Unafraid: Weaponizing Fear (Terrorism)

This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.

This week we are going to tackle a fear that contemporary Americans have been forced to reckon with since September 11, 2001: terrorism. While we have seen plenty of violence before that day and since, terrorism became up close and personal that day, and also provided a new face to add to our list of suspicious persons: anyone who looked vaguely Middle Eastern.  While we will look squarely at terrorism, there is significant carryover from last week’s look at racism, because they both involve fear of the other: xenophobia acts as an undercurrent we may not recognize.

Recall the acronym we’ve been using for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real.  What do we expect regarding terrorism on our soil?  How has terrorism messed with us?  Recall also Hamilton’s sort-of-acronym’ish process for addressing our fears: Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God.  We’ll work through this stuff and move in an important direction as well.

Faith in what/who we call God means that we live with an abiding belief that the nature of the created world is essentially good since it reflects a good, creative God/Spirit/Presence/Force.  This means that when we face terror, we enter into the process believing that humanity is overwhelmingly very good as God declares in Genesis’ first creation story.  With very few exceptions, people from all tribes and walks of life want to live a full, meaningful life.  Sure, twisted thinking and mental health issues can steer us in awful directions on an individual, communal, national and global level, but that should not detract us from the current of reality as being good and naturally flowing toward renewal.  This is the Perennial Tradition in action – believing that even death itself is not the end but the necessary step before renewal/resurrection.  That’s facing fears with faith.

With faith as our foundation, let’s look at some facts.  In short, statistically speaking, we have little reason to live in fear of terrorist activity given where we live.  As you can see for yourself on this statistical storymap  highlighting terrorist activity from known groups, nothing is happening in  the United States that qualifies as terrorist activity this year.  There has been plenty of activity globally, but mostly in areas where we know there are ongoing conflicts – Colombia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, especially.  ISIS has our attention perhaps more than any other terrorist group in the United States.  In 2017, they claimed responsibility for the deaths of 1,670.  Only 29 of those were European or American (1.7%), and 95% of the victims were Muslims living in Islamic countries (Unafraid, 65). 

Hamilton notes that since 9/11, there have been 10 terrorist attacks on American soil claiming the lives of 94 people (49 of those in one attack), which is awful and tragic.  During that same time period, however, 9,600 people in the United States died by lightning strike.  You are 120 times more likely to get struck by lightning than to be killed by an Islamic terrorist, 2,000 times more likely to be murdered by an American who is not an Islamic terrorist, and 7,000 times more likely to die in a car accident (Unafraid, 67).  While it is good, wise, and our duty as citizens to be aware and report behavior that seems suspicious, in all likelihood our fears about this happening to us in the United States – let alone Napa Valley – are extremely remote.

A greater thing to fear may be where our skewed perspective might take us.  It is an all-to-easy short step for people to associate Islamic terrorism with Islam and all Muslims who practice that faith.  Because the terrorists refer to select verses in the Quran to make the case for their violent behavior toward those who do not share their faith, many people assume that the religion itself is bent on violence.  Add to that fact that most Muslim people are not white, speak different languages than us, dress differently and eat different food than we do and we have all kinds of reasons to be suspicious.  The truth is that there are verses in the Quran that could be used to justify violence if taken literally and without regard to context.  The same is true of the Bible.  Poor scholarship, and an unchecked hermeneutic (how we understand and apply the Bible) can lead to awful outcomes, regardless of religion.  But to paint all Muslims with a terrorist brush would be the same as painting all Christians with a Ku Klux Klan brush, who I view as Christian terrorists.  Furthermore, it is possible for someone to make a case that the Christian religion has been used to justify far more killing than any other faith tradition.  Yet I believe Christianity is about peace, grace, and love.  I bet there are folks in the world that wouldn’t believe me no matter how hard I plead my case, simply because I’m a Christian.  I am suspect because of the hateful actions of more than a few throughout history.  So is the United States given our fuzzy identity as a Christian nation.  As Hamilton discovered, many in the Middle East believe the United States created ISIS to cause infighting and division within the Muslim world (Unafraid, 65).

We need to be aware of our propensity to easily vilify others who don’t look like us and thereafter cannot be trusted.  A great supporting example of this reality in the United States comes from WWII.  There were a handful of POW camps that housed German soldiers during the war.  After Pearl Harbor, based entirely out of fear, the United States forced thousands of US citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps.  Which of these two groups of imprisoned people do you think received better treatment?  The legal citizens who did not look like the majority of Americans (white), or the enemies of State who looked like most Americans?  We don’t fear those who look like us even if they are our sworn enemies.  We do fear those who are not like us even if they pledge allegiance to our flag.  The German POWS thrived with great funding and freedom.  The Japanese Americans suffered in deplorable conditions.  This is what False Expectations Appearing Real can do even in a country that prides itself on freedom and due process.  I bet if Jesus came in the flesh just as he did before – but with contemporary clothes and stuff – we would kill him faster than Rome because of the color of his skin.  This silly video puts it in from of us.

The musical South Pacific stands as a classic show not only because it has great music, a romance, and a lot of comedy.  It has endured because it speaks deeply into the human experience, especially as it relates to how we think about race.  Two storylines emerge where romance and race intersect.  Two faces of racial prejudice emerge as well – a soldier who would never consider marrying the young Islander he’s been sleeping with, and a military nurse who falls for a Frenchman but considers ending things when she discovers that he has two mixed-race kids from his deceased wife.  A brilliant song,  “You Got to be Carefully Taught”, was crafted to express the reality:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught

Indeed.  We are born with implicit bias that has protected our species from real threat.  Racism, however, is a learned behavior. The question isn’t whether or not you’ve learned it.  The question is how much have you acquired that you need to intentionally unlearn?

How does our faith inform our actions to “others” who are not like us?   Last week, we looked at Jesus and the church as it emerged. While it struggled to embrace equality across the board, it did so nonetheless, born in response to what it meant to live in the Way of Jesus.  There is no justification for hate, prejudice, or racism in Jesus.  Is that it, then?  Are we as Jesus followers called to passively manage our implicit bias to make sure it doesn’t get out of control and become a xenophobic wildfire?

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian would suggest that we are not called to be passive bystanders, but actually proactive agents of restorative change in the world.  After doing ministry in Samaria (itself a testament to the imperative of grace), Philip sensed from God that he was to take the ministry beyond Palestine, and he took off (Acts 8:26-40).  He came across an Ethiopian eunuch – likely castrated at a young age to make him a more faithful administrator around the Queen’s court.  He was the Kingdom’s treasurer and had been to Jerusalem to worship and was headed back home.  He was reading a scroll from Isaiah chapter 53 when Philip approached him.  They had a long conversation which led to the official deciding to follow Christ and getting baptized.  Philip then left, and the Ethiopian made his way home with his new faith.  It is believed that this was the first convert beyond Palestine, and consequently introduced Northern Africa to Christianity (Candace’s Kingdom rivaled Rome’s Empire in size, strength and power at that time, encompassing most of Northern Africa extending into present day Ethiopia).  The point is that from the beginning there has been an imperative to go into the world with the Good News, not just watch the world from the sidelines.  We are active agents of grace, sent into the world to bring hope and change.  And, by extension, when the world comes to us, we are called to welcome the stranger, not rebuff them.  This is a Jewish principle as well, stated many times in different ways as it shows up here: This is what the Lord says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! – Jeremiah 22:3 (NLT)

Anne Waggoner, CrossWalk’s Moderator, served as a missionary in Vietnam.  As a teacher there, she was definitely in the minority.  Yet she prevailed over whatever fears her implicit bias may have encouraged (and that of her family and friends).  Catch her story on the video and podcast of this teaching.

As Jesus followers, it’s time to intentionally work toward the healing of our eyes and the calming of our fears.  Further, it’s time to pray for courage that we might be the agents we are called to be in our world, sticking our neck out for the oppressed wherever they hail from, and welcoming “others” because that is how we have been treated by God.  We love because we have been loved.  So, love.  Love from the comfort of your couch watching bad news that could further divide us. More importantly, love in every interaction everywhere you go as an agent of Jesus who loved you first.