“In the world you will have tribulation. But …”

Freedom and security from a theological and ethical perspective

1. Introduction

"In the beginning there was fear: fear of enemies, strangers, wild animals, natural disasters; and the resulting need for security. A prerequisite for security is protection. This can be found in the horde, the clan, the family, the tribe, in caves and other protected environments, through weapons, but also through negotiations and contact with the gods, through prayers, sacrifices and other rituals. This constellation of danger, need for security and protection runs [...] in different ways through the entire history of mankind. Security is a basic element of our existence and its promise the central prerequisite for power." With this remark, linguist and medievalist Klaus-Peter Wegera begins his journey through the German word history of the concept of protection. Not a word about freedom - and that remains the case in his final summary: "What has remained is fear: of enemies, strangers, natural disasters, illness and death (we have, however, eradicated the wild animals, and those that we have not eradicated enjoy our special protection today). However, the need for security has not only remained, it has grown: 'The perception of what is seen as a danger is characterised by society's ever-increasing need for security and the state's ever-expanding promise of security'."

Civilisation and culture are - viewed soberly - institutions born out of necessity to compensate for uncertainty. The following applies: "There is no such thing as security, except for the moment. Only insecurity can be imagined as permanent." Security is a "social fiction" that combines its "utopian character [...] with other value concepts of modernity such as 'freedom' or 'justice'".[teilt]. Social value ideas are like stars: unattainable and yet pointing the way."

In the latest security study conducted by the Military Academy at ETH Zurich in 2023, the population was asked for the first time about what they consider to be the three greatest threats to Switzerland. Most frequently mentioned: 1. wars and conflicts (41.8%), 2. destruction of nature (33.8%), 3. financial and economic crises (31.3%), 4. energy crisis (14.5%), 5. migration (11.3%), 6. general political climate (9.9%), 7. radicalism and polarisation (9.0%), 8. epidemics and pandemics (8.2%), 9. loss of Swiss sovereignty (7.9%) and with the same frequency 10. cyber threats (7.9%). The authors summarise: "To summarise, it can be said that the war in Ukraine has a significant influence on the threat perception of Swiss voters. Among the five most frequently mentioned threats, there are a total of four topics that can be associated with wars. In addition to 'wars and conflicts', these are 'financial and economic crises', the 'energy crisis' and 'migration'. Irrespective of this, the climate crisis is also still present, as shown by the topic of 'destruction of nature' in second place."

Two aspects are noteworthy. 1. fundamental existential fears are hardly reflected in the survey results. Apart from the current influence of the war in Ukraine, the threat of "epidemics and pandemics" - again as a result of the coronavirus pandemic - comes in 8th place, "violence and crime" in 13th place (6.7%) and "natural disasters" in 25th place (2.3%). In many, probably even the majority of the world's regions, the threats posed by violence, crime, natural disasters and disease would be rated far higher than in Switzerland. The original uncertainties inherent in human existence play only a subordinate role in the social perception of highly developed Western technological societies. 2 A similar finding emerges with regard to factors that threaten freedom: "radicalisation and polarisation" is mentioned in 7th place, "loss of sovereignty of Switzerland" in 9th place and "autocratisation" only in 23rd place (2.8%). Although there is an awareness of developments that jeopardise democracy and freedom, these are ranked significantly lower in relation to other uncertainties.

2. The political construction of security and freedom

Without state protection, our freedoms are jeopardised. Freedom includes, for example, being able to move around in public without being threatened. What use is personal freedom of movement if nobody dares to leave the house and go out into the street? We can exercise our freedoms ourselves, but we cannot create the conditions for them ourselves. The modern understanding of freedom is twofold: Negative freedom is directed against unauthorised encroachment by others. For example, freedom of conscience and religion protects one's own convictions and beliefs from indoctrination and persecution by dissenters and people of other faiths. Positive freedom formulates the entitlements to which every person is entitled. Human rights define such basic rights and goods, such as personal protection, food, shelter, education and healthcare. Although every person is free as a human being, the state must create the conditions so that its citizens can actually live in freedom.

