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Image by the Art of Life Group, in Dili, Timor-Leste as photographed by the author.

From Myanmar to Mariupol, from the streets of Memphis to the waves and winds of the Mediterranean Sea: resistance to violence takes many forms. So does political protest against precarity. At which point does the unavoidable vulnerability of the living condition come to expression as political agency? Can such precarious politics constitute or configure an alternative community?

From Myanmar to Mariupol, from the streets of Memphis to the waves and winds of the Mediterranean Sea: resistance to violence takes many forms. So does political protest against precarity. At which point does the unavoidable vulnerability of the living condition come to expression as political agency? Can such precarious politics constitute or configure an alternative community?

Vulnerability is not new to theology or political theory. In the present age of terror and threat of extinction, however, this omnipresent condition has taken on new, arguably acutely subversive significance. Across disciplines, from psychology to ethics, critical theory to law, a conventional view of vulnerability is being refuted. It is not simply weakness, characterizing some unfortunate groups or people assigned as ‘the vulnerable.’ Neither can nor should vulnerability be reduced or eliminated through neoliberal or neocolonial paternalistic acts of protection.

On the contrary, such conventional construals of human vulnerability reproduce and aggravate precarity for millions through legitimizing brutal biopolitical regimes of control. Hence, a different conceptualization of vulnerability is urgently called for. This is also a task for political theology.

No doubt, vulnerability spells out the risk of being hurt, harmed, crushed, or killed. And yet, it is also a site of reception, relationality, and resistance. In fact, vulnerability not only pertains to all living, but it also constitutes life in community.

The fiction of the independent, self-sufficient subject is decisively deconstructed and rejected by critical, feminist, and postcolonial thinkers. In fact, it is a deadly fabrication. The illusion of attainable invulnerability pursued by sovereigns of all times and tendencies has legitimized states of exception, torture, borderization, and normalized lethal violence. It has, as Judith Butler discovered in the aftermath of 9/11, created and consolidated the globally uneven distribution of grievability: Some lives are considered worthy of mourning. Many more lives are cynically and systematically disregarded; they are already framed as lost before their elimination and hence not seen as ‘grievable

They are the migrants pushed back into the open sea, left alone to drown. They are the old women still residing in war zones or the collateral victims of terrorist or anti-terrorist strikes.    

This denunciation of the reigning biopolitics of grievability leads Butler to an essential distinction in her reflection on vulnerability as a potent concept in critical theory and practice. The dual character of vulnerability that I pointed to above is elaborated by Butler as the distinction between precariousness and precarity.

All living is precarious. This fundamental and shared precariousness, emerging in our social relatedness from birth to death, is a condition of life. In fact, it founds the flourishing life. It makes our life livable, and the loss of life, any life, grievable.

On the other hand, the unequal distribution of grievability reveals the many ways the condition of precarity – a situational vulnerability in which life is not protected or sustained – falls upon some much more than others. This is an intolerable and resistible situation. It is systematically and politically created. The common ground, or perhaps rather source, for resisting this unjust and life-threatening dispersal of precarity, however, is precisely the shared vulnerability of all the living: “From where might a principle emerge by which we vow to protect others from the kinds of violence we have suffered,” Butler asks in Precarious Life, “if not from an apprehension of a common human vulnerability” (p.30)?

Thus, vulnerability comes through as the inherent potential for resistance. It gains political value, not as a call for paternalistic intervention on behalf of so-called vulnerable groups or populations, but as the demand and defiance of people who assemble to resist.     In this way, vulnerability can constitute political agency in precarious situations. Often it is expressed as what James Scott  has called ‘infrapolitics,’ small and seemingly insignificant acts of everyday resistance. To Scott, this foundational form of politics is a precondition for more institutionalized political action. Other times, vulnerability as political agency may erupt to the public surface as courageous common acts of confrontation.

Some clarifications are due here:

This critical and affirmative revaluation of vulnerability relevant for critical theory and political theology is not only far removed from the biopolitical calls for the protection of ‘the vulnerable. ‘It is also very different from the many calls in airport-friendly self-help literature to “embrace” your vulnerability to regain self-confidence and well-being in a stressful consumer society.

