Fear, Ferguson and the First Step Toward a Lasting Solution

Protesters stand across the street from the Ferguson Police Department, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri's g
Protesters stand across the street from the Ferguson Police Department, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri's governor ordered hundreds more state militia into the St. Louis suburb, Ferguson, Tuesday after a night of protests and rioting over a grand jury decision's not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, a case that has inflamed racial tensions in the U.S. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The events in Ferguson point to a deep divide in our society and the justified fear that keeps it in place. Minority groups feel targeted, and rightly so. Police feel unfairly targeted, and rightly so. The targeted minorities and their allies react naturally -- they want to lash out -- at the police, the prosecutors and the system that treats them so poorly. Then the police, and those who they protect, want take the protesters to task for treating these heroes with such contempt. And they are especially disdainful of lawless rioters, who undermine the very system that keeps "us" safe. In turn, the minorities and their allies shake their heads in disgust at a system that keeps some people much safer than others.

Our collective rage is focused on the specifics in Ferguson, and the specifics matter a lot. A young man lost his life. An officer may have nearly lost his. He may be facing unfair criticism. Or he may be getting away with murder. The system may be rigged and this might be a classic example. Or not. These events are deeply important.

But the furor is about more than these tragic characters and their story. The nation is erupting in protest, and the protesters are facing batons and tear gas because this is just one example of thousands of lives lost and others ruined in an endless conflict between social and political enemies. The causes are many -- violence, poverty, oppression and blame, to name a few. But underneath it all lies fear. This legitimate fear fuels a conflict that burns so bright that we can't even see that the other side is driven by exactly the same thing.

Everyone is afraid. We mask it with anger and indignation, but let's fess up, we are afraid. Those who benefit from our powerful police state tend see protest as ungrateful and rioting as dangerous. And they are right to defend the rule of law, because it is an essential pillar for safety and human thriving and its disappearance would be terrifying. But those who are terrorized by that state are right to be afraid of it too -- to lash out the law as lawless because it is applied unevenly. We may be a nation of laws, not men, but those laws are written and enforced by men and women who are blinded by prejudice and subject to their own fears too -- just like all of us.

There are a lot of policies that could improve the situation. Some, like cameras worn by police officers, are obvious. Some continue to elude us -- like how to improve opportunities for minorities. But to heal this festering wound, we must also change the way we interact. The only way to do this is stop hyperventilating with fear, even though our fear is completely justified.

I don't pretend to be neutral in this conversation. I think one side here has much more to fear than the other. And you might think so too, but you might disagree with me about whom. And that disagreement matters. The truth matters. The justice and injustice of it matters, deeply. My beliefs about this make me want to scream. But my screaming isn't going to help our children -- black children, white children, the children of police officers. Or anyone else for that matter.

In fact, the more we try to win these kinds of battles against our political enemies, the more we lose the real war -- the one against living in fear. Our battling hardens our positions, which draws out the conflict and increases the damage to each side. If one side gets the upper hand, the other becomes more desperate and will worker harder to inflict damage. That is what is happening because of Ferguson right now. Each side scores a victory in the battle against the other, and both are losing the war against fear.

There is only one sure weapon against fear. It is love. "Love your enemies," Jesus said, on a hillside in Palestine 2000 years ago. It fell on deaf ears then, just as it does now -- in Palestine, the U.S., and everywhere else. It's irrational and it's impossibly hard. But we have a few famous examples like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi who got close. And they have been some of our greatest generals in the war against fear.

Love can win the day because this is not a just a war against our enemies, it is a war against ourselves. We cannot overcome fear with strength. The most extreme attempts at this like Fascist Germany and Soviet Russia created paranoid, terrifying societies. Only empathy, which is the root of morality, can bring victory. And that is only possible when we love one another. If we want to understand the fears of our sisters and brothers we have to love some actual people deeply enough to know them as sisters and brothers and empathize with their fears. That means getting out and building relationships with people radically different than us -- economically, relationally, vocationally, politically. Only when we feel their fears alongside ours, and they feel ours alongside theirs, can we begin to bridge this great gulf in our nation. This deeper reality is why another biblical writer wrote that "perfect love drives out all fear." And it is why we must set aside our justified fear if we ever want to win the war against it.