Regardless of how you might feel about the health care reform bill that recently passed Congress and was signed by the President, it seems to me most of us can’t be too happy about the vitriolic language that so often characterized the debate, nor about the violent language (and, indeed, threats of violence) that washed over the country in the aftermath of the bill’s passage. It was frankly shocking to me to hear veteran civil rights activist and Georgia congressman John Lewis say that he had been called names that he hadn’t heard since the great civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Imagine that. Recall what the struggles of the 1960s were like (either from your own experience or your study of history), and then consider the fact that Congressman Lewis encountered that same kind of name-calling just last week, name-calling he hadn’t heard for almost 50 years. I find that to be remarkable — and horrifying. And while it seems that Democratic congresspeople bore the brunt of this kind of behavior, some Republican politicians were also recipients of threats, one of which has even led to an arrest.
This kind of violent speech (and the frightening thought that it could lead to violent action) seems to me to come from a kind of anger that is ultimately propelled by fear. We find ourselves living in a culture of fear, and that fear has been escalating ever since the tragic events of 9/11. Some of those fears are certainly justified. The fear of terrorism, for example, or the fears engendered by the difficult economic times we have been living through or of environmental change. Of course, people can become too fearful of even reasonable fears. What makes me most concerned, however, are the fears that seem to provoke much emotion but which don’t seem to me, at least, to be things that people really ought to be afraid of. Fears of gay people or immigrants, for example. Fears of liberals or conservatives. Fears of Muslims or atheists. Fears of those whose approach to life or beliefs or opinions are different from our own. It seems that we have arrived at a point where any given issue with which we struggle as a nation gets invested with apocalyptic significance, which then raises the stakes involved and the level of fear. It’s as if every decision we make as a nation will either lead us to everlasting glory or usher in the end of the world. There may indeed be some issues that deserve that level of concern, but surely not every single struggle in American society deserves to be regarded in such stark, absolute terms.
What is really at the root of many if not most of our fears, I think, is the far more basic and fundamental fear of change. Human beings tend to carry with us a rather static view of reality, taking comfort in the impression that things are supposed to remain pretty much the way they have always been. But life is a dynamic process, and things don’t stay the same. New people, new ideas, new ways of thinking are always arising, and sometimes they come at us so fast that we have trouble coping, we feel like we are losing ourselves, that our world doesn’t make sense the way it once did, and we become fearful.
Yet fear is not a biblical value. In the Bible, the words “Do not be afraid” are found 67 times. Sometimes they are said by one person to another, but often they come as a divine message, through a prophet or an angelic figure, as when Mary, invited to be the mother of Jesus, is told, “Do not be afraid.” Or, according to some of the Gospels, when the women who serve as the first witnesses to the Resurrection are told, “Do not be afraid.” And this is not just a message delivered to women. In most instances where these words occur in the Bible, they are addressed to men.
As I survey the situations in which these words come up in the Bible, I am led to the conclusion that the overarching reason for this advice is a recognition that when we act on the basis of fear, we do not do God’s work nor are we being faithful to our best selves. Fear closes us down rather than opening us up. Fear creates a defensive posture, and as such, it creates a barrier between us and God. It is as if fear is a kind of noise that drowns out the still small voice of God which, as Elijah discovered, can be heard only when we are able to silence our inner chatter (see 1 Kings 19:11-13). Fear leads us into our darker places, rather than into the light of our true selves. When we follow our fear, we become like the crowds on the first Good Friday who loudly called for Jesus’ crucifixion because they feared what he represented.
In the First Letter of John (4:18), we find this bit of wisdom: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” These words point us to a deep truth, which is that in Christ, we witness and experience a paradigm shift in terms of the human relationship to God and in terms of human relationships generally. That is, in Christ, the basis of our relationship with God is moved from fear to love. The image of God that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which obedience is often predicated on divine punishment for disobedience, is eclipsed in the teaching of Jesus by an image of God who calls us into relationship based on God’s overwhelming love for us. That shift in our relationship with God is also meant to cause a shift in our relationship with each other. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a new commandment: that we are to love each other as he has loved us (John 13:34 and 15:12). In other words, the unconditional love of God for us that we see and experience in Christ is to be the kind of love with which we approach each other. And when we do that, we cease to act out of fear. Rather than seeking to punish or restrict those with whom we disagree or who are different from us, we seek to engage them in love, with the hope and expectation that we both will be transformed in the encounter.
Somehow, we need to work this kind of creative engagement that opens up the possibility of transformation back into our political process and our national discourse. Otherwise, I wonder what will happen to our democracy. For just as fear displaces love, it can also prevent people from feeling free to participate in our national life. And when the pool of participants in a democracy shrinks, power becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, and then we have to wonder whether we really have a democracy anymore.