“The only thing to fear is fear itself” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There was a little more to it than that, but Americans took to the message back then and it helped. The country I grew up in during the ‘fifties had global fears of nuclear holocaust and Commie world domination, but my personal world, and that of most Americans, was not at all dominated by fear.
As a child I wandered freely all over town, and as a teenager with a driver’s license, all over the state. It never occurred to my parents to worry about my security. The world of schools that are locked down, with police or security on site, and children who must be bussed because it is not considered safe to walk was inconceivable. The world of passwords, security codes, car alarms, TSA, locked cockpits, gated communities, Border Patrol checkpoints, surveillance cameras, cars that automatically lock, barricades at the mall, a whole host of devices, armed personnel, systems and obstacles which exist solely because of fear, such a world existed only in spy thrillers or super-sensitive defense operations. My parents never locked their car overnight sitting out on the driveway and rarely locked the house.
As we enter the new civic year, that world seems more and more remote. Trust levels hover on zero. I can’t even pay my electric bill without an ID code and a password. My rural neighbors drive their child the quarter-mile to the school bus because they fear kidnappers. Many are fearful what the election of Donald Trump will bring, others fear “illegals” causing crime, or terrorists in the mall.
Our political process has become paralyzed, with a polarization making the cooperation needed to successfully govern a nation virtually impossible. Our major political parties fail to function in a healthy way, partly due to a lack of citizen interest. Even many Trump voters have “voter remorse.” The Democratic establishment muscled out a truly popular candidate through questionable means. Now they blame Vladimir Putin, the FBI, the Electoral College, the “deplorables,” virtually everyone but the obvious culprits, namely themselves, for their election loss. I cannot remember a New Year with such a worried and gloomy prognosis being offered by friends and media alike. When asked by pollsters, a large majority of Americans opine that the country is going in the wrong direction.
A long time before 2017, the Christmas story addressed a lot of fear. When the angel appeared to Zechariah (Luke 1:11-12), he had to reassure Zechariah because “he was gripped with fear.” When the angel appeared to Mary, he had to tell her “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30). When the angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields, “they were terrified” (Luke 2:9). In that era, too, fear obviously had to be addressed.
How are Christians today coping with this? My observation personally is that they are if anything more fearful than their neighbors. The messages I see from Christian organizations often re-enforce the fear. The media feeds it with the daily burst of terrifying images known as the evening news.
My mind keeps going back to the image of one group, among many, of new martyrs, the twenty-one Egyptian Copts beheaded recently in Libya by ISIS. They were not church leaders, but rather ordinary folks, in Libya to earn a living in the oil fields. They are led onto the beach in orange jumpsuits, and they are composed, quiet and courageous. They have all been given the choice of renouncing their Faith and Lord, and have instead confessed him and not denied him.
What did they know that seems to be eluding American Christians? Perhaps a clue is 1John 4:18. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Many people see hate as the opposite of love. But John understands that fear is the true opposite.
The epidemic of fear which characterizes our society and our Faithful is therefore directly connected to the absence of sufficient love. The latter is the Christian message, powerful enough that ordinary people are willing to die as witnesses to it. Fear leads to the destruction of civilization. Love is the path back from our devastating condition to the Garden, the paradise of God where perfect love has cast out fear.
We are not currently called to witness by a martyr’s death, but by reaching out in love to those we have been conditioned by countless stimuli in our society to fear. They are of course the “other,” the people who if they came into our church on a Sunday would send an alarm of fear into the congregants.
Compassion is what drove our Lord to voluntarily reach out to us. Compassion forms the heart of our witness to others. “Compassion” does not just mean being nice to people, making a donation for their Christmas dinner or a contribution to a mission field. It comes from two words meaning to “suffer with.” There is a Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown and Lucy looking out the window at Snoopy by his doghouse, shivering in a blizzard. Charlie Brown suggests they ought to do something for him. So they go out and say to Snoopy: “Be of good cheer,” and go back into the warmth of the house. Compassion has not happened and Snoopy remains shivering in the cold.
The Son of God could have done the same, sent messages from his glory cheering us on. Instead, he came and suffered with us, who were the “other,” alien to his love. It is only when we have that kind of compassion for the “other,” in its definitive meaning, that we too can begin to approach perfect love and cast out fear. Until then, we are captive to our prejudice, our stereotypes, our pigeon holes to categorize those not like us. We will live inside a self-made prison, believing we are keeping out evil but instead locking ourselves into smallness, fearfulness and alienation.
It is a vicious circle. Those from whom we distance ourselves will begin to fear us and take measures to protect themselves. Only the perfect love shown by the compassion of Christ can break the cycle. To let that love happen is to refuse to fear. To some you appear to make yourself vulnerable, as Christ did, and perhaps you are vulnerable. Love is opening yourself to the risk of being hurt. But without compassion, there is only a cold, angry, unforgiving world replete with revenge, hatred and domination.
As with every New Year, we look ahead to ask in what kind of environment we will live. The choice of which of two paths we wish to take has seldom been clearer. Many people around us choose to walk the path of increasing fear. It will not end well. Something has been forgotten. The earth is not enemy territory. The earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24). “Do not be afraid,” to quote the angel. Our witness is to seek and practice the other path, of compassion, leading to the perfect love that will make us, children of the earth’s Lord, fearless even while vulnerable, for the sake of the Lord of perfect love.