Speaking to people's fears is something our politicians prey upon to get themselves elected. Fear is a big business, from an endless array of products to keep our homes safe to reminders that bucolic pastimes such as going to the beach are fraught with danger. Scott Bader-Saye in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear notes, “Our anxieties are in the context of a society that pushes us to be afraid.” The problem, he says, is that we suffer from disordered fear: we either fear the wrong things, or fear the right things too much.
Bader-Saye is quick to note that “normal” fear is healthy and necessary, what he calls “a calm prudence that attends to things about us.” The problem with disordered fear, however, is that it turns our attention to external needs—physical safety, health, material wealth—at the expense of internal goods: compassion, moral courage, love.
In a time of rapid and ongoing social change with few shared visions of parenting, safety and security have been seized upon as the one moral good that everyone can agree on. As a result, parents focus more on keeping their children safe than on helping them to become good people. We have developed what Bader-Saye calls an “idolatry of security, an assumption that we can be safe from everything.”
Unfortunately, this fear-based “ethic of security” leads to unforeseen but significant moral consequences to which we are often blind:
- Suspicion of our neighbor replaces hospitality for the stranger. When security is the foremost moral good, we turn away from Christ’s call to reach out to the stranger and instead seek out those who are most “safe,” that is, those most like ourselves.
- Pre-emption replaces meaningful engagement with others. If security is our highest moral priority, we attempt to prevent harm even before it occurs. We erect barriers, guard against, or even actively distance ourselves from others who have a perceived potential to disrupt our sense of security. We persecute others based on perceived threats, not real ones. We have many “enemies.”
- Accumulation of personal wealth replaces radical generosity. Material means and opportunity become seen as the primary means to a secure future for our selves and for our children. We become advocates for our own self-interest and well being, and that of our children, even at the expense of others.
Each of these moral consequences, Bader-Saye asserts, lead us further away from and erode core Christian principles of love, compassion, and hope.
Fear has gotten a free ride in our culture because we never recognized it as one of the capital sins. The Enneagram system of discernment tells us that probably 50 percent of people are fear-based. With that much fear around, it has to be disguised as "prudence," "good stewardship," or "common sense." Politicians, pundits, advertisers, and media moguls all seem invested in ratcheting up people's sense of panic, because they know how well it works.
Unacknowledged fear stifles relationships, openness, and love. It's hard to grow in charity and justice if you're afraid of everything and everybody. You are closed down and defensive and unable to trust the moment. Anxiety is probably a more accurate word for this kind of constant, aimless fear and self-doubt. Such unrecognized turmoil will control us. Thus the New Testament warns us more than eighty times to avoid fear. Jesus is constantly encouraging his followers: "Fear not," "Be not afraid," "Do not let your hearts be troubled." Yet I have never heard of any Christian accused of the "sin" of fear.
Take some time this week and do this practice. Make a Fear Scale and mark it with lines indicating the numbers from 1 - 10. Acknowledging that we all are afraid of some things, locate your major fears on the scale. How deep are these fears? Have your fears changed over the years? If you made a second scale for when you were 20 years younger or older, how might it look? Contemplating your scale, repeat Jesus' advice: "Fear Not." "Be not afraid." "Do not let your hearts be troubled."
Finally ponder on this litany written by Fran Pratt.
Litany for Fear
God, we are fearful and ill-at-ease,
Noticing everything there is to be afraid of,
Worried for ourselves and our families,
Anxious about the future.
Help us to take refuge in the present moment,
In the shining radiance of your love,
Here and now,
Reliable and endless,
The Source of All That Is…
So that we may be beacons of peace
In stressful times,
In difficult situations,
In tricky moments,
In disaster and tragedy
In risk and adversity.
When the collective of humanity is trapped in fear,
May we be free:
Accepting all possibilities and fates,
Engaging in all circumstances,
Attentive to the needs of others,
Creating boundaries for soul-care,
Calmly offering solace,
Embracing Christ-like non-resistance.
Because we know our lives and livelihood are never guaranteed
And wont go on forever.
And we are happy with the gift of earthly existence
For however long we get it.
And because we have trained ourselves to gratitude’s groove,
To compassion’s hopeful activism,
To silence’s nourishing rhythm,
To love’s enduring promise.
May we be these people to whom each circumstance is an opportunity
To practice peacefulness and peace-making
By way of our connection
To Divine Love.