Sadly, and quite alarmingly, the spirit at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio was full of fear, anger, and even hatred. Vitriol often replaced serious public discourse about the most important issues at stake in our public life. I watched every night on television but have also received messages from people on the inside — including friends who are Christian, conservative, and Republican — feeling almost distraught about all three of those core commitments. One friend wrote me to say, “I am close to losing it. The spirit is so angry and hateful here."
Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them? Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?
In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door. That. We all need more of that.
Recently, a friend emailed me that their twenty-three-year-old son had attempted suicide. The young man had been found fairly quickly, but due to the nature of his attempt and his severe depression, he is now in a hospital's psychiatric ward. My friend asked, “How did it get so bad and I didn't know?” She is trying to process guilt and anxiety about what might have happened. Her son is getting the help he needs, but it’s a long journey back to health and wholeness for the entire family.
Speaking slowly at times as he talked about how he is comforted by Scripture and the faith of others, Obama said he has lately focused on a Bible verse from 2 Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
He said now is the best period to have that scriptural assurance.
“What better time in these changing and tumultuous times to have Jesus standing beside us, steadying our minds, cleansing our hearts, pointing us towards what matters,” he said.
In this season of preparing for Christmas, there is a growing number of unaccompanied children arriving on the U.S. southwestern border. The numbers have been increasing in the last few months, enough to move government offices to prepare for their coming. National security continues to be the most important governmental concern, but even then, laws require that migrant children detained by our government be fed and sheltered until they can be released to a legal sponsor. It leads me to wonder: If governmental offices are preparing to receive these unaccompanied children, then what are we Christians doing to prepare to receive them?
Every Christmas as the story of the birth of Jesus our Lord is read in congregations and in homes there are always the laments about how sad and even cruel it was that there was no place for Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Where was the loving and caring welcome for them? We cannot change the most unwelcome reception the Christ Child received at his birth, but we can learn from it.
Two years ago I sat in a room crowded with 300 angry people and 700 more outside shouting, as I nervously whispered, “I’ve never been in a room where I’ve felt so much white Christian rage.” My colleague, a pastor from Pulaski, Tenn., nodded as I straightened up in my chair.
The crowd had come from surrounding states to this small community forum in Manchester, Tenn. They came to protest the forum’s concern for hate crimes against Muslims. National Islamophobic groups had bussed protestors in from hundreds of miles away, carrying messages and signs based on an ideology — some might say, theology — of bigotry. And they were truly angry, flashing their handguns and shouting down panelists. This was in the summer of 2013, but the memory still reminds me, why I moved to Tennessee to work on an interfaith public education effort to end anti-Muslim sentiment.
To be clear, these weren’t people who wanted to discuss the complexities of interfaith engagement while holding true to our particular faith claims. There are many people in this country who want to talk, for instance, about what interfaith relations mean for evangelism, or why a small number of Muslims today are turning to terrorism, without generalizing the Muslim community or wanting to see harm done to them. These were not the people at the forum, however. One thing alone had brought them to Manchester: fear.
Shortly after news broke last week of the tragic murders in Chattanooga, Tenn., Muslims across the country took to social media to issue their condemnations of the shooting, including Muslim communities in Nashville, New York, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Advisory Council .
Nevertheless, an all-too-predictable wave of Islamophobia followed. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced President Obama because the president did not call the shooting an act of “Islamic terrorism.” And evangelical leader Franklin Graham posted on Facebook that “We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled.”
But as Ken Chitwood reminds us in “A ‘Radical’ Response to Islamophobia,” (Sojourners, August 2015), Christians have an important role in ending anti-Muslim discrimination. Through the liberating power of Christ, writes Chitwood, “[w]e are no longer enslaved to cultural constructions of antipathy such as Islamophobia.”
How does this kind of mentality take hold of a state of nearly 30 million, at least to the point that the governor himself would take official action?
One word: fear. Actually two words: fear and ignorance.
Though it comes off as cartoonish and ridiculous to the typical onlooker, fear and ignorance are, in fact, powerful tools. And using fear based on a broadly shared perception — regardless of actual evidence — is something all too familiar to modern-day Christianity in the United States as well. And the reason it hangs around like heartburn after a double bean burrito is because it works.
In “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015), Gareth Higgins argues that our newsfeeds often scare us into believing the world is getting worse when the world is actually getting better.
Although I resonate with a call for calm in an age of violent clickbait, we cannot discuss “A Newsfeed of Fear” without talking about race in post-Ferguson America. When we say our newsfeeds are filled with fear, we need to think more about which newsfeeds are making us afraid and whose fear we’re discussing.
For example, when Higgins bemoans “horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact,” perhaps a reference to the all-too-familiar videos of ISIS hostages, I actually envision Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the others. While the videos produced by ISIS are fearmongering propaganda intended to provoke, we wouldn’t want to call newsfeeds unmasking the reality of police brutality a corrupting influence on our society, right?
And in this context Higgins’ claim that the world is actually getting better is especially dangerous. Advising police brutality whistle blowers to keep their violent videos to themselves because they paint “too cynical a portrait of the improved race-relations in our society” would border on the insane.
The problem with media is not so much that it makes us fearful, but that it makes certain people fear certainthings and certain other kinds of people. It makes my mom fear that her granddaughters will get kidnapped in a very safe neighborhood. It makes me, a white guy, fear walking past black men in hoodies at night, and not white guys in polos. What you fear depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.
From where Higgins is standing, “our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of crisis, when actually we’re in the midst of the evolution of hope.” In his eyes, our culture cultivates a false sense of constant terror.
But we need to ask: whose culture? When I read #BlackLivesMatter activists, they seem to say: “no, most people have been hoodwinked by the idea that ‘our’ (meaning American) culture is living in the midst of the evolution of hope, when actually ‘a certain (black) culture’ is indeed in the center of crisis.” So who’s right about the value of violent, fearful newsfeeds?
It depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.