Since fear seems to stand at the heart of the issues confronting us as a people -- whether it's the recent health care debate or the issue of immigration bedeviling Arizona -- I decided to repost this piece originally written for the Lompoc Record in 2006. I offer it for your meditation.
Faith in the Public Square
February 19, 2006
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Franklin Roosevelt understood fear's emotional potency and in the years since 9-11 we have experienced fear's temptations. It has become a significant political tool, where candidates promise to protect us to win our votes and many seem willing to relinquish their rights in the name of security. A majority of Americans accept warrantless wiretaps and there is surprisingly strong support for the use of torture to “protect” Americans. Despite the lack of any significant terrorist attacks on American soil since September 2001, many Americans believe that a terrorist attack in their community is imminent.
Demagogues smell fear and they use it to manipulate and control crowds, nations, political groups, and even religious communities. Fear-inducing events can pull people together for important things, or they can be the pretext for less honorable actions. The internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the pockets of violence committed against Muslims, Arabs, and anyone who looked like an Arab after 9-11 are a few examples.
Fear tempts us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that “in politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and white supremacists of varying stripes appealed to humanity's baser instincts, and because fear is rooted in the unknown it is easily exploited. At an individual level it becomes paranoia, but at a societal level it becomes xenophobia (fear of the other), and xenophobia leads to discrimination, persecution, oppression and even violence.
We have a choice. We can indulge our fears by letting the harbingers of fear control us or we can stand up and say no to the fear mongers among us. Indulging our fears can determine national policies, voting practices, and even religious life. It can make us timid or belligerent, and we will either hide behind doors or behind weapons. We might try to rattle the saber to ward off potential threats and shelter our children from perceived danger and separate ourselves from those who are different. But, can we truly protect ourselves by giving into our fears, or do we just create more problems?
Phobias are many and they are destructive. If our guiding principle a clash of civilizations, then we will choose military solutions over diplomacy. Though I'm not a pacifist ( I have been, however, influenced by pacifist Christian traditions), I have long believed that military action should be a last resort.
Lactantius, an early Christian writer, wrote: “Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” Wisdom is thoughtful, deliberative, and requires a bit of skepticism. It is curious, asks questions, seeks answers, and listens before it speaks. Fear, on the other hand, acts before it deliberates and speaks before it listens. It shuns questions and refuses to consider answers. It is complacent and acquiescent to authority. Fear cannot abide wisdom, because wisdom challenges those who try to manipulate our emotions for political gain.
The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Because fear is rooted in punishment and wrath, while love is about trust, love will be the antidote to fear. Love seeks to build relationships with the other, and therefore it breaks down walls and builds bridges. Because trust can be abused, love must be coupled with wisdom and discernment. It is naïve to suggest that all are worthy of trust. The charlatan and the demagogue can abuse and demean our trust, but wisdom and knowledge allow us to see through their deceit. Then, love will be the antidote to fear.
Love's opposite is hate, which spawns violence. A cross burning on a lawn, a black man dragged behind a truck to his death, a suicide bomber in a crowded market, a young student beaten to death because he is gay. True love must say no to such actions of hate. Love believes the best about the other, welcomes the other, seeks the best for the other, and it seeks to create a place of safety in the community.
We live in an age of fear, when politicians and religious leaders appeal to our base instincts for their own gain. We can give in to their demagoguery or we can stand up and say no! It is my choice to say no to fear and yes to wisdom and love.
Dr. Bob Cornwall [was] Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc.
February 19, 2006