The unspectacular connection between security and freedom in democratic constitutional states usually only becomes apparent when freedoms are restricted for the sake of security - beyond a normal level. According to Article 36 of the Federal Constitution, restrictions on fundamental rights must (1) be based on the law, (2) be in the public interest and (3) be proportionate. The public interest and proportionality are not fixed parameters, but depend on the perception and assessment of current insecurity situations. This makes every security policy sweat. After all, it has to decide and act in the present in order to prevent an event that does not currently exist but may occur in the future. We are talking about developments or scenarios that have not yet materialised, and possibly will not materialise, but which, if they do occur, can no longer be responded to. The more real and serious society perceives a danger or threat to be, the greater its approval of security measures that restrict freedom. The high level of social approval for state coronavirus restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic later declined as the assessment of the threat situation between the state and society diverged. The state measures no longer satisfied the fundamental liberal principle that it is not freedoms but restrictions on freedoms that must be justified. This reflects the difference between dangers and risks. While dangers are fateful misfortunes that cannot be acted upon, risks are controllable events that are entered into for the sake of an advantage or avoided out of caution. The success of modern civilisations is reflected in the scientific and technological possibilities - such as medicine and biotechnologies - to transform dangers into risks. As a result, freedom of action is constantly expanding. The price for this is an enormous increase in the burden of decision-making and responsibility. This is because, unlike dangers, taking and avoiding risks involves human judgement, decision-making and action.

The most influential political narrative about security and freedom in the modern era comes from the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). In 1651, under the influence of the English Civil War, he wrote a work on the theory of the state that bore the name of the cosmic sea monster from Job 40f, "Leviathan", as its title. The theory of the state offers a justification of the rule of law, the state monopoly on the use of force and the democratic legitimisation of rule that is still common today: "The intention and cause why men, with all their natural inclination to freedom and domination, could nevertheless decide to submit to certain orders that civil society makes, lay in the desire to preserve themselves and lead a comfortable life; or in other words, to be saved from the miserable state of a war of all against all. But this state is necessarily connected with natural liberty, on account of human passions, as long as there is no force that can properly restrain the passions by fear of punishment and insist on the observance of natural laws and contracts."

Hobbes begins with an invented story of the state of nature, in which all people exist in "natural liberty", a kind of lowered paradise. It is a life in complete freedom from domination, which includes "a right even to the body of another" and therefore means the greatest insecurity: "man is a wolf to man". From this, the philosopher draws the conclusion that a life in security is only possible if all people renounce their "natural freedoms" and transfer them to the state. The state then has the necessary and legitimate power and monopoly on the use of force to establish, enforce and defend state laws and orders. On the debit side, citizens exchange the uncertainties of their natural existence for obligations towards the state and the risk of police persecution and legal punishment in the event of non-compliance. Violence does not disappear, but it can be expected and calculated by citizens as state-ordered violence. On the plus side, citizens receive a state-guaranteed right to security and freedom in return for their renunciation of the use of force. The philosopher Immanuel Kant subsequently argued that freedom must be limited so that the freedom of each individual person can be effectively protected. A person's freedom ends where it interferes with the freedom of every other person. That is why "freedom [...] is always the freedom of those who think differently". The relationship between freedom and insecurity and, conversely, the relationship between security and lack of freedom must be constantly reassessed. In democratic constitutional states, this takes place between the poles of "in dubio pro libertate", in case of doubt in favour of freedom, and "in dubio pro securitate", in case of doubt in favour of security.

3. External and internal security

In current discussions, security and freedom are consistently used as political categories. In a figurative sense, this also applies to Christian freedom. St Paul (1 Corinthians 9:19) and later, particularly prominently, Martin Luther describe it as a dual existence of freedom and bondage. Behind this is the image of Christian dual citizenship: as unfree aliens in the earthly state and as free fellow citizens of the divine polis: "You are therefore no longer aliens without citizenship, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God's household." (Eph 2:19) God's community of dwellers knows no insecurity, but the world remains a thoroughly insecure place to live, even for Christians. It is important to bear in mind that our understanding of security and freedom is alien to the people of the Bible and the ancient world. For them, uncertainty is omnipresent. "Breeze after breeze, said Kohelet, breeze after breeze: everything passes away and blows away. What profit has man for all the labour with which he toils under the sun?" (Koh 1:2f.) And David recognises: "Man's days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field: when the wind passes over it, it is gone, and its place knows no more of him." (Ps 103:15f.) Their world and ours are separated by an enormous history of scientific and technological development with serious effects on politics and culture. The people of that time lived in a dangerous world and not in modern risk societies. The political and legal conditions did not offer the personal, protective and security guarantees of modern democratic constitutional states, not to mention the complete absence of modern social, health and financial security systems. The people of the Bible and antiquity are less faced with the question of what they can do with and out of their lives than with the reverse question of what life does with and out of them.

