By Raj Attiken, February 22, 2017: “I’m afraid,” announces the large hand-painted sign held by a woman who, along with an estimated 3 million to 4 million others, took to the streets in some 600 U.S. cities on January 21. The look on her face reflects the acute anxiety experienced by many who are caught up in an immense wave of fear that has become a dominant feature of the spirit of our age.
Fear, of course, is not a new emotion. One of the earliest scenes in the Bible story portrays the Adam (“human”) admitting, “I was afraid” (Genesis 3:10). Fear has since remained a feature of human existence. It has compelled individuals to act and react in diverse ways in various situations. Sometimes common fears have bound communities together. They have marked societies at various times in history, and even mobilized them to face down a plague or the threat of nuclear annihilation. At other times fear has thrown wedges between people and between communities.
Something, however, appears to be different today about the fear and despair that seem inescapable in our close-knit world. Social critics have offered many explanations for this existential reality. Some suggest that endemic violence fuels fear, and that fear, in turn, leads to the violence. Some maintain that these emotions are fueled by a wide range of hatreds – of immigrants, minorities, and various designated “others.” Some suggest that the anger and fear stem from feelings of disfranchisement among people who feel left out, left behind, and otherwise marginalized in their quest for freedom, stability and prosperity in a globalized economy. Yet others ascribe the despair to the fear about the risks of war, the fate of constitutional democracy, and the devastation of decades of social progress. Professor Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, claims, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.” Some view fearmongering as an attempt at enslaving others through psychological and emotional manipulation. Demagogues of all kinds have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of fear and despair with toxic forms of authoritarianism and chauvinism.
Regardless of its causes and explanations, it is clear that fear has become a dominant feature of our society. This fear is not simply an element that floats aimlessly in the ether, intent on creating mischief. It inhabits and controls people. Fear, both rational and irrational, is ultimately about people – about us or those in our families, our neighborhoods, churches, schools, offices, grocery stores, and other places in our communities. Hence, it is something that we in faith communities must be attentive to. As at other times of national or international crises, the current state of intensified fear can also be a time of serious reflection and action for faith communities around the world. We can go deep into our faith traditions to discover what our faith has to offer us in combating this culture of fear.
How can and should Christians respond to this wave of fear that has swept over our globe?
At one level, people of faith can find in our faith traditions life principles to mitigate the potentially debilitating and toxic effects of fear in our personal lives. At another level, we can influence change and transformation.
First, we can personally receive heaven’s repeated invitation of “Don’t be afraid,” (as in Rev. 2:10, 1 Peter 3:14 and others). We can live our lives centered on the assurance that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fear for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the power of hell can separate us from God’s love (Romans 3:38, NLT). Regardless of the circumstances, we can appropriate the blessed condition expressed in what we sing: “What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Our faith informs us not only to anticipate living in times of intensified fear (Luke 21), but to also find assurance in God’s sovereignty and grace. The personal dimensions of fear can be met with personal appropriations of faith.
Second, our faith invites us also to fix our thoughts more on “what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable” (Philippians 4:8). There is a glut of these in our world today. Professor Glassner and others maintain that around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is reported to be higher than ever, our air is said to be the cleanest it has been in decades, and despite a slight uptick in 2016, violent crime has been trending down since 1991. Overall, “most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history,” claims Glassner. Writing for The Atlantic in December 2015, Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, reported that 2015 was “the best year in history for the average human being.” Citing the Global Terrorism Index for 2012, Kenny points out that, “terrorism accounted for about 1.8 percent deaths worldwide” and that since 2012 terrorism deaths remain responsible for perhaps three hundredths of one percent of global mortality. Referring to global child mortality, Kenny cites a U.N. report that 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year now, compared to 1990.
I acknowledge that numbers and statistics cannot fully capture the sheer complexity of the issues I have cited. Some of the things that really matter cannot be counted. Nevertheless, these and innumerable other things in our world point to what’s “right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable” – things that can help counter the forces of fear and despair. This world is God’s creation. God hasn’t abandoned this planet. We can look for God’s fingerprints and footprints everywhere.
Third, those who affirm the lordship of Jesus can take seriously his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Every living human being is our neighbor, a member of the Creator’s human family, and deserving of love. One of the most potent commands in Scripture – appearing over 30 times — is to love the stranger. Love leaves no room for fear, wrote the Apostle John, “because perfect love expels all fear” (1 John 4:18). The most powerful force to counter the forces of fear is the power of love. We can be generous and lavish in how we offer love to our “neighbor” and to the “stranger.”
Fourth, we can develop and articulate a political philosophy that has the lordship of Jesus Christ as its centerpiece — that is neither right, left, green, libertarian, communitarian, or any other “-arian” or “-ism.” This will require more than simply quoting specific biblical texts. It will require that we engage in informed conversations about transcendent moral truth that should guide our cultural and political vision. It will involve thinking together about a comprehensive biblical view of the world and humanity. It will involve exposing falsehoods wherever they are used to manipulate people with fear. It will involve language that is intelligible and convincing to people within and outside of our faith community. We can then argue for what is just and good, and appeal to fellow citizens in our societies to pursue what is good, noble, and moral.
The biblical view of responsible citizenship that we embrace, as Adventists, sends us into the world to bless it. The vision of philanthropy that Jesus articulated is one in which the activism of his followers would touch every part of society – the poor, the marginalized, the abandoned, the orphaned, the widowed, the imprisoned, and the otherwise broken. In considering these issues, the sheer volume and tone of the Bible’s “political” nature is apparent. God warned the politicians of Isaiah’s day: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Isaiah 10:1,2). Although we do not believe that politics or government hold the ultimate answers to life’s fundamental concerns, we do not practice a faith that requires us to abandon political engagement, either. We can be among the children of God who are blessed by being peacemakers (Matthew 5).
Being Christian does not mean that we are immune to fear. Being Christian does not mean we get our politics right. But, because we are Christian we can refuse to add our own dark notes of fear to the fear that is already rampant in our society. Because we are Christian, we can welcome the “other” into conversations and mutual understandings. Because we are Christian, we can refuse to locate evil and barbarity in others so as to ascribe goodness and civility to ourselves. Because we are Christian, we can responsibly engage in the affairs of our communities and nations. Because we are Christian, we can say “no” to fearmongering of all types. Because we are Christian we can demonstrate a love that transcends all national and ethnic loyalties, a love that “expels all fear.” That’s my take!
Dr. Raj Attiken is a student of the interconnections between faith, culture, gospel, and church. He is an adjunct college professor of religion and a mentor of church-shapers and innovators. He is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio.