centered” groups to ignore. It must also recognize risk’s fundamentally relational character, with all the pain and all the joy that entails.
 See, for example, the prevailing principlist model of biomedical ethics, classically articulated by Thomas Beauchamp and James F. Childress in Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Seventh Edition: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), can be understood in terms of risk balancing: providers must weigh the risks and benefits to each of the four key principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence. For examinations of risk perceptions in specific clinical contexts, see, for example, on risk perception in obstetrics: Howard Minkoff & Mary Faith Marshall, “Fetal Risks, Relative Risks, and Relatives’ Risks,” The American Journal of Bioethics, 16:2 (2016), 3-11, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2015.1120791 and Anne Drapkin Lyerly, Lisa M. Mitchell, Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong, Lisa H. Harris, Rebecca Kukla, Miriam Kuppermann and Margaret Olivia Little, “R · I · S · K and the Pregnant Body,” The Hastings Center Report, 39:6 (Nov. – Dec., 2009), 34-42, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40407670 (Accessed: 02-05-2019). On risk perception and informed consent, see, for example, Rachel A. Ankeny & Ian Kerridge, “On Not Taking Objective Risk Assessments at Face Value,” The American Journal of Bioethics, 4:3 (2004), 35-37, DOI: 10.1080/15265160490496750.
 Disability thought and activism have also been strongly influenced by the concept of “dignity of risk,” a term coined in 1972 by Robert Perske regarding the rights of intellectually disabled people. According to this framework, risk is not only a normal and unavoidable part of life, but insulating a given class of persons from normal risk more so than others constitutes discrimination and moral and psychic harm. To have the opportunity to respond to risk is a critical part of how one develops as an agent who can respond to other agents with care and respect. See, for example, Robert Perske, “The Dignity of Risk and the Mentally Retarded” Mental Retardation 10:1 1972, 25-27; Julian Wolpert, “The Dignity of Risk,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 5:4 (1980), 391- 401. Note that Perske’s use of “Mentally Retarded” was more accepted terminology in 1972; today it is recognized as a slur.
On the concept’s use in the Independent Living and broader disability rights movements, see the “Philosophy and History” subpage of www.disability-rights.org: https://www.disability-rights.org/?page_id=37 (accessed May 3, 2019); Gerben DeJong, “Indepndent Living: From Social Movement to Analytic Paradigm” Arch Phys Med Rehabil 60 (October 1979), 435-446; Patricia E. Deegan, “The Independent Living Movement and People with Psychiatric Disabilities: Taking Back Control over Our Own Lives” Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 15:3 (January 1992), 3-19.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. (Duke University Press, 2017)
——. The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press, 2010)
Living a Feminist Life is an essential text; a profound and accessibly written account of, among other things, the risks—both the burdens and the joyful chances—of becoming an obstacle in the well-trodden paths of regnant hierarchies. For a deeper explanation of the relationship between being an obstacle, affect, and risk and chance—or “hap,” Ahmed’s earlier work, The Promise of Happiness, is key.
McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (NYU Press, 2006)
One of the foundational texts of the field of crip theory, Crip Theory examines how the intertwined systems of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory ablebodiedness are predicated upon impossible expectations of being free from social and bodily vulnerabilities.
Townes, Emile M. Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care. (Wipf and Stock, 2006)
A pivotal work in the canon of Womanist ethics, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death shines an uncompromising light upon the healthcare disparities imposed upon Black communities. It examines Black communities’ disproportionate risk burdens and highlights the material, political, and theological power of communal lament—itself a risky practice as well as an act of naming risk—to bear witness and to begin the process of redress and repair.
Welch, Sharon D. A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Revised Edition. (Fortress Press, 2000)
A Feminist Ethic of Risk synthesizes the pathbreaking work of Townes and other Womanist and Black feminist thinkers into its eponymous “ethic of risk,” one which confronts and laments what has already been lost and whose central, active risk is “ the decision to care and act although there are no guarantees of success.” (63)