If it is impossible to protect oneself effectively from external catastrophes, misfortunes and strokes of fate, the only alternative left is an inner security that is independent of external circumstances and influences. This connection is reflected in the Latin term securitas, which is usually translated as security, but literally - as a combination of sine+cura (without worry) - means "freedom from worry" or "peace of mind". The Roman writer Cicero, from whom the term securitas has come down to us, draws on Epicurean and Stoic ideas of imperturbability (Greek: ataraxia) and freedom from passions (Greek: apathia) as the goal of the good life. Securitas means the "freedom of the mind from all excitement, desire, fear, anger, lust and wrath, i.e. from all passions", from which "steadfastness and dignity" result, which form the basis for other desirable character traits. In the words of Cicero: "Security is what I now call freedom from sorrow, which is what a happy life consists of." The Christian tradition initially adopted securitas and after the Constantinian revolution in the 4th century, peace and the security of the state became an integral part of the church liturgy. From a theological perspective, however, securitas was viewed ambivalently from the outset. The accusation was that freedom from worry could lead to carelessness (lat. acedia). Monasticism feared a "slackening of the soul and weakening of the spirit", Augustine denounced its lack of fear of God, and Thomas Aquinas counted it among the deadly sins as a flight from God. Theological criticism led to the successive replacement of the term securitas with the term certitudo, or certainty. The certainty of faith and salvation is a divine gift of faith and is categorically distinguished from human certainty. The subjects of certainty are the acting human beings, but they cannot gain certainty for themselves because it can only be brought about by God himself.

To summarise:

  1. Security and freedom have a political, social and personal dimension, which are determined and weighted differently.
  2. Security is a value related to a planned, expected or desired future. In terms of conceptual history, it shifts from within the person to the political sphere.
  3. Freedom characterises a political status, an inner state or a quality that distinguishes all people.
  4. Uncertainties concern either fateful dangers and threats over which people have no influence, or risks that can be predicted, calculated and decided.
  5. Whereas in antiquity, security was primarily encountered as freedom from inner insecurity and worry, in modern times freedom is personalised and becomes an endangered good that constantly awakens new security needs.
  6. Following Thomas Hobbes, the greatest insecurity stems from the peaceless human nature, which can only be tamed by a strong state with a legal system and a monopoly on the use of force. The pacifying regulatory power of the state creates the conditions for security and freedom.
  7. Security is not a genuine biblical-theological concept; the Church and theology set the divine gift of certainty of faith and salvation against the human attitude of freedom from worry.

4 Vulnerability and resilience

In the present day, the discussion about security and freedom is shifting to the new pair of terms "vulnerability" and "resilience". Both terms respond to an error in Thomas Hobbes' thinking. In his work, people emerge as an anthropological phantom of loners who become beasts as soon as they meet. Humans are simply there, as parentless and unrelated, adult male individuals without childhood. The philosopher leaves unanswered the question posed by his later colleague Judith Butler, "[w]ho we became individuals [...] and we also do not learn why exactly the conflict constitutes our first passionate relationship with each other and not dependence or attachment [...]. What support, what dependence must be denied to arrive at the fantasy of self-sufficiency, to allow history to begin with timeless adult masculinity?" Hobbes and the many who followed him ignore that "human life takes place in a tense dialogue between dependence and self-assertion, between attachment and autonomy", and that human life is determined by the fundamental re-experience of vulnerability. The new terms "vulnerability" and "resilience" refer to this.

