Thoughts On Fear
“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
– 2 Timothy 1:7 (NRSV)
I can remember that day, “Kids get up! Come look at the TV!” My mom never let us watch TV on school days, especially not before school, so I knew something important was happening. I hopped out of bed and ran to the living room where the TV was located. My mom had her Nextel phone up to her ear, she was still talking to my aunt in New Orleans about what she was witnessing on the screen. My dad had already left for work. I looked at the screen and saw a building on fire and next to it an airplane flying into another building. I was nine years old the day those towers fell. We prayed as a family, before getting ready and going to school and to work.
I remember the enthusiastic speculation of my elementary school friends. “It’s the Germans! They want revenge for WW2!” “No silly, it’s the Japanese they’ve always been mad we took their army away.” “I know it’s the Russians, they hate us cause our nation is wealthier.” We knew just enough world history to be dangerous. None of us knew the word terrorism or terrorist and our rather isolated private Christian school upbringing left many of us unfamiliar with Islam. We were ushered upstairs to the corner room of Calvary School of Westminster where Mrs. McMasters turned off the lights and had us all bow our heads, she lead us in prayer and then a moment of silence.
I can remember the first worship service I went to after those towers fell. It was the next day. We were the “good Christians” that went to church more than once a week. Wednesday night at Calvary Chapel Pacific Coast was quieter than normal, but packed. I can still hear the piercing silence that overwhelmed the room. I stayed in the “grown-up” service instead of going with the kids, I believe the kids’ services were all cancelled. We spent most of the time in that room in silence, then in prayer. I can’t be sure but I speculate that the difference between silence and piercing silence is fear. And I had never experienced such large-scale fear in my life. I would not experience it again until the Fall of 2008.
November is the best month of the year. This is not an opinion, merely a stated fact. Temperature wise it is not too hot or too cold, the leaves are all sorts of different colors (for most places besides Texas), Thanksgiving is around the corner, my birthday starts the month off right, and of course election day. I’ve always loved politics for as long as I can remember I loved politics. I enjoy counting up electoral votes, seeing population shifts and guessing how many seats that will gain a state, which states will lose their political leverage. I like the quirkiness of Iowa and New Hampshire going first, despite the fact that they’re rather poor predictors of nomination outcomes (expect for Democrats, Iowa has been relatively reliable in picking who will be the Democrat nominee - not necessarily who will be president though). I enjoy watching the State of the Union address and voting in local elections where I feel like I have even more power, I love voting. So naturally I was aggrieved when I realized that I would not be old enough to vote in the 2008 presidential election, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain looked to be neck and neck and they need me, a responsible US citizen to vote my values and pick a winner.
At the time I was an adamant supporter of the GOP. I knew that Senator McCain needed my vote to win, and I was right, I didn’t get to vote and he lost. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but that is beside the point. Election day, like September 11th was on a Tuesday (because election days are always on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November). The church we attended at that time was largely made up of Republicans, minus the few people of color that attended. The fear was palpable. That same piercing silence was in the sanctuary, “America has started her decline”, “How did we let a socialist get elected? He’ll take away our guns.” None of this came from the pulpit though, a calming message about Jesus being in control was preached instead. But the fear persisted. That same congregation reacted out of fear this past June when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples should be treated equally under the law, the sermon was so vitriolic, I could not finish watching it.
Different communities respond differently to fear. When the families of the Charleston nine gave their first interviews with the press they responded with messages of forgiveness. The families of the victims of the Newton School Shooting responded by demanding for action on gun control. The family of Rachel Scott, a victim in the Columbine Shooting responding by founding Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-bullying campaign. When the Amish families of the victims of West Nickel Mines School Shooting responded to the family of the shooter with love and forgiveness it inspired the nation.
When Al Qaeda attacked the USA, it responded more poorly then I think we like to remember. Obviously we launched the longest war in our country’s history, the War on Terrorism; despite declaring war on terrorism, we’ve done little to nothing to address terrorism here like the KKK or other White terrorist groups and individuals, but I digress. From the revenge shooting of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was mistaken for a Muslim, to the spike in hate crime on Muslim people, the FBI reported 481 in 2001. In the same manner race-based hate crimes also skyrocketed post the 2008 election of the USA’s first Black president. When in fear, Americans tend to respond with violence.
Watching the American response to the November 13th attacks on Paris has been interesting for me. Americans, primarily White Americans, are terrified. The statuses and tweets and blog posts calling for the rejection of Syrian refugees, may seem like simply racism and bigotry – and it is racism and bigotry, xenophobic even, but what gives birth to these reactions is fear. The same fear that arose after September 11th, what’s interesting is that this fear stemmed from an attack on a country that is nowhere near the United States, yet Americans fear levels have gone off the charts. Terrorist attacks take place everyday; Beirut and Baghdad experienced them on Thursday and Friday but were largely ignored by mainstream media. I believe that White Americans grew fearful seeing people that looked like them suffering, I believe that is why the fear has increased.
People of color and many religious minorities in the United States experience this fear everyday, but Daesh is not the source of their fear as it is for White America. The state and vigilantes that have taken more American lives than Daesh ever has is the primary source of fear for many people of color. Everyday melanin-rich people in the US experience fear and intimidation, and demand that there fears be relieved through legislation and justice system reform, and their fears are larger ignored by the majority of White people, and thus changes rarely occur. Rather than ignoring each other's fears, I think we would do better to explore them and resolve them together.
Fear is dangerous, it blinds our judgments, it riles up our desires to be divisive and judgmental, it makes us unkind, and it reduces our unity to tribalism. As a Christian I must remind myself that the Spirit I follow is not one of fear and tribalism, but one of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and the self-control of the emotion of fear that binds so many hearts. May we all embrace that spirit that leads us to loving our neighbors as ourselves no matter where they are from, what they believe, and what language they speak, or what border they cross. We are all in this together, so let’s push fear aside so we can begin to work together to make this world safer for all.