Faith and the Politics of Fear

Fear quite often takes on many forms, personally and politically. Sometimes a fear of something quotidian--water, for example--might inhibit us from jumping in to explore new depths. Sometimes a fear of something more public and political can quiet even the most brilliant of souls. What consequences exist if I were to speak out on any number of social or ecological justice issues? Will I face personal animosity from friends or family? Will the institutions I belong to disagree with my voice? What am I risking for the sake of love or justice or mercy in this delicate and resilient world?

Then, of course, there are other insidious kinds of fear, the wielding of the rhetorics of fear by politicians or religious leaders. One thinks of the kind of fear that cultivates suspicion between neighbors and warps the world into the most terrifying of places. We've heard racism in political speeches this season that work crowds into frenzies. We've heard politicians demonize refugees or LGTBQI people or the poor or people of other religiosities or atheisms. We've witnessed fear and misunderstanding attempt to legislate and discriminate against the everyday lives of transgender men and women. Quite often media earns its star ratings by focusing on the next terrifying event. You may even feel a sense of fear growing in you as the world is presented to you in more uncertain terms.

But fear is quite often illusory, a game of smoke and mirrors meant to distract from the care of our common life together. Fear misses the everyday communities and neighbors working in real time practicing hope and collaborating for creaturely flourishing. Fear attempts to sweep faith, love, and neighborliness under the carpet. Fear does its best to hide the vulnerable power of love. Fear does its best to keep our best practices of neighborliness out of the public eye. Fear does its best to silence our own courage and hope.

Reflecting on fear and faith in theological ways can be daunting and sometimes isolating. Yet, this past week an ecumenical group of theologians called the Workgroup on Constructive Theology came together to create a statement on these themes worth hearing, I think. The Workgroup is a diverse association of Baptist, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada and other ecumenical theologians who gather to consider theological issues in our common life together. They come from a number of prominent seminaries, divinity schools, colleges, and universities across the country. And they do collaborative scholarship that has produced a number of books over the years, including a forthcoming new introduction to theology.

The Workgroup crafted a statement called "Fear Not!" to urge us to a different kind of politics. "Fear Not!", recorded in Nashville and linked above, urges people of faith to consider the way the politics of fear plays out in our common life together. (And a brief disclaimer here: I'm in the video as well). The statement critiques how political discourse preys on human anxiety and often scapegoats so many different people. These theologians think about faith and the ministry of Jesus' radical practices of freedom, neighborliness, and love. According to the statement, "the freedom of the Christian is precisely freedom to love God and neighbor. The commandment to love our neighbor has no preconditions."

What would it look like for people of faith and no faith to live into our present political moment not out of fear but out of courage, justice, and love? It's a complicated question we should be asking of ourselves, posing to our communities, and instigating in our public discourse.

The full statement of "Fear Not!" is found in .pdf form here.

It's well worth considering--fear not.