The concept of vulnerability originates from development psychology, poverty research and development policy and migrated into political science and political philosophy after 9/11. Vulnerability research in the natural and engineering sciences, climate research and technology assessment is concerned with analysing systemic weaknesses. In the context of the human sciences, "vulnerability [...] denotes a basic anthropological datum. It denies any form of exaggeration that interprets humans first and foremost as self-sufficient beings whose self-sufficiency and strength is only impaired by adverse circumstances and who are only then dependent on solidarity-based support. Instead, the following applies: 'We humans are all needy and [...] dependent on one another' - in terms of both the physical and psychosocial dimensions of human existence. As physical beings, humans are physically vulnerable, particularly due to their bodily perception of suffering and pain. People are socially and psychologically vulnerable in particular because they are dependent on reliable relationships and bonds, on responsive companionship and support, and on recognition and appreciation."

The concept of resilience has its origins in materials research "and describes the ability of highly elastic materials to 'spring back' (lat. resilio) to their original state after being deformed". Applied to the human sciences, resilience means "the power to deal with the resulting challenges in the midst of vulnerability and concrete injury in such a way that the possibility of a successful life remains open or can even be increased through increased sensitivity to the vulnerabilities and strengths of life. The resilient person is therefore not a person who largely shields themselves against all vulnerabilities or endeavours to minimise their dependency on others, but one who recognises this mutual dependency as a potential for shared strength and learns to use it to productively shape the fragilities of life."

5. Vulnerable life between technical abolition and resistant acceptance

The distinction between the categories of vulnerability, wounds and fragility is fundamental to the understanding of vulnerability and resilience. Vulnerability refers to a characteristic of technological and social systems and is the subject of the security policy of states and alliances of states. Analogous to the shift from dangers to risks, the focus of security science and policy is less on external threats and more on our own vulnerabilities. The aim is not to establish security, but to make insecurity practicable, to increase systemic resilience and to increase flexibility in dealing with one's own vulnerability. The current debates on critical infrastructures and asymmetric conflicts such as terrorism and cybercrime are examples of this.

When categorising wounds, a distinction must be made between the perspective of those affected and that of third parties. Biblically speaking, the wounds of others confront us with the demands of the Beatitudes, love of neighbour, love of foreigners and enemies, peace and justice. The perspective of third parties is that of responsibility, of legal and ethical duties of protection, care and solidarity towards the victims of violence and injustice. The perspective of the victims of violence is distinct from this. With resilience, it all depends on who is speaking. An example: In the first test of the wager between God and Satan, Job lost all his children and all his possessions. "Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he sank to the ground and prostrated himself, saying, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I go again. The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, the name of the Lord be praised." (Hi 1:20f.) In contrast, the scene from Arno Schmidt's "Leviathan": "Once again someone clapped a hysterical volley of machine-gun fire into the tree trunks, then they turned and ploughed back into the grove. We immediately ran back behind the embankment, crouched down: the ground was red, red oh. One of the old farmers sat stolidly, holding his dripping, flailing arm. And one of the children was almost completely torn apart by two giant splinters, neck and shoulders, everything. The mother still held her head high and looked in amazement at the fat crimson pool. [...] The priest comforted the weeping woman; he said: 'The Lord has given it; the Lord has taken it' - and, fetch the devil, the coward and Byzantine added: 'Praise be to the name of the Lord!" Although Job and the priest say the same sentence, their utterances are separated by an abyss. Dizzyingly, the victim Job demonstrates his faithfulness to God - an unusual but original form of resilience from our point of view. Addressed to the victim from the mouth of the priest, Job's confession becomes a mockery of the killed child and the grieving mother. When the perpetrators and third parties occupy the language of the victims, the same words become sheer violence. This is why resilience can only be spoken of in the first person.