Feminist philosopher Ewa Polowska Ziarek  rightly points out that these two dominant discourses on vulnerability—”the risk management of populations and the self-management of the liberal subject” —complement and reinforce one another.  Theologian Linn Tonstad critically observes that requiring a transformative relation to vulnerability presupposes the very project of mastery vulnerability intends to undo.

Her critique is relevant to this trendy call to individual self-management. Tonstad, however, rejects off-handedly any affirmative approach to vulnerability. In my view, she thus misses crucial differences between, say, Brené Brown’s and Judith Butler’s or Ewa Ziarek’s positions.

To Ziarek, building on Arendt and Levinas, “the political and ethical vulnerability of action enables rather than impairs its transformative possibilities.” Thus, to her, far from being a weakness to be eliminated or managed in the name of security or self-assertion, vulnerability becomes “a paradoxical condition of political transformation” (p. 81).

Vulnerability is not primarily an individual, corporeal condition. It is part and parcel of the social embeddedness of all living. Hence, I suggest we see vulnerability also at the core of political community. Rather than Aristotelian friendship or Hobbesian fear what makes us assemble – factually or imaginatively – in political togetherness, is our common relational precariousness.

Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito  has shed light on the etymological origins of community and uncovered that the ‘munus’ around which we come together (‘com’) is not a thing nor a property. Very much to the contrary, the community begins where property ends, he claims. ‘Munus‘ means a burden or a debt. What we have in common in community is an obligation or a duty, a fundamental openness towards the other, the outsider, the stranger. Could not this openness, I ask, be seen as the basic vulnerability we share? It emerges in and through a constant oscillation between receptivity and responsibility, gift and debt, and passivity and agency. In this way, vulnerability is woven into the fabric of political life, encompassing communal action against ungrievability and precarity as its ground and aim. Resisting precarity is a way to safeguard precious life in mutual, albeit always asymmetrical, precariousness.

What could be takeaways for political theology here?

This framing of vulnerability as resistance and flourishing can be implicitly or explicitly religious. It can express itself as a religious performance or emerge from within and be interpreted by resources of faith.

It should come as no surprise that there is some affinity between religious practices and experiences of life’s fragility and contingency. Interestingly, in his post-secular turn, Habermas noted that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life”.  Political scientists Pippa Norris & Ronald Inglehart  have argued that there is a statistical correlation between religiosity and the experienced lack of human security. As Graham Ward  has critically noted, such theories and statements may sound — and sometimes be — denigrating and arrogant, treating religion as merely epiphenomenal on human suffering. 

Nonetheless, this link between precarious life and religious practice may be construed otherwise. Religious practice in its many forms may inform resistance in and from vulnerability. In fact, what is perceived as religiosity may sometimes come across as the infrapolitics, the ‘arts of resistance,’ that Scott detected. Practices expressed as religiosity belong to the infrapolitical repertoire of people in precarity. Religiosity, I wish to propose, can be a way of ‘acting vulnerably’ that can transform into precarious politics.

Such recasting of vulnerability as a site for life-sustaining and even liberating agency is, of course, evident in liberationist theologies of various kinds. Take the ‘theology of the crucified people‘ initially formulated by the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría (d. 1989) and further developed by his colleague Jon Sobrino. Or consider the similar approaches found in James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree or in the work of womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland. They all see a paradoxical salvific presence in the community of those who suffer and struggle for life. In her work in theological anthropology, The Power and Vulnerability of Love, feminist theologian Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo points out that communities of shared vulnerability enable ‘ordinary and extraordinary’ practices of solidarity Her German colleague Heike Springhart similarly claims that a revised and affirmative view of vulnerability is a counter-cultural force that is necessary for a realistic view of the human condition  .    

Recent developments in trauma theology are relevant here too. Trauma signifies wounds that will not heal. Rereading in a ‘post-traumatic climate’ the Gospel narrative of Thomas touching the wounds of the resurrected Jesus, Shelly Rambo sees a site “where shame, grief, and anger are released.” To her, the exposed and enduring vulnerability revealed in this resurrection scene “directly speaks to the affective formation of a community struggling with death and loss.” We are in a liberating moment of “attunement to truths that rarely come to the surface” (p. 153).

