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Wealth and Vulnerability

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

Monday, 23rd May, 2022

Good morning. I recently went walking around the new development of commercial properties and housing at the former Battersea Power Station in London. My attention was caught by a piece of installation art outside that looming fortress. It was a light display emblazoned with words by author Jeff Brown: “The Way Out. At the heart of our expansion is the capacity to be vulnerable.” It was a bizarre message situated in a project designed to offer the ultimate in secure and affluent living for those who can afford it.

The artwork was originally part of a festival in the city of Grasz by Marinella Senatore. This artist has a radical commitment to social justice and to working with the marginalised. In its intended setting, the piece was an ironic comment on the increasing defensiveness of modern societies. It suggests that, if we’re to find a way out of our current crises we must learn to be vulnerable. Lifted out of that context, stripped of the parody which gives meaning to its message, to me it simply looked vulgar.

Sri Lankan theologian Aloysius Pieris distinguishes between voluntary and forced poverty. Voluntary poverty is a commendable ethical choice to live simply and in solidarity with those who are poor. Forced poverty is a condition of oppression and injustice that calls for resistance. I think the same is true of vulnerability. The word means the capacity to be wounded. Forced vulnerability is imposed upon those who are victims of war, violence and abuse. It’s a condition of fear and distress that’s to be resisted, not encouraged. But voluntary vulnerability is different. It’s the precondition of every loving relationship and every ethical encounter. All good relationships are built on trust, and trust means exposing ourselves to the risk of being hurt. The more we love, the more vulnerable we are to inevitable loss and sorrow, but also to the hurts and struggles which are part of growing and maturing in love.

“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent commands in the Bible. Fear imprisons us. It makes us shut others out by shutting ourselves in, so that nobody is truly free. Senatore’s art invites us to venture out of the physical and metaphorical fortresses within which we imprison ourselves, to encounter one another not as strangers but as friends and neighbours. “At the heart of our expansion is the capacity to be vulnerable.” This is not the expansion of endless economic growth and urban development, but the expansion of the human spirit that allows space for others and welcomes them into our lives.

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