Job's confession leads to the third category of Job's confession leads to the third category of fragility as a characteristic of all living things. The Bible interprets creaturely fragility as a consequence of the fall of man, over which the whole of creation groans (Romans 8:22). Sin does not mean a moral offence, but a creaturely existence off the track: fearful, troublesome, violent and deadly. Jesus confirms this in his parting words to the disciples: "In the world you have fear; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) In a world beyond its destiny, there is no life without fear. Jesus' "but" is not followed by a resilience strategy, but rather refers to his overcoming the world in which fear is at home. However, if fear is a constitutive part of the world, it is hopeless to try to find the peace, freedom, justice and reconciliation in it that mean the final end to fear. Fear in the maelstrom of creaturely vulnerability cannot be eliminated from the world through action. In the world, it can "only" be disempowered "in the horizon of an opening and transcending of natural reality for a completely different reality".as a characteristic of all living things. The Bible interprets creaturely vulnerability as a consequence of the fall of man, over which the whole of creation groans (Romans 8:22). Sin does not mean a moral offence, but a creaturely existence off the track: fearful, troublesome, violent and deadly. Jesus confirms this in his parting words to the disciples: "In the world you have fear; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) In a world beyond its destiny, there is no life without fear. Jesus' "but" is not followed by a resilience strategy, but rather refers to his overcoming the world in which fear is at home. However, if fear is a constitutive part of the world, it is hopeless to try to find the peace, freedom, justice and reconciliation in it that mean the final end to fear. Fear in the maelstrom of creaturely vulnerability cannot be eliminated from the world through action. In the world, it can "only" be disempowered "in the horizon of an opening and transcending of natural reality for a completely different reality".

In contrast to current discourses on vulnerability, the Bible continues to distinguish between the passivity of being a victim and the activity of sacrifice. Theologian Hildegund Keul clarifies: "Victim means suffering harm, experiencing violence, being injured and thus weakened. As a victim, you are passive. Something happens over which you initially have no influence - you are wounded and thus victimised. Sacrifice means the sacrifice you make for the sake of a higher goal. You act yourself, you are active. But every sacrifice also has a victim component, because you give something away, you risk being wounded - or, and this makes the matter particularly delicate, that others are wounded. A sacrifice increases your own or others' vulnerability. Victim and sacrifice, vulnerability and resilience form a very mobile and at the same time fragile field of tension." From a phenomenological perspective, active self-sacrifice links the crucifixion of Jesus and the anti-fascist resistance fighters with the suicide bomber Samson (Jdg 16) and the Japanese kamikaze pilots. The intuitive resistance to naming Jesus and suicide bombers in the same breath points to the precarious ambivalence of sacrifice, which throws every safety consideration for oneself and others to the wind. At this point, the violence that turns people into victims and the violence that the person willing to sacrifice turns against themselves, as well as the violence with which the person sacrificing themselves turns others into victims, come dangerously close.

Even everyday practices of vulnerability and resilience do not take place beyond power structures and relations of violence, but are embedded in them and sometimes entangled in them beyond recognition. A common reaction to vulnerability is to "make oneself invulnerable through more and more violence against others". The current Israel-Gaza conflict shows how one's own vulnerability through the massacres by Hamas terrorists in Israel turns into self-protection that "exposes other people to their vulnerability". Strategies of self-protection do not necessarily have to react to actual wounds; the "fear of being wounded" is enough, as European refugee and asylum policies show. Furthermore, self-protection is often not limited to one's own person and their wounds, but to everything "with which one feels connected and identifies, such as one's own children in particular, but also one's own society, culture or religion". The transitions between the categories of wounds and wounding are fluid. "The attacks on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo (January 2015), the Bataclan concert hall (November 2015) and the Christmas market on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz (December 2016) epitomise the vulnerability of society [...]. The deadly wounding transcends the living space of the individual and reaches out to the public with unprecedented power. The state, culture and religion are exposed in their vulnerability." Vulnerability can further fuel violence as a violation of pride and honour, especially in neo-national sentiments.

