As we have seen in the increasingly divisive, xenophobic and inflammatory language of this political primary season, fear is the fuel of demagoguery.
As we have witnessed in the unsettling statistics published last December in The New York Times, fear is the catalyst for increased gun sales.
And as the Gospels remind us and our everyday experience of the world sadly confirms, fear is the enemy of Christian discipleship.
Like so many people around the world, I became increasingly despondent during the final weeks and months of 2015. Following the attacks in Paris and the shootings in the United States, I could hardly believe the degree to which fear had preoccupied the hearts and minds of millions. It reminded me of the wisdom of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, who wrote in his book New Seeds of Contemplation that “at the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men [and women] have of one another as the fear they have of everything.”
As women and men of faith, we should pay close attention to the ways in which we respond to fear. It is natural, of course, that we become afraid on occasion. There are good reasons and instinctive responses that we have developed over time to aid us in protecting others and ourselves from very real and present dangers. Fear of the unknown might have saved our ancestors from eating poisonous plants or from becoming prey to carnivorous animals in the wild. But fear can also creep up into other circumstances in our life for which the “fight or flight” mechanism of our primordial selves is not warranted.
It appears that some aspiring politicians, at home and abroad, have seized an opportunity to capitalize on the collective fear of our age: fear of terrorism, fear of economic insecurity, fear of strangers, fear of whatever is unknown, different or unfamiliar. The Dec. 12 issue of The Economist featured an article titled “Playing With Fear,” in which Donald J. Trump and Marine Le Pen, presidential aspirants in the United States and France, respectively, were singled out as emblematic fearmongers of our day. Their apparent populist messages feign to reflect the sentiment of the people writ large but in fact play on the economic and cultural insecurities of those who feel most threatened by change or the unknown.
Instead of offering constructive proposals to address the persistence of gun violence, racism and xenophobia, all of which undoubtedly contribute to an environment rife with discord and teetering on violence, Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen merely pour gasoline on the real and imagined fears of their voter base. They do this to position themselves as the would-be saviors of their exclusive and, at least by inference from their rhetoric, homogeneous society devoid of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. Of course that sort of society is what they are ultimately suggesting would make America or France “great again” (as if their prejudicial wonderlands, imagined with faux nostalgia, ever existed).
It is no accident that one of the most common phrases to come from Jesus in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid!” Jesus, as truly human, understood the experience of fear. Weeping in the garden on the night he was betrayed, he showed solidarity with those who face physical harm and emotional stress. But Jesus, as truly divine, also understood that following the Father’s will means working to overcome the inhibitive fear that too often prevents us from doing what is right and speaking the truth when necessary. Hence Jesus’ first words to his followers—then and now—are always “Do not be afraid,” because when we surrender to fear, we are unable to live the Gospel.
The entirety of the Jesus’ life and ministry was a revelation of God’s love and what it means to live a fully human life (Jn 1:18). What we see unfold in the Gospel narratives is the Christ who exhorts his followers to welcome the stranger, to care for the weak, to embrace the one who is “other,” a “stranger” or simply “different.” We see an example of human living that acknowledges fear but then casts it aside with the recollection that love overcomes fear and that death does not have the last word; that it is better to give up your life for another than to kill; and that the God we worship is the Prince of Peace. To give in to fear is to give up one’s faith in a God who calls us to love even when loving is difficult and scary.