By Bishop Ann Svennungsen
Our son had little fear of danger. John would see something interesting and wander off, unaware of the risks of getting separated from his parents. I have vivid memories of searching for him after fireworks in a crowded city park and wondering how far he’d gotten in the wilderness outside Camp Ewalu.
Healthy fear is important. Our fear of snakes likely evolved because snakes were among the most deadly predators for primates. Fear is a protective emotion, a critical resource for survival.
However, there’s a shadow side to fear and its power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “[Fear] crouches in the people’s hearts, hollows out their insides, … and secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others.”
“Certainly Bonhoeffer lived in a time when Christians were tempted to live by fear. Nazism infected every part of daily life.”
Certainly Bonhoeffer lived in a time when Christians were tempted to live by fear. Nazism infected every part of daily life. Any simple act of compassion could be seen as unpatriotic and reason for retaliation.
In the most recent issue of The Christian Century, publisher and Lutheran pastor, Peter Marty, writes: “it’s not an overstatement to say there’s a fear epidemic in America.” He continues, “fear is a terrific uniter. … But subscribing to every fear and conspiratorial threat is a strange way to carve out a Christian life.”
HOW DO WE “carve out Christian lives” amid an epidemic of fear? The author of First John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” In Mark’s gospel, the life of faith is a stark contrast to a life defined by fear (4:40, 5:33-34, 36).
What can our congregations do to foster the “perfect love” and “active faith” that casts out fear? One thing is clear. We need each other. Eight years after my cancer surgery, my doctor discovered a suspicious spot on my fibula. Fear overwhelmed me as she suggested further tests. What if the cancer had returned? When she called me with the test results, she first asked me, “Are you alone?”
“What can our congregations do to foster the ‘perfect love’ and ‘active faith’ that casts out fear?”
I knew from that one question that the news wasn’t good. Though we love to share good news with others, we’re okay when we receive it alone. But, bad news requires companions to hold us up in our fear. I had those companions (and, thankfully, later received the good news that the growth was benign).
In the “fear epidemic” that spreads through America, what are fresh ways we can bring people together in the name of Christ and in the power of love? The world cries out for people of faith to resist the fear that “secretly gnaws and eats away” and to actively rebuild “the ties that bind us to God and others.”
For future consideration: The lead article in the most recent Christian Century is titled: “The Fear Sweepstakes: How Trump Captured the White Evangelical Vote.”