I bet Dr. Hunter S. Thompson never expected to see his works featured in an Easter message. But here goes: The mad prophet, Thompson, is famous for numerous books but for none more than his notorious Fear and Loathing series. It began (aptly for this year) with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72; then broadened its perspective with Fear and Loathing in America; and culminated in the quintessential Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.
We don’t have to like Thompson or agree with him; but inescapably, his focus on Fear and Loathing as a dark feeling, attitude, or even spirit of our time tells us something we need to hear whether we like it or not. I recently noted in a social media comment about race relations that fear is a pervasive factor in our society today. I was taken aback at the reactivity of one man who was shouting on line that fear is good. We need to be afraid – very afraid – because if we are not afraid, terrible things will happen to us. Since faith is the opposite of fear, I can only say paradoxically that he had placed his faith in fear itself as a way of being in the world. It is palpable. Fear has grasped our society by the throat and leads us where it chooses.
Perhaps by now you are tired of hearing me point out that the Bible commands us to “fear not” – 365 times. I have not mentioned quite so often that the commandment Jesus gave his disciples more often than any other was “fear not.” That spiritual imperative to live bravely sets the stage for my favorite fear story in Scripture, Mark’s account of Easter morning.
In Mark, the three women come to the tomb and find Jesus gone but “a young man with a white robe” (presumably an angel) is there. The very first thing he says is: “Do not be afraid.” He then instructs them to proclaim the resurrection to the rest of the disciples.” But they “ran away from the tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” And that, friends, is how the original version of Mark ends. They told no one anything because they were afraid. The End. Finis. Bring the curtain down.
That ending was so harsh, the Church could not live with it so a later author added some resurrection appearances parallel to the ones in other gospels. The disciples getting it wrong is a basic theme in Mark so he is at least consistent to the end. The points for us to take are:
1. The natural human propensity to live in fear, even in
the face of glorious good news; and
2. The power of fear to choke the good news in our throats.
The vitriolic rhetoric of this year’s Presidential campaign is a manipulation of fear to persuade people to hand over power. But it did not start this year and it did not start with political candidates. They may be amplifying and exploiting the fear that is the zeitgeist of today, but fear-mongering politicians are more the product of our common spirit than the cause of it. They are only saying what we are clamoring to hear. Blaming the politicians is a cop out for not doing our own work.
Why then is fear so prevalent? In the days following the terrorist attack in Brussels, that may sound like a stupid question. Obviously terrorism causes terror. That is the point. But we must not stop with the obvious or easy answer. Fear is a cancer killing the American soul. It is a meandering tumor of the kind with roots or tentacles. If we excise only a part of the tumor, we are not healed. Terrorism is unquestionably part of our malignant state. We will discuss that. But the problem predates terrorism and is more complex. To some extent terrorism, like the rhetoric of today’s politics, exploits a pre-existing condition, which has wider causes. For a better explanation of how we came to this state than I can offer here, I commend to you two must-read books:
Finding Intimacy In A World Of Fear by Eric Law
Following Jesus In A Culture Of Fear by Scott Bader-Sayre
I will not attempt a comprehensive explanation of our spirit of fear – just a few points that may help readers get a bit of perspective.
First, fear has more to do with perception than reality. When I moved from Boise, Idaho to New York City, I was not surprised to find the fear level much higher in the Big Apple. It was just more dangerous. But when I moved from New York to sleepy little Macon, Georgia three years later, I expected the fear level there to be more like Boise. I was wrong! It felt just like New York. I don’t have an explanation. But fear and danger did not correlate the way I expected.
Sociologists conduct surveys to test the level of fear in society. A remarkable fact is that the crime rate has been going down through the years. But as the crime rate has gone down, the fear of crime has continued to rise. Interestingly, incarceration has continued to rise to match the fear rate rather than decline to match the crime rate.
We are particularly afraid of strangers. The more different from us the stranger is, the more afraid we are apt to be. There is solid evolutionary psychology to explain how we came to be pre-wired to fear strangers. But here’s the kicker: most violent crime is committed by people who know each other quite well. That odd-looking character on the street is less of a threat than those near and dear to us. In terms of race, Whites are dramatically more likely to be killed by Whites than Blacks, and Blacks more likely to be killed by Blacks than Whites.
