Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
For this reason, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
2 Timothy 1:6-7
“That must have been terrible,” I said, compassionately.
“Why?” he said.
“Because of the constant bombings, kidnappings, and executions,” I responded.
“Oh,” he said, and then added, “What about you, where did you grow up?”
“In the United States,” I said.
“That must have been terrible,” he said, compassionately.
“Why?” I said, disconcerted.
“Because Americans all carry those guns, and shoot each other for almost any reason.”
“Oh,” I said.
I learned a very valuable lesson at that moment, that the stories we are told (or tell ourselves) do not always represent a genuine reality. Subsequently I have spent time in a number of places that were supposed to be too terrible, Belfast, the Palestinian territories, the south side of Chicago, northwestern Montana, New York City, and while I have had positive and negative experiences in all those places, none of them have lived up to the hype.
In his recent book, Jumping at Shadows, journalist Sasha Abramsky writes quite eloquently about the ways in which both journalism and political narratives have overwhelmed our senses with largely fictive prognostications of fear-inducing possibilities. As Abramsky puts it, “Our anxieties and terrors were being nurtured by people and institutions who stood to make a buck out of those fears.” The pace of these terrorizing narratives has hardly slowed, and in recent years we have seen a renewed and vigorous effort to frighten us into arming ourselves against our neighbors. Abramsky argues that this impulsive propensity toward making fundamental decisions “with worst-case-scenarios as a psychic backdrop” is not increasing our real security in the world, it is fostering instead an increasingly oppressive society, (particularly for outsiders, the poor, and people of color).
Those of us who are old enough to remember playing outside with our friends, may also recall that it didn’t take very many local stories about children being kidnapped by predators, (reported nationally once the 24 hour news cycle began to gorge itself on every sensational item) before kids found themselves locked safely away at home. In the last couple of years there have even been parents who were investigated by CPS (in Maryland) for having allowed their children to walk home alone from a park.
Fear is an evolutionary and reasonable response to actual danger, but a terrible strategy for living our lives. And, where irrational fear is being pushed and promoted, you can be sure that someone is probably turning a handsome profit. From handguns to border walls, from the TSA to the militarized police, someone is making billions by making us afraid of each other. Not to mention the essential liberties that we are willing to give up in pursuit of safety and security.
It makes me grateful for the Church, quite frankly, where an inclusive counter-narrative is offered as an antidote. More than ever I bear witness to the critical need for stories that engender trust and hope and peace. It isn’t that our faith can guarantee us safe passage through the world, it can’t, but it can offer us an opportunity to set aside the irrational fears that are being promoted elsewhere.