Fearing our fears

June 13th, 2016

Speaking to his students at Liberty University earlier this year, President Jerry Falwell Jr. said, “It just blows my mind that the president of the United States” wants “more gun control.” Liberty students applauded when Falwell said that the shooting at San Bernadino wouldn’t have happened if any of the victims had “what I have in my back pocket right now.” (A .25 pistol.) More applause. “Is it legal to pull it out? I don’t know.” Huge ovation from the students.

At most colleges, you’ve got to pay tuition. At Liberty, you must also pay Colt Firearms for protection. Back when I was in college, they made you master history and algebra; now the president of a university expects you to pack heat.

When a lone gunman worked horror at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Donald Trump reiterated his promise: If we elect him, he will close our borders to Muslims — even though by that time Trump knew the shooter had never been an immigrant. The mass murderer was a native born hater of gay people, a violent spouse abuser who legally bought a Colt assault weapon which enabled him to commit carnage on a scale previously unknown in America.

If, as someone has said, perfect love casts out fear, then Trump shows that exploited fear casts out clear thinking.

Neuroscience has copiously documented that fear is detrimental to reasonableness. As our level of fear goes up, powers of judgment, decision-making and evaluation go down. That’s one reason why fear tends to be a function of our imagination more than the reality of our true situation, fear out of proportion to the threat of the object of our fear, fear that plays upon our insecurities and leads us to irrational response. There are now more guns than people in America. Limbic systems gone wild?

Scott Bader-Saye, in his fine book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos, 2007), notes that the top killers in the United States are heart disease, cancer and stroke. Yet our top fears are terrorists, pedophiles, plane crashes. Though crime rates are dropping, two-thirds of us think they are rising. The population most fearful of victimization by violence (people my age) is least likely to be victimized by violent crime (young adult men are most vulnerable). A major justification for the purchase of a firearm is self-defense against bad people; most handgun deaths are gun accidents by a friend or family member, a domestic dispute or suicide by our own hand. Avid TV viewers are more likely than others to believe their neighborhoods are unsafe, assume that crime rates are rising, and overestimate their odds of becoming a victim, and they are more likely to own guns.

The governor of North Carolina is so terrified of transgendered people in restrooms that he gets a law to protect us, protecting us from a crime that doesn’t exist. The law says more about our Governor’s fears than about a real threat.

Trump’s response to Orlando, as well as copious comments during his campaign validates brain scientists’ research that fear induces stupidity. Sadly, his responses are more like those of ISIS than American democratic values. Throughout American history, demagogues can’t resist appealing to our fear, attempting to leverage our fear into votes for them, though I hope that Trump is selling us short.

Somehow we must muster the ability not to fear the wrong things in the wrong way, and to fear the right things in the right way. It’s not too much to expect those who would lead us to be able to discern the difference between a frightened Syrian refugee and a would-be ISIS terrorist.

While it’s not wrong to fear, fear can lead us to disastrous mistakes in judgment. Fear is a necessary protective, defensive mechanism. However, outside of life in the bush, in the modern world, fear is a response that must be critically, carefully examined. What we need is some way honestly to acknowledge having fear, to weigh our fears and to respond thoughtfully without fear having us.

“Fear not” is an expression found in over three hundred places in Scripture. Jesus frequently says “fear not,” but on one occasion Jesus urges fear upon his disciples: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28 CEB). When I take requests for prayer on Sunday mornings, it’s always petitions for healing of bodily ills, never for help with the sad state of our souls. In light of Jesus’s statement in Matthew 10:28, I’d say that when Scripture urges us to “fear God,” it means that we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear others.

The key to courage is not the banishment of all fear but fear of the right things in the right way. Our problem, in regard to fear, is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

A major Christian claim is that Jesus Christ gives us the operative grace (in the words of our beloved hymn) that teaches our “heart to fear” disappointing God and also the grace that enables our irrational, harm-producing fears to be “relieved.” Fear is a natural human protective mechanism. And yet, part of the joy of being a Christian is to have a whole host of otherwise innate inclinations (such as, adultery) mastered by the love of Christ.

At its best, the church teaches us to be afraid of our propensity to be fearful, to resist our innate tendencies to regard others as enemies rather than sisters and brothers in Christ, to refuse vainly to attempt to secure our lives through the world’s means rather than God’s means — the way of Jesus Christ. If we are disciples, then it’s our responsibility, in a culture of fear and fear mongers, to show the world the joy of living by faith rather than fear. A Christian is called to be a showcase of what Jesus can do that the world cannot.

After hearing the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre spewing hate against the president, the attorney general, and anyone who dares to cross him, my anger was burning white hot. Then I took the trouble to read some of LaPierre’s speeches and, despite my revulsion, my heart went out to this sad man. Even though he is paid a million dollars a year through NRA dues, Wayne LaPierre turns out to be the most frightened man in America. Seized by paralyzing terror, he appears to have no hope for himself, his nation, or the future other than Colt Inc. Fear extracts a heavy toll in the lives it masters. Jesus promises us that we can be more than conquerors — never by getting a gun, not by building walls between ourselves and those for whom Christ died, and not even through our heroic mastering our fears — but by allowing ourselves and our fears to be mastered by the one who majestically commands and then gives us the means to obey, “Fear not!”

William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Willimon is the author of Fear of the Other from Abingdon Press, and Pulpit Resource, a homiletical weekly published in partnership with Abingdon Press and Ministry Matters.

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