Of course we are reasonably concerned about terrorism and should take reasonable precautions. But is our level of fear in proportion to reality? We are nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as a terrorist. We are substantially more likely to be killed by lightning than a terrorist. Our chances of dying in a terrorist attack are about one in 20 million. This is close to our odds of being killed by a falling asteroid. Our chances of being killed by a refugee are dramatically more remote. But there is clearly a lot of fear of refugees. The conservative journal Foreign Affairs analyzes how relatively unlikely refugees are to be terrorists – not that it could never happen, but that the odds are remote.
Basic point: fear is in our head, in our heart, and in our gut more than it is in any objective reality out there in the world.
Second, there are people skillfully instilling a spirit of fear in us, and it isn’t for our own good. The most obvious fear-mongers are terrorists. Their very name tells us that they lack the political, economic, and political power to achieve their goals, so they use the randomness and irrationality of their violence to shake us with fear. The more reactive we are to their tactics, the more we encourage and empower them.
But it isn’t just the terrorists. The anti-terrorist, anti-crime, anti-this and anti-that industrial complexes thrive on and in many cases profit from our fear. So the state and the people who rule the state have a vested interest in the level of our anxiety. We cannot walk through an airport without multiple reminders of the “heightened security” and the color-coded “threat level.” I do not mean the people scaring us are consciously lying. In most cases, they live in fear themselves. But why? Their fear gives them a cause to fight for and we are desperate for a cause. (see the 20th Epistle). But it is also in their financial interest. Regardless of their motives, the end result is the same, a steady stream of powerful people telling us to be afraid.
The entertainment industry and the news media also make money and seize our precious attention (ratings produce advertising) with fear. The horror and violence of entertainment is self-evident. In the case of news, it is an old adage: “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Eric Law recounts the story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was injured and captured in Iraq after her vehicle was damaged by a roadside bomb. Later a unit of Special Forces recued her from an Iraqi hospital. A compelling enough story. But it was initially embellished in the press by stories of her Rambo like tactics, which turned out to be false as her rifle jammed before she lost consciousness. So the stories shifted to her rape (in graphic detail) and torture – which turned out to be unsubstantiated as well. The focus then turned to the dramatic rescue by our Special Forces. But it turned out the hospital had no armed security present. In fact, the Iraqis were treating Pfc. Lynch’s wounds and said they had attempted to return her to our army base but were driven away by American fire. None of this is to detract from Pfc. Lynch’s service or the heroism of her rescuers – just to say the fear and drama factors of the story were ratcheted up considerably for our titillation.
This is not meant as a conspiracy theory so much as an observation that the emotional system of the world is locked in self-perpetuating panic, which leads to the next point.
Third, fear is a reciprocal snowballing dynamic. There is a common belief, supported by good sociological data, that a lot of white people, including some law enforcement, are afraid of young Black men. See, e.g., http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/17/will-america-s-fear-of-black-men-ever-go-away.html
I have a Black friend whose son is a very large Black teenager. He and his wife live in fear that someone will kill or injure their son because they are afraid of him. They have “had the talk” – repeatedly and emphatically – the talk about how to act around the police, a talk my parents never had to have with me. These are upper middle class well-educated people who have “succeeded in a white world,” but they are still afraid.
Many (by no means all) Black men report that they are afraid of law enforcement.
In his memoir, Between The World And Me. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0812993543/?tag=mh0b-20&hvadid=7010978340&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_5xnhii0byt_e Ta-Nahisi Coates writes a compelling account of the fear implicit in growing up Black.
I am not saying whether Black men should or should not be afraid. I am just that they are, and it makes sense that their fear makes them more likely to fight or flee, which makes them more frightening to the police officers, which makes the officers more frightening to the young Black men, and so the cycle spirals. This pattern of escalating reciprocal fear is one reason that young Black men are 21 times as likely to be killed by the police as are young White men.[i]
I am not writing to fix blame – there is also data to the effect that Blacks are disproportionately likely to kill police officers -- only to demonstrate that fear begets fear. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that,” Dr. King said. Likewise, fear cannot drive out fear. Only faith can do that.
Again, my point is not to fix blame. It is not even to focus on race relations and law enforcement, worthy as that topic might be. A parallel story could have been told about terrorism and American military interventions. Each pours fuel on the flame of the other. The point is to reverse a basic assumption – and this is a key point in Christian spirituality, the teachings of other faiths, and secular psychology. We think danger causes fear. But what if fear causes danger?
From the standpoint of most Eastern religions and psychologies the external world is wholly a fabrication of our minds. We would not go that far. But clearly the external world is powerfully influenced by our minds. “As a man thinketh, so he is.” Proverbs 23: 7. When FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he not saying everything is ok. He was naming the enemy. Fear crashed the market in ’27 and held the economy in thrall for over a decade. Fear is a formidable force.
