(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on November 27, 2015)
“And when I saw [Jesus], I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.” (Revelation 1:17, NKJV).
On February 15, 1898, an explosion in Havana Harbor, Cuba sank the USS Maine. In the aftermath, a nation united together behind President William McKinley to confront Spain behind the rallying cry, “Remember the Maine!”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,400 people. The next day, President Franklin D Roosevelt asked and received a declaration of war from Congress in a famous speech calling the day of the attack, “A date which will live in infamy.” Our nation overcame deep disagreement and division over whether to enter the growing global conflict, following a decade of brutal depression, marshaled all its resources and sacrificed greatly to unite and fight against the evils of fascism.
On September 11, 2001, a nation watched in horror as commercial planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people. That evening, we saw the entire Congress stand on the Capitol Building steps and sing “God Bless America” as one. This country and the world united together to show its resolve against a new enemy, determined to shred the very fabric of Western democracy.
And then something happened during the last 14 years. Sometime between 9/11 and today, we crossed an invisible line. We have fallen over a tipping point. And now, with every new tragedy, we do not unite as a nation, but rather become more divided. I could give a long litany of examples, but just consider the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in which a man massacred 20 children. Within hours, people were fighting over the 2nd Amendment. Consider the slaying of 9 disciples of Jesus at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Within hours, we managed to turn this tragedy into a debate about the Confederate battle flag. And think for a second about the ISIS terror attacks over the Sinai Peninsula, in Africa, Lebanon, Paris, and Mali. We wasted no time turning them into a hate-filled shouting match over Syrian refugees. The failure to unite in the face of tragedy is extraordinarily alarming. It keeps me up at night.
I have thought about, discussed, and prayed on this, and I can only come to one conclusion: this country has been infected to the core by a widespread epidemic of fear. It is a deadly panic of pandemic proportions. We have been successfully terrorized, much to my despair. And if this season of history turns out to be our last, I promise you that the people of the future will read in our obituary that it was not democrats or republicans or white people or black people or gay people or Muslims or atheists or undocumented immigrants that killed us. It was fear and fear alone.
When fear infects a body of people, there are predictable symptoms. First, you will see isolation. Instead of transcending differences in order to show solidarity in the face of adversity, we coalesce into smaller and more walled off clusters of ideologically homogenous groups, where we adopt more doctrinal and black and white thinking, so that we can better identify who the “other” is that terrifies us. Isolation causes us to stigmatize or mark less empowered people, who are scapegoated for whatever scares us. If you want to know what this looks like, consider the Jews of 1930s Germany or African-Americans during Jim Crow. And when you stigmatize people, you can justify doing anything to them, including genocide.
The next thing that happens is that people fail to extend mercy and compassion to those in need. We no longer feel the human bond with our neighbors. We no longer feel responsible to protect the vulnerable, to advocate for the voiceless, to include the marginalized. A life gripped by fear becomes an “every man for himself” affair.
And that leads to direct disobedience of God’s commands. Over and over and over again, clearer than a bell and in no uncertain terms, God says in the Bible: Care for the needy; protect and provide for the orphan, the widow and the immigrant. It literally says this. I’m not making this up. Go look it up. And what’s more, Jesus says, “Just as you have done [or not done] something to the least of my sisters and brothers, you have also done it to me” (Matt 25). Can you imagine actually refusing to help The Son of God?
Right now we have literal orphans, widows and would be immigrants trying to escape horrors you and I cannot imagine. Women and children have been enslaved and raped. Innocent people have been slaughtered in Syria. And this nation, gripped by fear, is actually arguing over whether we should accept them. Putting aside the fact that to refuse to help the world’s poor and suffering goes against every American value you and I were taught to honor and embody, for a Christian to even entertain the idea of barring orphans, widows and immigrants from a war-torn land is so offensive I think it borders on obscene and evil. And I choose those words deliberately.
If you are a Christian and you are afraid, I challenge you to read your Bible. Not only will you find that repeated command to care for the vulnerable, you will also find the words (or a variation thereof): “Do not be afraid!” at least 181 times. One time should be sufficient. 181 times means that we have no excuse not to take this injunction to be without fear with grave seriousness.
Furthermore, security has never been a part of the deal for a Christian. Since when has the threat of death ever been a deterrent for a Christian to obey the commands of Jesus? Since when has the threat of death ever been an excuse to refuse to be a witness for Christ? Christians have been willingly and joyfully giving up their security and their lives for 1,982 years, since Jesus gave up his on the cross. In fact, when the Plague swept the ancient world in the 2nd Century, persecuted Christians actually came out of hiding to care for dying pagans, unbelievers, persecutors, because they had no fear of death and only the desire to obey Christ. Many Christians caught the Plague and died themselves, but they died with joy as they witnessed to the glory and grace of Christ in their final act, assured of the promise of heavenly eternity with the Lord. If that example is too long ago for you, consider the images of firefighters, police and EMTs rushing into the Twin Towers to save those who couldn’t save themselves. Think about those veterans we honored a couple of weeks ago, many of whom laid down on grenades, stopped bullets, shielded strangers from exploding bombs, laying down their lives for others. These are people who well understood danger, but did not allow fear to keep them from making the sacrifice to which their duty called them.
Is it dangerous to bring in Syrian refugees? Maybe. Could a terrorist sneak in? Eventually. But that’s totally beside the point. A Christian shirks not at death because Jesus rendered it no more permanent than an afternoon nap and no more powerful than a shadow when he died on that Roman cross—an instrument of imperial terror—and rose again on the third day. You cannot make a victim out of Christ by killing him, only a king. And you cannot make a victim out of a Christian, only a martyr. I cannot think of a better way to die than to die protecting children who have been brutalized by violence in Syria. Can you? I’ll take that over living 100 years in the dubious comfort of isolation any day.
Lastly, the question that many will have after reading this column is: “But don’t we have the right to protect ourselves?” And the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Of course we do. Christians and Americans may be unafraid of death, but we are not nihilists. We aren’t suicidal. But here’s the thing: we will never figure out precisely how, when and by what means to protect ourselves so long as we are infected by fear. And we will never rise to the challenge to defeat our formidable enemies so long as we are infected by fear. Lose the fear first and rational responses to danger will surely follow. And when the hour calls for the ultimate sacrifice, we shall do so proclaiming the resurrection good news of Jesus. The true King has evicted an imposter from the throne. The Reign of Fear is over!