Moving beyond fear

November 19th, 2018

In 2017, pollsters asked Americans what we feared most. Apparently, spiders did not make the list. In my book, that proves that Americans lie.

Dying barely made the top 50, trailing fear of reptiles (ranked 44) and sharks (41). Pollution of the air, of drinking water, and of natural bodies of water like lakes, rivers, and oceans occupy three separate spots in the top 10. 

Concern about health care costs and worry that we won’t have enough money to get by in the future ranked sixth and fifth, respectively. By far most people reported a fear of corrupt government officials.

This is telling. I don’t mean that the ranking of our fears is telling. I mean that fear is so pervasive that researchers routinely study it. In detail.

Tons of us are afraid — not episodically or in the face of an imminent threat, but habitually. A persistent nausea churns in the deep recesses of our gut warning us that things are about to get much worse.

We’ve come by some of our heightened vigilance honestly. So far this year we’ve had over three hundred mass shootings. Just this past week, a man in Baltimore raised his arm in the Nazi salute and shouted, “Heil Hitler! Heil Trump!” at the intermission of “Fiddler on the Roof," a play about persecution of Jews.

Man, it’s crazy out there!

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But you know, the world has been crazy before. And in all likelihood, the world will get crazy again. And again. 

Each time the world tumbles toward chaos some of us lose our minds and reach for the hyper-control button. We look for scapegoats. We get suspicious about people who aren’t like us. We tribe up with those who agree with us and get violent with what we take to be rival tribes.

Jesus never promised to exempt his followers from the changes and the chances, the sorrows and the heartaches, of life on planet earth. Deeply faithful people get cancer. Their children overdose. People go broke, land in concentration camps, die in wars.

As beautiful and joy-filled and glorious as life can be, that same life can be filled with terror and can deliver blows that leave us bloodied and flat on our backs.

Some Christians believe that none of this matters, really. After we die we’ll be in heaven. No tears there. But as for me, eternal pleasures cannot compensate for even one moment of a child’s misery or a parent’s devastation.

Besides, Jesus never suggested any such thing. All of this matters. All of it. Every second. What is shattered will be mended. What is cast down will be raised up. What has withered will be made vital again.

Jesus teaches us by word and by example that God raises the dead; the challenge for us is to act like we believe this, right down to our toes. Especially while we’re wading through a field of thistles on this side of the tomb.

Jesus put it this way: “When you hear of wars or the rumor of wars, do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8)

Paradoxically, the existentialist Albert Camus—not one given to belief in God—provides an illustration for Jesus’s point in his novel The Plague. Bubonic plague descends on the city of Oran in northwest Algeria. The government quarantines the population, so the citizens are left to deal with the ravages of the disease without contact from the outside world.

Many people grow ill and die. The main characters devote themselves to doing what they can for their fellow citizens. There is no guarantee that they will save anyone. They, too, can succumb to the disease. And even after the epidemic has passed, the narrator makes clear that there will be plagues again.

Camus writes, “On this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

We who follow Jesus join Camus in this commitment. We are on the side of the victims, never the pestilences. But we do not agree with Camus’s motivation, and that is crucial.

Camus believes that we can make meaning for ourselves by the love we give in this moment. What we humans do on this planet makes our lives meaningful. However, in Camus’s view, when death eventually overtakes us, meaninglessness has the final say.

Jesus teaches us to act, to do what we can in the name of love. But Jesus also teaches us that God is the definitive agent. What we do to nurture and to heal, to bring peace and to establish justice, is a response to what God is already doing.

More to the point for the followers of Jesus, Jesus himself is the definitive act by which God makes the whole creation new. We see this most clearly in Jesus’ resurrection.

When Jesus says that we are in the midst of the birth pangs, he means that his resurrection is already at work within us — even and especially when fear begins to narrow our vision to the cross and the tomb.

When we act justly in an unjust world, when we nurture and heal in the face of ruthlessness, when we forgive and offer peace in response to violence, we are cooperating with a divine initiative and offering holy resistance.

We work through and move beyond our fear. We participate in the birthing of the new creation.

"Moving Beyond Fear" originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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