Fourth, fear is a group spirit more than an individual impulse. We rarely assess a situation for ourselves and feel afraid. We catch the fear from those around us. It is a herd stampede response. Last December I jogged most days along a beach, usually going past flocks of seagulls. Most days I could jog quite close to them and they paid no attention. But some days, even days when I was passing at a greater distance, one or two would panic, take flight, and the whole flock would squawk away in terror. We are not so different from seagulls. We are not sure how to feel, but the mirror neurons in our brains make us imitate the reactions of those around us. We catch fear like a cold. Our fear is no more our own feeling than an invasive virus is our own body.
I am reading a biography of George Washington. It says he enacted extreme punishment (shot on site) for anyone exhibiting cowardice in battle, not because it was morally wrong, not because it was not perfectly understandable and forgivable, but because Washington knew “fear is contagious.” If one soldier runs, others will follow. We feel the fear in our bodies so we think it is our own, but it is closer to being “possessed” by something from outside us, the spirit of our community.
Fifth, fear breeds in silos. As the world gets smaller and more pluralistic with globalization, migration, and instant communication, we are withdrawing more and more into little enclaves of people who look, think, and act like ourselves. I commend to your reading The Big Sort: Why The Clustering Of Like-minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Jim Bishop. http://www.amazon.com/Big-Sort-Clustering-Like-Minded-America/dp/0547237723/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457453771&sr=1-1-fkmr2&keywords=Jim+Bishop+the+big+sort (This book explains a lot about things from congressional gridlock to this year’s bizarre primary races.) We are genetically wired and culturally formed to be more comfortable with people like ourselves. So increased pluralism has ironically but predictably resulted in our retreat into enclaves of likeness. It’s natural -- but problematic. Our gated community syndrome makes the rest of the world seem all the more other. We are wired to be cautious around the other; and now the other is right next-door. As we cluster in our silos, the fear factor multiplies. We build gates around our neighborhoods and gun up. “They” are out there. Look back at points 3 and 4: fear is a reciprocal snowballing dynamic and fear is a group spirit. “It must follow as the night the day” that in our silos we would cascade into paranoia easily manipulated by those who benefit from our fear. (Point 1)
The Christian response: The roots of fear are in self-preservation instincts wired into us through millennia of evolution, reinforced by the culture, and manipulated by powerful people for their advantage and our harm. So what hope is there?
Paul says, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world (fear and loathing) but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . . .” Romans 12: 2. How is that possible?
The Bible says:
God had not given us a spirit of fear but of power
and of love and of a sound mind. – 2 Timothy 1: 7
Read, mark, and inwardly digest that verse three times! Then put it together with this. The Bible also says, “If their purpose or action is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is of God you will not be able to stop them.” Acts 5: 38-39.
Fear is a merely human thing. “God has not given us a spirit of fear.” Merely human things fail. That which comes from God (power, love, sound mind) cannot be stopped. The Bible tells us “God is love.” 1 John 4: 8. Look where that leads. “There is no room for fear in love because perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4: 18.
This is not a political issue in any ordinary sense (though it may have political implications and policy ramifications). It is a spiritual issue. Paul says, “For we do not struggle against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness . . . “ Ephesians 6: 12. To our ear this may sound spooky, but it is not. Paul means we do not need to blame anyone for our present state, but instead to contend with the real enemy, the spirit of fear itself.
Now this distinction is subtle but absolutely crucial. The feeling of fear is natural and unavoidable. The feeling is not the enemy. It is ok, natural, and healthy to have all sorts of feelings, including fear. The problem comes when the feeling has us. The Bible does not say, “Do not feel fear.” It says, “Do not be afraid.” Do not give in to it. Do not live in fear. Do not believe your fear.
It will do absolutely no good to judge, condemn, shame, and berate anyone – especially ourselves – for feeling afraid. We need to treat each other and ourselves considerably more gently than that. I recommend several kinder responses.
First, learn the origin and nature of fear; then study the spiritual alternatives to fight/ flight reactivity. Again, I commend to you these books:
Finding Intimacy In A World Of Fear by Eric Law
Following Jesus In A Culture Of Fear by Scott Bader-Sayre
Second, make a spiritual discipline of not believing everything you feel or even think. Instead of following our natural impulse to gather or concoct facts to justify our panic, we can be still, breathe, and look for objective information to temper our fear with truth.
Third, don’t run; don’t hide. Running from the things we have been wired and/ or taught to fear only fans the flames. Instead, we can summon up the “spirit of power” God has given us to turn around and stare our fear in the face.
