Thursday, February 02, 2017

When you say, "Do not fear"

Copyright: eakachaileesin / 123RF Stock Photo
During times of turmoil, uncertainty, and real and perceived threats, people feel afraid and express their fears. Christians often respond by reminding those in fear that Jesus said, "Do not fear" (or some similar line). While technically biblical and theologically correct, this well-meaning saying misses the praxis of Christianity and has a number of problems.

First, it can be condescending and dismissive. It can show a lack of empathy and and compassion. Too often the statement is made strictly because of biblical and theological concerns. There is no attempt made to understand, listen, and enter into the fears and concerns being expressed. The statement is made from a position of safety and power. Too often the ones making the statement really don't have anything to fear (or have much less to fear) because they aren't directly affected; they have the means to weather the storm.

Second, it can be shaming. Sometimes the statement is made with the implicit accusation that "fear is a sin" (because it goes against Jesus' command). It may be accompanied by statements such as "if you trust God, you don't have to fear" with the implicit corollary, if you do fear, then you aren't trusting God. So not only can "do not fear" be a source of shame, it can lead to even greater fear by introducing doubts about their fidelity to God.

Third, it ignores reality. As already mentioned, it is easy to say "do not fear" by someone who has relatively little to fear. It ignores the reality of those who are afraid. It ignores the reality and truth of experience of a group of people in order to maintain some kind of abstract theological orthodoxy. It ignores the very real pain and emotions of people by telling them that those are not valid. It is offering alternative-facts and trying to get them to accept it.

If you're going to say, "Do not fear," then it needs to be preceded by and accompanied by action. It needs to come from a position of empathy and compassion. It needs to come after entering into the hurts, pains, and fears of those experiencing them. Jesus was able to say, "Do not fear," because he became human and was part of the community that was experiencing the very things that led to fear.

But Jesus also did not leave things with just words. He took action. When assailed by a storm, Jesus took action to calm it (Matthew 8, 14). When a father was afraid for his girl's life, Jesus restored it (Mark 5). Christian communities are good at offering words, but too often actions are lacking. The Epistle of James has a few things to say about the failure to follow through. Once Christian communities take the time to listen and understand, they must take concrete steps to address and confront the sources of fear. It may mean risking comfort and security. It may mean going against popular opinion and against established traditions. Are there individual Christians and communities that are willing to come alongside the fearful and walk with them in their fight? If not, you might as well drop "Christian" from your name.

When you say, "Do not fear," it had better be more than just a theological exercise in orthodoxy.