The Sin of Anxiety

Reference: Luke 12:27-40

Cielo Vista shopping mall in El Paso is well known to me, a place I have been a dozen times, a friendly, cheerful and safe locale to take care of my shopping needs. To see it on the national news as a place of horror and tragedy is deeply disturbing, as I suppose is usually the case when “it can’t happen here,” happens here. El Paso, after all, for many years has been statistically the safest large city in America. It emphasizes how vulnerable everywhere is to someone who drives 600 miles to find a place where he can express the generic hatred that consumes him by randomly killing a large number of people unknown to him in the hope that many of them are Mexican. In the new day of America, there is no safe place. The scene belongs to the people who hate, and when they are really committed to it, they can, and do, strike with impunity. Much rhetoric, money and activity is devoted to warning us of foreign dangers and terrorists. But who can protect us from Americans? “We have met the enemy and they are us,” as Pogo noted.

How, then, should we react? Buy more guns, indulge a fantasy that we will blaze back in the mall when it is our fate to be there with the shooter? The reality is rather different. It is not easy in the moment, taken by surprise, unsure where the shots are coming from and, not least, scared and confused. In the instant, few are sharpshooters able to deal precisely with the shooter and not hit others by mistake, even assuming you carry your firepower with you everywhere, just in case. In the Dayton, Ohio shooting the same day, police were on the scene in literally a minute. That was enough time for someone with an automatic weapon to kill or injure a score of people.

Blame mental illness? Of course, someone who randomly kills a bunch of people is a boy with problems. In hindsight, no doubt, his family, teachers, peers will all note the signs which should have alerted the authorities. In the toxic atmosphere of today’s America, there are many like him, except they won’t, unlike him, act out the fantasy. How to know which one will actually get in the car with the firearms, drive the 600 miles and do the deed? Add to that, a broken health care system in general, and spotty mental health resources in particular. You can only get help if there is someone accessible to give it to you.

Blame the President? Certainly, his inflammatory rhetoric pours gasoline on the smoldering embers of racism and xenophobia. It isn’t helpful, as the diplomats put it. Nevertheless, most of his followers manage to channel the anger and frustration in their lives, which he expresses for them, in less dramatic ways. The rhetoric is mostly a symptom of the deeper sickness of a people gripped by a contagion of bigotry and fear, not the cause of it. Nor does the violent fringe in the present climate find a single enemy. Many of the shooters feed on the internet postings of the others. Mexicans, Muslims, Christians, Jews have all been targeted, nor is it only an American problem, even if we easily lead the world in mass shootings.

Ban assault weapons? The failure to do so speaks to a mass collective mental illness of the populace, together with the unwillingness of lobby groups like the NRA to distinguish between reasonable firearms for hunting and household protection and weapons capable of instant mass carnage. The Second Amendment begins with the caveat “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State…” Mass shooters do not seem well regulated, nor is the present legal structure doing much for the security of anybody.

But these concerns only graze the surface. The root problem is the dysfunction in the soul. The individuals acting out violent hatred are a small tip of a large iceberg of a society in the grip of serious anxiety. The normal fears and concerns built into all humans, indeed all creatures, have become distorted, and in so doing eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the animal kingdom, otherwise peaceful creatures become dangerous when cornered. It doesn’t matter if the experience is real or only perceived. Humans are the same, only the perceptions can be more complex. The escalation of generic and pandemic fear can be verified by anybody who is old remembering back to their childhood, when there were no school lockdowns, when nobody debated arming teachers, when there was no need for police presence in school, when you could walk to school everyday in safety, when security systems were rare, when life was relaxed in a hundred ways in comparison with today. At this point, the escalation feeds on itself.

The solution is clear. In the reference Gospel above, Jesus summarizes the lifestyle: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:12). This is not new information. A long time ago now, Jesus pointed out that God cares for his entire creation, even the micro parts of it, small birds and flowers. All the more does he care about us. The writer of the Hebrews discusses the role of faith in this, noting that the “heroes” of the early history of Israel lived by a trusting faith in God and his promises to us (see Hebrews 11:1-16). Long before the Law of Moses, the saving action of the Passover or the ultimate act of salvation through the Cross, these people had faith in God.

We who are privileged to know the entire span of salvation history, which these folks could only try to imagine, can choose to buy into the rhetoric of fear of each other, of “those people,” to live life in anxiety over every minute of life, not just violence, but all the possible threats to our health, economics and well-being. There appears little evidence that American Christians are any less anxious than their neighbors. Or, we can understand that anxiety is sinful. It isn’t the kind of sin that directly hurts others or makes you “an open and notorious evil liver,” as the old Prayerbook language phrases it. But it is sin because it is a failure of faith, a failure in regard to the first and great commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

I tell you this, not to condemn but rather to comfort you. You need not be anxious and fearful. You can trust God to care for you. Do not be drawn into the vortex of the nightmare fears of the contemporary generation. “Do not be afraid, little flock.” And armed with that faith, you can be a light among the darkness of disturbed and fearful people, showing a path out of the pit of anxiety, and the fear that leads the cornered creature to strike out in terror, even sometimes against those who would help, and certainly those who meant no harm.

Two caveats. Do not equate faith in God that removes anxiety with an assumption that God will give you everything you want and shield you from every trouble. That is not the contract. It is rather that, despite whatever evil may befall you, God will not desert you and will lead you in love all your days on earth and beyond. And do not equate this faith with resignation or fatalism. God has equipped you with mental tools that flowers and small birds do not have. You can use them. There is no sin in swerving to avoid obvious dangers and pitfalls. It is the anxious part you can dispense with, not the sensible thought part.

Then, with a resurrection already begun in you at your baptism, you can proceed in life, knowing that whatever happens cannot separate you from God and his loving care. “Perfect love drives out fear,” says John (1 John 4:18), God’s perfect love.