If you will permit me to borrow from the wisdom of a sister world religion, there is a fine Buddhist book on this very point by Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide To Fearlessness In Difficult Time. http://www.amazon.com/Places-that-Scare-You-Fearlessness/dp/1570629218/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457312569&sr=1-4&keywords=pema+chodron
The title comes from an old Buddhist adage: “Go to the places that scare you.” When we face our fear instead of running from it, amazingly the things that frighten us often disappear in a vapor, like the Goblin King (David Bowie) when 15 year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) finally says “You have no power over me,” in the George Lucas/ Jim Hinson movie, Labyrinth.
So don’t hide in your silo. Break out and get to know someone from the group you fear. Connect with them in person, as a human being. Extensive research on overcoming racial and other prejudices (close relatives of fear) shows that there is really only one thing that works: personal relationships between members of the different groups.
One night I arrived in Las Vegas to read this graffiti in an airport restroom: “Kill all Muslims.” That same night Trinity Church was hosting an Islamic group in which there was teaching but more importantly Christians and Muslims sitting in small groups at tables sharing a meal and getting acquainted. That does not happen automatically – especially in today’s cordoned off society. We have to intentionally and deliberately make it happen. That works best in groups – like congregations. Bold loud hint.
Fourth, entrust yourself and those you love to God’s care. We cultivate this attitude with prayer. So pray for your own safety, entrusting your well-being to God. There are many such prayers in the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Each day I pray from the 1st Song of Isaiah,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid
For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
And he will be my savior.
I say this as one who has “already come” “though many dangers, toils, and snares.” I have come through them by the grace of God, not my own paranoid planning. I have been generally naïve, often a fool. But God has been my shield. We are not smart or powerful enough to secure our own well-being. But God has promised:
“Fear not for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name. You are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you
And the rivers shall not overwhelm you
When you walk through the fire you will not be burned
And the flame will not consume you.” – Isaiah 43: 2
A faithful response to that promise would sound like this:
“Yea though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” – Psalm 23: 4
The Psalmist said,
“Some trust in chariots, others in horses
(we might say: some trust in drones, others in .357 magnums).
But we trust in the name of the Lord.” -- Psalm 20: 7
God has not promised that nothing bad will happen to us. Life is usually hard and sometimes tragic. But God has promised to join us on our cross and raise us from our tombs. God will bring us through anything the world throws at us. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” John 16: 33
Fifth, pray for the people that scare you. Pray for your enemies. (Matthew 5: 44; Luke 6: 27. Don’t do it to be nice. Do it to be safe. You are a whole lot safer when your enemies are doing well than when they are suffering and angry.
I got the core of this prayer from Carmelite monks (who crafted it from a Theravadan Buddhist meditation) and added the last part. Like the Nixon White House, I have an enemies list. But I pray for my enemies by name and then go on:
“May all of my enemies be filled with loving kindness.
May they be well.
May they be peaceful and at ease.
May they be happy.
Protect me from them by the turning of their minds
And hide me neath the shadow of your wing.”
Instead of ratcheting up fear and loathing, we can counter it by praying for the well-being and happiness of the very people we fear.
Finally and most fundamentally, we can exercise our faith in God. That is the power of the Resurrection. Christ has come with perfect love to cast out fear, even the fear of death, even the fear of Hell. In Christ, we are set free from every bond including the bond to fear. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5: 1). This does not mean nothing bad will ever happen, but it does mean God will be with us and bring us through it.
God has broken the chains of fear to set us free. And ain’t that good news! When we claim the freedom he has given us, at the cost of his own blood, how could we not proclaim the good news? Remember the disciples who “ran away and told no one anything because they were afraid”? That’s a picture of what not to do. How could we not share the good news of our resurrection freedom with the trembling world still in bondage? We are surrounded by a people enslaved by the power of fear. But the Spirit of the Lord is upon us because he has anointed us . . . to set the captives free.” (Luke 4: 18)
This is what is at stake: our proclamation of the gospel of Christ Jesus. What are we doing on this earth? We are here to proclaim the good news to all nations – Matthew 28: 19-20 – particularly those who are poor, captives, or oppressed. Luke 4: 18. If we fail to do that, our lives are wasted. So will we boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ Jesus? Or will we run away and say nothing to anyone because we are afraid?
[i] There are other factors – poverty, etc. – that contribute to these statistics. I do not claim mutual fear is the only thing at work here. But it is perhaps the most powerful.