Lastly, a theopolitical reflection on vulnerability can be relevant for critical theory, too. This comes to the fore in Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics. He detects the operation of a negative messianism in our day, a ‘casino-messianism’ flourishing in the fusion of prosperity theologies and neoliberal capitalism. It is, according to Mbembe, a perverse messianism expressing a “crude belief in the expiatory power of sacrificial death.” Denouncing and disarming such messianisms is a task for critical theory and political theology. Where necropower, according to Mbembe, wages a war against relations, I suggest that a political theology of vulnerability  should make the constitutive relatedness of all living the very point of departure for understanding political agency and community. As Mbembe pointedly asks: “If ultimately, humanity exists only through being in and of the world, can we find a relation with others based on the reciprocal recognition of our common vulnerability and finitude”? (p.3).

Annotated bibliography

Butler, Judith. 2006. Precarious life : the powers of mourning and violence. London ; New York: Verso.

__________ 2009. Frames of war : when is life grievable? London ; New York: Verso.

__________2020. “The force of nonviolence : an ethico-political bind.” In. London,Brooklyn, New York: Verso.

In these books, Butler breaks new ground, letting herself be moved from queer to political theory by the disastrous events of 9/11 and their aftermath. Her reflections on mourning, grievability, vulnerability, (non-)violence and resistance are indebted to i.a. Levinas and Arendt, opening up new avenues for exploration of great relevance to political theology.  

Esposito, Roberto. 2008. Bíos : biopolitics and philosophy, Posthumanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

__________. 2010. Communitas : the origin and destiny of community, Cultural memory in the present. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

__________. 2011. Immunitas : the protection and negation of life. Translated by Zakiya Hanafi. English ed. Cambridge: Polity.

Esposito’s trilogy develops an ‘affirmative biopolitics’ that critically addresses the present political concern with immunity and its inherent link to community even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing similar questions of biopolitics as i.a., Agamben, Esposito’s analysis of the immunitary logic of modern societies is highly original. He claims that the preservation of life depends on a ‘wound that cannot heal’, because the wound is created by life itself. The protection of life in society is thus dependent on a fundamental openness, I would say vulnerability, towards that which is other.

Ellacuría, Ignacio, and Jon Sobrino, eds. 1991. Mysterium Liberationis: Conceptos fundamentales de la teología de la liberación. Vols. I. II San Salvador: UCA Editores.

English edition:

__________, eds. 1993. Mysterium Liberationis. Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

This is arguably the most thorough and broad presentation of Latin American liberation theology. Ignacio Ellacuría’s groundbreaking essay “The Crucified People” is posthumously published here, later developed further in Jon Sobrino’s 2 vols Christology: 

Sobrino, Jon. 1994. Jesus the Liberator. A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth. Translated by Paul Burns and Francis McDonagh. Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates.

__________. 2001. Christ the liberator: A view from the victims. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Gandolfo, Elizabeth O’Donnell 2015. The Power and Vulnerability of Love. A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

From what she calls “the maternal standpoint, especially the standpoint of maternal suffering” (20-21), Gandolfo thoughtfully addresses root causes of suffering located deep in the human condition itself.


Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”


Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.


Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.


In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.


Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.


Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  


Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”


Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.


Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.


If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.


Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.


Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.


Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.


Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.


In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?


This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.


What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.


While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.


The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.


That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.


The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.


For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.


Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.


If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.


A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.


The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.


Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.


Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.


Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.


Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.


It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.


As we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.


In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.


[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.


From Myanmar to Mariupol, from the streets of Memphis to the waves and winds of the Mediterranean Sea: resistance to violence takes many forms. So does political protest against precarity. At which point does the unavoidable vulnerability of the living condition come to expression as political agency? Can such precarious politics constitute or configure an alternative community?

Hunger Strike

“Instead of neatly separating the forms of resistance to biosovereignty into life-affirming struggles and necroresistance and mapping them (and life and death) onto the reform/revolt dichotomy, I suggest that we conceive life and death as relational rather than oppositional categories. For every differentiation and intensification of death creates new possibilities of life; and every differentiation and intensification of life entails experiences of “death” that cannot be reduced to the power of one’s death.”

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