But personal resilience strategies also raise questions. Theologian Rebekka Klein criticises such self-techniques as economies of the feasibility of life. "[T]he current economisation of our lives is accompanied by a corresponding mindstyle, therapy and advice culture. This suggests that people can get a grip on everything, but really everything that happens to them, sooner or later. [...] People are made to believe that there is nothing that can happen to them in a real sense - nothing that cannot be transformed into happiness, joy and inner growth through their inner attitude." The criticism goes in two directions. On the one hand, it is directed against the claim of an exaggerated ideal of sovereignty that wants to keep one's own life completely in one's own hands and ignores the interventions of vulnerable life in one's own self-determination. On the other hand, the criticism is directed against an unreflected adaptation to expectations that are generated by the social and cultural construction of vulnerability. The desire to avoid wounds means that the contexts and structures that cause and inflict them are not scrutinised. Instead, a fatalistic adaptation takes place in which the resistant potential of vulnerability is lost.

Finally, the category of vulnerability as a human condition is also ambivalent. A generalisation of vulnerability can lead to the victims of violence, injustice and unfairness being overlooked and their suffering being established as inevitable. At the same time, there is a risk of a cynical harmonisation with suffering, in which the "violent damage or trauma to the subject is played down or even completely ignored". This applies in the same way to biblical-theological statements about the need for redemption of creation. Here too, the crucial question is: Who is speaking? I myself can understand my misfortune as an expression of my need for redemption. But it would be a cynical instrumentalisation of the biblical message if I were to react to the suffering of another person by referring to their need for redemption. Statements about human vulnerability are not part of the language game of justifications. Vulnerability is and remains an offensive and precarious borderline phenomenon that cannot be justified by anything in principle. The groaning of the creature is based on fear, and there is not a single good thing about it.

6. Comforting and inconsolable things

That sounds rather sobering and, in fact, political and social security needs cannot be theologically justified and regulated. Security doctrines and strategies are alien to the Bible. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "There is no way to peace on the path of security. For peace must be risked, is a great risk, and can never be secured." This applies equally to freedom and justice. A risk can be taken by those who count on the presence of God. Because the state cannot and must not count on this, it has to play it safe. In contrast, the Christian faith opens up a critical and corrective view of human perceptions of uncertainty and security needs: "Who among you is able to add even one cubit to his lifetime through worry? [...] So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough of its own burden." (Mt 6:27.34) Jesus' exhortation from the Sermon on the Mount is wrong because it contradicts all crisis, conflict and health statistics. The average life expectancy in countries with the rule of law, a reliable separation of powers and a functioning healthcare system is significantly higher than in countries where this is not the case. Prevention and security undoubtedly have an influence on lifespan. However, Jesus' error dissolves against the background of the biblical understanding of age as an indicator of divine blessing and faithfulness to God (cf. Gen 35:29; Job 42:17; Isa 65:20). Jesus' sentence then means that human worries and security needs cannot "add a cubit" to a blessed life.

A biblical-theological view of security and freedom is directed against the false modesty of human security needs and promises. Security cannot be enough because the world as it is is not enough. This is why a biblical understanding of vulnerability does not share "the modern narrative of a self-determined mastery of life by a sovereign and invulnerable subject". Security is replaced by the term with which the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 begins: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The question sounds strange because it runs counter to the self-image of the sovereign subject. The search for consolation has something of an oath of revelation, which presupposes the admission of being at the end of one's tether. Furthermore, it is based on a trust that cannot be confirmed by any calculation of evidence or probability. Its potential only becomes apparent when the perspective is reversed. For if trust and consolation are difficult to reconcile with the ideal of a sovereign life, then this life reveals itself to be - in the literal sense - inconsolable and distrustful. There is much to suggest that this is the deeper reason for the boundlessness of late-liberal security needs. The answer of the Heidelberg Catechism sounds all the more crazy "That I belong body and soul in life and in death not to myself but to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ." The "I" cannot give itself the answer. It can only be the words of the one to whom the "I" belongs and who speaks through the "I". And that is a matter of trust - as uncertain as it is comforting and liberating.


This was a lecture in the series "Security or freedom?" of the Ecumenical Adult Education Männedorf, held by Frank Mathwig in Männdorf on 22 January 2024.


The full text with footnotes and references can be read here:

See also the article by Frank Mathwig/David Zaugg, Ethische Anmerkungen zur Ökonomie der Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitik. Issue 2-21, from page 39 either here or via download:

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Frank Mathwig

Frank Mathwig

Prof. Dr. theol.
Beauftragter für Theologie und Ethik

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