Over 80 times the phrase “Fear Not” is used in the Bible. And it would not take a big stretch of the imagination to wonder why it figures so prominently.
As a rule we humans are afraid.We’re afraid of sickness and death, we’re afraid of how we’re viewed from others, we’re afraid of what our finances will look like in the future, we’re afraid of past mistakes we’ve made and future ones we’ll certainly make. We’re afraid of our own security, afraid of those who are different, and from what the news media suggests, we’re afraid of Muslims and terrorism.
I remember something from Tom Boyd’s book Lusting After Infinity, where he mentioned a Buddhist monk who said that when we are angry we have three possible responses. To blow up, to submerge our anger and hope it doesn’t burst out in the future or we could stop to analyze what was driving the anger. It was an occasion to understand himself because it made him realize that the anger had more to do with him than any external object. And that tended to make the anger dissipate.
I am guessing that three responses to anger could be said of fear. We could take our fear and lash out at others. We could submerge our fear, pretending everything is ok, only to have it show up in an unexpected way. Or we could analyze our fear to see what is driving this response in us? It becomes a possibility for self-knowledge.
In the last several days the fear generated by the terror attacks in Paris have swept this country. Fear for our own security, fear of uncertainty about the direction the world is going. That quickly moved to lashing out at others, in this case, Muslim and refugees.
And the presidential candidates jumped on to the bandwagon in a bidding war on who might be crueler in their lashing out. Donald Trump has called for closing mosques and making Muslims wear IDs. Ben Carson has compared the refugees to rabid dogs. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush has called for a ban of Muslim refugees. Some state legislators and mayors have called for internment camps to segregate refugees.
In domestic violence training I learned about a continuum of violence. These are mere words but these are words of violence. If you make folks fearful of others and then add in dehumanizing language, further along that continuum are violent physical attacks, arson, vandalism and yes murder. This is the direction we are taking.
If I was to tell you we should not fear Muslims, we should not fear refugees I’d be preaching to the choir. On the whole liberals don’t tend to fear those kind of differences, including religious minorities and foreigners. There is a kind of openness that marks the liberal mind. I’m not just patting ourselves on the back, there is psychological research done on openness as an attitude and what cluster of characteristics connect to it.
I think we’re the second group. The folks who say we do not fear but are in fact fearful. I am. I am fearful of our neighbors. I’m fearful of the Tea Party and those who cheer the Trump rallies. I’m fearful of what kind of country we are becoming, I fear who will be president and if xenophobia will take hold of us as a nation. And I fear violence will be committed against religious minorities in this environment.
Now I think the fear here is real. And like the fear in the Tea Party, I have to be in a position to acknowledge my fear, to analyze it, to see what is happening in myself that drives this fear. I think I fear that I’m a stranger in my own country. That produces an existential kind of loneliness. That the values of most of my neighbors are so utterly foreign to be that I won’t be in a position to connect with others.
My own need for relating then is at stake. And maybe there is a kind of shame, do I want to be identified as Christian, and American? Will I be identified as part of the problem? Even if I keep saying the opposite of what I see happening, will it matter? Is Sam Harris right in saying that identifying with these categories makes me an accomplice?
I think the biggest fear though I have is, that things won’t get better. That the trajectories we have set into motion have their own internal logic that will harm people and there is nothing that will be stopping it. Not even God. It is a trust that human beings can muck things up far worse than God can fix.
The opposite of fear is not courage. It is trusting and resting in the goodness of God. It is believing that the world is responsive to our work. So this is not a passive resting. It is rather the precondition for any of the work we do. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” That striving needs support, beyond ourselves to know that our work will not be in vain.
But there is nothing we can do to guarantee success. And knowing that we cannot guarantee it, we respond in fear. We may not see the end results of our work, we may be misunderstood, and find rejection in our beliefs and in our work. Allies will falter. Which is what draws me to stories of success of other activists.
But those stories cannot be the only condition of our work and our lives. Trusting in God means believing that God honors what we do and there is nothing we can fear which can overtake that. That is not the same as saying success is guaranteed. Only that any action taken is objectified, becomes a permanent part of whatever world is to follow. It is the raw materials that God has to work with. Which is why we can stand up and take a stand, whether our neighbors recognize what we are doing or not.
Because we know our work matters to future possibilities, it matters that we add our contribution to the flow of history. That had to be faith of the ACLU lawyers who took the first LGBT rights case in the 1930s. It has to be the faith of anyone who seeks a new world, a shared world. And it has to be our faith as well.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma