This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real
Henny Penny Politics. The Chicken Little story about how fear has been told in various forms in cultures all over the world since people started telling stories! The basic (false) idea that we need to be very afraid of impending doom is one that our political system has capitalized on increasingly for especially the last 25-30 years. The strategic decision to focus on why we should be afraid of voting for the other candidate instead of proclaiming all the good reasons to consider the one paying for the ad is simple. As Rick Wilson, Republican political strategist and media consultant points out, “Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty” (Unafraid, 75). When deciding how to get the most bang you’re your campaign bucks, fear is the most cost-effective – and the most effective, period – approach.
A very odd thing happens when we are directed toward fear. I would have thought that when faced with a startling statement that sounds “off” in some way yet triggers our fears, we would be inclined to dig into the issue to discover what is really happening beneath the surface. Not the case. “When people are anxious, they tend to seek out information from sources that actually reinforce their anxiety. We can see footage from the latest terrorist act over and over and over again on twenty-four-hour news. We don’t tend to look for the sources that say ‘they chances of this happening in your community are one in 3.6 billion’” (Adam Hamilton referencing Dr. Shana Gadarian, Anxious Politics: Democaratic Citizenship in a Threatening World). Note to self: realize that this is, apparently, our built-in system. When triggered, we will need to force ourselves into another mode that takes us toward greater understanding.
Additionally, knowing that we are inclined to pay most attention to sources that affirm our beliefs, we need to become fully aware of the biases our sources themselves hold. Take a moment to look at this chart which seeks to identify where various news sources come down in terms of their leanings:
What is your reaction to the chart? Hogwash? Insightful? A mixture of both? At minimum, I hope it reminds you that wherever your favorite source is, there are other voices speaking into issues. Hearing multiple perspectives leads to greater understanding. I hope you will adopt Adam Hamitlon’s goal of listening to a wide range of voices so that you do not find yourself in an echo chamber ringing out your own opinion with no regard or knoweldge of those held by others.
I have mentioned many times before that we live in a time when our rhetoric leads us toward binary thinking where everything is either/or, black/white, true/false, liberal/conservative regardless of the complexity of the issue being addressed. In the church world, I am generally referred to as “liberal” because of my stance on issues related to equality regardless of gender, race, legal status, and sexual orientation. I’m used to it. It came as a great surprise when my wife and I were with good friends who are not part of the church world at all and they referred to us as conservative (even though they know and appreciate our stance on social issues). What?! Nobody’s ever called me that! This served as a reminder to me that where we place ourselves on whatever spectrum is heavily impacted by the context in which we are viewed. Adam Hamilton offers a helpful insight regarding how limiting binary thinking is related to the use of the liberal/conservative label: “To be liberal means, in the best sense, to be open to new ideas, open to reform, respectful of individual rights, and generous. To be conservative, in the best sense, means to hold to traditional values and ideas, exercising appropriate caution when faced with change. If we are liberal without any conserving impulse, we become unmoored, jettisoning important truths and values simply because they are old. (I’m reminded of something a professor once said to me: ‘All that is old may not be gold, but all that is new may not be true.’) If we are conservative without a liberal impulse, we become intransigent, unwilling to reform or embrace change” (Adam Hamilton, Unafraid, 76).
We need to be constantly aware that we are hardwired to differentiate ourselves from others – it’s baked into our cake. What we do with it is our responsibility. Our faith tradition offers many stories of what some people did with this reality – some blew it while others moved salvation/peace/health-for-all forward. There are also many passages of scripture from both the Christian and Jewish tradition from whence it came that offer counsel regarding how we speak to others. Let’s take a look…
In the second chapter of Acts we find the story of a particular Feast of Pentecost that went beyond what Jesus’ followers could have anticipated. This was the most-attended Jewish Feast in Jerusalem at that time in history, when throngs of the Jewish faithful would converge on their beloved city to recount the giving of the Law which informed their faith and ethic. God had more to give, apparently, as the Holy Spirit came onto the scene and into many people with grand sci-fi fanfare. This was unprecedented and entirely unexpected. The popular belief was that the Holy Spirit was reserved for a very select few, not broadcast to many. Jews and converts to Judaism were there from all over the known world, and the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other languages (or at least heard in other languages). This dawning of a new age of understanding was predicted by Jesus. When it happened, it further validated Jesus and his message, which empowered the disciples to move forward with tremendous, surprising courage. Peter preached mightily to the gathered audience and thousands came to believe in Jesus and his message. A new day dawned, indeed! At the end of the chapter, we get a picture of a healthy community of faith:
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
43-45 Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
46-47 They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
The way the disciples handled strange new unfamiliar things did not lead toward divisiveness – even though some were provoking it. Instead, the end result at this point of their journey was inclusivity in seemingly every way, and respect by the surrounding community. We need more of that.
Reflecting on this chapter of early church history and others, I can confidently say that most of the big breakthroughs that happened in the development of the early church did not come as a result of proactive, thoughtful decision-making (to include Samaritans and all other races and eventually let go of nearly all Jewish legalism in favor of the Way of Jesus which served to embody them all). Nope. These issues were thrust upon them. Once they realized that had to deal with these issues, the early church leaders passionately deliberated and fervently prayed even as they vehemently disagreed with each other. This has been the pattern ever since the end of the first century where the biblical text ends. God continues to breathe into us, stretching us, inviting us to passionately deliberate and fervently pray through issues around which we vehemently disagree. The invitation is not to bury our heads in the sand and hope all the issues go away. The invitation is to be part of what God is doing to bring healing and hope to the world. To pull this off requires a different approach to issues than the prevailing cultural system around us (especially regarding politics). We are invited into a higher standard which impacts how we choose to behave even as we may be struggling with fear and anxiety about a number of issues. Civility is unfortunately rare in public discourse. We are invited to bring it back. As Brene Brown notes in her book, Braving the Wilderness:
What Brown is encouraging is uncomfortable. We may be much more comfy sitting on the sidelines and just let bullies rant until they run out of steam. We will silently pray for them – what’s the harm in that? As Elie Weisel, survivor of a Nazi prison camp notes, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Especially for those of us who are privileged (even if we don’t believe it), we are invited and compelled and commanded to act for those who do not enjoy our privilege. I am a highly educated, tall, blue-eyed, white man of Dutch/German descent. In our culture, I am nearly at the top of the food chain. The only things that would put me even higher would be lots more money and more Twitter followers… Coming to grips with what God is trying to do in the world – which is what Jesus did do in the world – begs the question: what am I invited to do as a Jesus follower? How can I speak into this world with love and grace all with the hopes of bringing healing and hope for all?
I end this teaching with Adam Hamilton, again, who ended his chapter with the following:
“We must speak up, stand up, and work for what is right and just. But when we’ve done all we can in pursuit of what is right, we have to release our concerns to God. I don’t believe God dictates the outcome of elections, or is pushing buttons and pulling strings in our national politics. God allows individuals and nations to do foolish and sometimes evil things that are the opposite of his will. But God has a way of working through the evil around us and those who participate in it or advocate for it. God specializes in forcing good from evil, of bending the foolishness of humans to accomplish a higher purpose. Trusting this helps me to feel hopeful about the future of our nation” (Unafraid, 80).
Check out these helpful resources…
Bible verses that speak into how we speak…
What the Bible says about communicating with each other. Here a just a few:
Romans 12:18-21 The Message (MSG)
17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
Proverbs 31:8-9 The Message (MSG)
8-9 “Speak up for the people who have no voice,
for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
Stand up for the poor and destitute!”
Philippians 4:5 The Message (MSG)
4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.
Ephesians 4:29 The Message (MSG)
29 Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
Colossians 3:8-11 The Message (MSG)
But you know better now, so make sure it’s all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.
9-11 Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.
In general, we stink at listening. Just admit it. All too often we are formulating what we are going to say while they are talking, which means we miss much of what they are saying. Active listening is really, really needed for healthy relationships, and desperately needed in our culture that seems to settle for binary, simplistic responses to complex issues. If we could learn to really understand another’s perspective and even choose to go in with the hope to learn something, we might enjoy actual dialogue instead of a Tweet-off. Ask someone you know who might think differently than you and ask some of these questions. Choose to listen so carefully that you could accurately express their opinion back to them if asked. Listening with respectful engagement is perhaps our first and biggest step toward progress on this front.
• "What do you think of the building the wall and why?"
• "What do you think about immigration and why?"
• "What do you think about Russian involvement in our election and why?"
• "What do you think about our justice system and why?"
• "What is you opinion on on racism in the USA and why?"
• "What do you think about gun control and why?"
• "What do you think about the women’s march after the election? Why?"
• "What do you think about the young people marching on Washington?"
Process the following questions on your own, paying attention to how you feel when others have opinions that differ from yours.
• Are you able to stay in a loving space?
• Are you able to be open to possible influence?
• Are you sacred?
• Do you want to argue? Leave? Judge the other as stupid or naive or…?
Becoming aware of your feelings in these situations helps us come to grips with underlying bias and fear that we hold which may get in the way.