It's time to speak out about fear

July 21, 2011

It was nearly a decade ago when we, as citizens of this country, made a fateful decision. The decision was to tell ourselves that fear offers a clearer, more reliable sense of reality than joy. We made this decision by an act of consent. There was no real debate or reflection on what we were doing and what the eventual consequences might be. We knew better, but we went along with it anyway, just as we went along with torture and extraordinary rendition; and before that, analogous atrocities like industrial chicken and pig production and mountaintop removal. Then, to make matters worse, we made another bad decision -- we consented to the denial, acting as if the deep wound that we were making (and continue to make) in the soul of God's creation doesn't matter very much, not in the grand scheme of things.

That hardly suggests a clear sense of reality. The good news is that the only power that fear has is the power that we give to it. By seeking forgiveness and changing our ways, we can take that power back. The problem is that we gave a lot of shadowy consent back then, and we keep giving today. To turn this moral disaster around -- to recover the spiritual energy of our lives and put it to good use -- will not be easy, which is precisely why people of faith must show true leadership at a time when our country and the world needs it the most. We must do this now because the power of fear and our denial of it will make our present state of moral confusion much worse than it already is. We must speak publicly and clearly about the eroding impact of fear on our individual lives, communities, and public policies. And we must demonstrate clearly, publicly and by the example of how we live that the pursuit of justice nurtures the joy of life on which the Holy Spirit thrives and healthy communities depend. The joy of life is not an escape from reality. It is one of the foundations in experience on which any spiritually genuine vision of human life rests.

I'm getting ahead of myself. For the moment, let's stick with the place where we're stuck, which is our fear. Everyone knows, or should know, that not all fear is bad. The kind of fear that alerts us to real threats to our survival can save our lives and our souls. This kind of fear is profoundly and obviously good. Everyone needs a healthy fear response. But most of our fear is not like that. Most of our fear has no direct relation to actual threats to our survival. Most of our fear prevents us from recognizing real threats for what they and acting in appropriate, life-saving ways. In this day and age, the greater part of our fear can be traced to economic, social and political forces that create mass movements for their own self-serving, bottom-line purposes. The traditional word for this is "corruption." Because corruption requires fear, it creates it.

Sadly, tragically, religion too often contributes to this manipulative breed of fear. For example, as people of faith, we know, or should know, that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10a). In practice, this kind of fear is better described as "awe" -- the profound sense of joy, wonder, reverence, and above all humility that we experience in the presence of God and God's creation. Awe has no relation to being in the presence of a threat to our survival. God is not a threat to our survival. God is love, and our spiritual tradition clearly teaches that "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear" (1 John 4:18a). To confuse awe with fear, which is what we have done, does not make us more faithful. It makes us a threat to our selves and to each other. That's what happens when we believe that fear offers a clearer sense of reality than joy or love or faith in God's love.

If our decision about fear reflects what we really believe, then we've made a terribly wrong turn on the spiritual path. Our own tradition tells us plainly that we're wrong. The reason we're wrong is not that we're bad people. The reason is that we've consented to a life ruled by fear; and having done this, we've become a nation filled with fear covered with a veneer of love. In the same way, the reason that we don't love our neighbors as much as we would like, or as much as we should, is not that we're bad people. The reason is that we're afraid to love them, and we're telling ourselves that it's okay with God.

The time to turn this around is now. With God's help, we can find it within ourselves to do what needs to be done. It makes me afraid to think that we might not have much time, but we don't. That's a good kind of fear. It's the kind of fear that brings together our survival instincts with the promptings of our spiritual hearts.

-- The Rev. Canon Jeff Golliher is vicar of St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellenville, New York, and the author of "Moving Through Fear: Cultivating Your Seven Spiritual Instincts for a Fearless Life."

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