The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear (MIchael Kinnamon) - A Review

THE WITNESS OF RELIGION IN AN AGE OF FEAR. By Michael Kinnamon. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. X + 122 pages.

Once upon a time an American President declared that the “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt made that declaration in his first inaugural address, even as the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Times have changed, and we have entered an “age of fear.” It doesn’t matter what your political commitments are, fear has taken hold of our lives. While fear has its benefits, too often it takes hold of our lives in dangerous and destructive ways.

When it comes to the things we fear, the list is long. It might be changing demographics or economic uncertainty. It might be crime or unfettered access to guns. It might be the religious other who has moved into the community and erected mosques and synagogues and temples. We seem anxious about the threat of terrorism, but then that’s the point of terrorism. Terrorists win when people live fearful and anxious lives. Unfortunately, one of the contributors to this emerging age of fear is religion. Religion often is the stirrer of fear, but it can also be a calming voice in the midst of chaos.

Is it possible for religion, whatever its forms, to be that calming voice? One who believes it can do this is Michael Kinnamon, a Disciples of Christ theologian, who, prior to his retirement, served as Executive Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Kinnamon has spent his career in conversation with groups and people who seek to find a path to unity, and it is from that experience along with his own theological expertise that he writes this relatively brief book that serves as a call to action in the face of increasing anxiety and fear. Understanding that religion has been a contributor to fear and is understood by many to be a harbinger of fear, he argues that the religious communities, at their best, can provide a counterweight to those who pursue policies and agendas of fear.

While recognizing that our society is "saturated with fear," Kinnamon argues that this fear is "out of proportion to the actual threats we face" (p. ix). As I write this review, the President of the United States has turned in a budget request to Congress that is all about fear. It puts most of the nation’s eggs in the military/security basket. The budget outline suggests that the President and those close to him envision the creation of a "national security state." We see this in the sharp uptick in defense spending, the immigration orders, and effort at building a wall across the southern border. Whether stirring the pot or reflecting the emergent season of fear, the President has capitalized on it, and as result fear continues to increase.  This culture of fear has, in turn, affected those who are seeking asylum and help in difficult times. It has all infected the political conversation, though this is not good for the nation or the world.  With this in mind, Kinnamon issues a call, as a Christian, "to interfaith engagement in the United States" As such, he suggests, rightly so, that "we need to relearn our teachings about fear and to make these teachings known, alongside neighbors who adhere to other faiths" (p. x). 

When we talk about fear, we need to recognize, as Kinnamon does, that there are legitimate forms of fear, but we cannot become paralyzed by wrongheaded fears, especially fears that have no basis in fact. At the same time, recognizing that religion at its worst often contributes to fear-mongering, he invites us to embrace our better angels, offering not only comfort, but also "a word of challenge for those who manipulate fear to their own advantage or who succumb to such manipulation" (p. 5). In making his case, he notes that this is a prescriptive, not descriptive book. He wants to help us find those resources, so we can become a bulwark against fear and its corollary—anxiety. 

The book does begin descriptively, laying out the picture of the culture of fear that dominates America today. He points to the "politics of fear" that has taken root, as seen in the success of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee efforts. In addition, we are seeing the development of what one observer calls the "fear industrial complex," which is why we spend $500 million dollars per victim of terrorism, but only $10,000 per cancer death. The problem is this–fear of terrorism has distorted our political decision making. As this happening, we are socializing our children in the context of a culture of fear. That does not bode well for the nation. While there are valid reasons for people to be anxious, the problem is that fear and anxiety have become the primary lens through which we view the world. 

That is chapter one. It lays the groundwork for what is to come. When we come to chapters two and three, we are introduced to ways in which religion can help us respond to fear. In the Bible, the one to fear is God, and by fear is meant reverence or awe. Such fear has ethical components—not fear of punishment, necessarily, but the desire to please God by acting appropriately with regard to the others. He suggests, coming from a Christian or Jewish perspective, that anxiety results from trusting in the wrong things. Following the chapter on Jewish and Christian responses, Kinnamon takes us on a tour of responses rooted in other faith traditions, including Baha'i, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. Taking a lead from Gandhi, who draws from Hinduism, Kinnamon writes that "Only those who are free from fear themselves can effectively lead a reviving nation" (p. 63). The point that he makes in these two chapters is that the religions of the world have sufficient resources to enable them/us to work together to challenge the fear-mongers in our midst. Of course, this will require that we know and understand our own traditions, and then begin the process of engaging one another, crossing barriers that we too often erect out of fear of the other. 

Separation is a major contributor to fear. If we don't know each other, then it’s easy to be afraid of those who are different from us. To illustrate this point, Kinnamon draws our attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without taking sides in the conflict, Kinnamon notes how the separation barrier, erected by the Israeli government to "protect" Israeli citizens, has increased the level of fear and anxiety on both sides of the wall, not decreased it. As fear increases, it becomes a barrier to peace. He suggests this is true for three reasons. First, fear freezes our belief about the causes of conflicts and the nature of the other, which keeps us from considering new possibilities and new information. He writes that "fear does not diminish the desire for information; rather, it affects the kind of information people choose to absorb" (p. 73). Second, it causes parties to be overly cautious and risk-averse, preventing the parties from seriously engaging with the other. Third, fear leads to hostile attitudes and actions toward the Other. The separation barrier has solidified these attitudes, making peace even more difficult. 

Kinnamon concludes the book with ten recommendations. Envisioning the book as "a call to renewal," he wants us to understand that at our best, religions have a message that challenges the culture of fear. The teachings of these religions aren't identical, but they have sufficient commonality on this issue to help us join together to be a force of peace in an age of fear. The ten recommendations can be divided into two equal parts. The first five recommendations speak to what individual communities can do on their own. That is things like teaching about what the tradition says about fear and responding to it, as well as being intentional in our congregations about creating space to share and discuss our fears. The fifth recommendation is an essential one, for Kinnamon suggests that we make "welcoming the stranger a key part of the identity of our religious communities." That is, a true spirit of hospitality needs to be cultivated. The second five, focus on things we should do together, across religious lines. That starts with "seeking regular, constructive interfaith relationships." He notes that too often we know people of another faith as colleagues or fellow students, but not as people of faith. It involves joining together to speak with one voice against fear-mongering. The tenth recommendation involves turning our attention from fear to hope. Of course, as Kinnamon notes, hope is not the same as optimism, which can be ephemeral. Unfortunately, in this current culture of fear, even optimism is seen as being “uncool.” If so, then fear is taking its toll. Nonetheless, fear needn’t form us. We can embrace hope, which unlike fear, looks forward to the future. That is what Kinnamon would have us do. Looking forward. He calls on those of us who ascribe to a religious tradition to envision a future of hope, not one defined by fear. He asks us to consider whether in three decades we will still be suspicious of the other? Or will we be telling a different story? I’m a Star Trek fan, so I like to think boldly about the future, expecting that a day will come when hope and not fear is our guide.

If we are to tell a different story, then we have much work to do. It won’t be easy work either. The forces of fear are strong, but they need not define us. While religion often plays a negative role in society, providing the spiritual rationale for an “us versus them” vision of the world, it also has the potential to be a force for good. That is Kinnamon’s hope for us. This book may be brief (under 100 pages in length), and it’s not a difficult read either, nonetheless it is a rich and thought provoking book written by one who has engaged in ecumenical and interfaith work for much of us adult life. If this is a call to action, we need to know how to get on board. That is why Kinnamon has provided us with a discussion guide, so we can begin the conversations within our communities. Let the conversation begin! 


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