Fearlessness

Kay Spiritual Life Center, October 4, 2017
Exodus 1:15-17; Acts 5:27-35, 38-42; Romans 8:31-38; Qur’an 3:172-180

I. BEGINNING

Fear is hard-wired into us. It is a function of biology that we should be afraid. Very often, the things we are afraid of are the kinds of things that can kill us.

We dread the dark for fear of what predators might emerge from it. We jump at sudden noises for fear of the danger that seeks to surprise us. We feel our hearts race as we move toward the edge of a precipice, sensing our lives are in danger. We grow anxious when we lack certainty about our surroundings, because unfamiliarity and uncertainty often bring danger and death.

Fear is a powerful and motivating emotion. And so, we have spent a fair amount of time trying to vanquish fear. It is a recurring theme in our fiction. In Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, we encounter the Litany against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

In the Star Wars saga, we encounter Yoda instructing both Luke and his wayward father Anakin that they must let go of their fear, because fear is the gateway emotion to the Dark Side.

The hero, in order to be the hero, must be fearless. Indomitable. Oh, sure, every once in a while, they’re allowed to fear something like snakes, the way Indiana Jones does, but when it comes time to jump on a tank and start punching Nazis, Dr. Jones is once again fearless.

But is that really accurate? Is a hero really fearless? Are we really required to be fearless in order to be fully realized individuals?

Perhaps the most honest is a line from Lawrence of Arabia, when Sherif Ali first encounters the brash young officer he asks incredulously, “Have you no fear, English?” to which Lawrence replies, “My fear is my concern.” “Truly,” responds Ali, recognizing that there is always a fear deep down, no matter how brave we may be in aspect.

And so, the hard-wired nature of fear, coupled with the reality that we rarely are able to banish our fear, makes our fear an attractive target for those who would seek to harm us. Because we all know that deep down, we have fears that govern us. No matter how much we might wish to make our fear our own private concern, it is there to be exploited, manipulated, and twisted by those who want something from us.

II. SOWING FEAR

The manipulation of fear can be seen in some very real world ways.

There are two strategies that groups have used whenever they’ve felt greatly outnumbered. Whenever one group sees itself in conflict with another much larger, better resourced group, there are two primary ways that the smaller groups fight back.

The first is attrition. This was the strategy of the American Revolutionaries, the Viet Cong, the Afghan Rebels. They keep up the fight while avoiding direct large-scale engagements, all the while making the conflict as costly as they can for their opponent. Sooner or later, the enemy will realize that the fight just simply isn’t worth it and will leave.

The second is fear. Striking fear into the hearts of the people, demoralizing them and reducing their will to fight. This is the strategy of terrorists and tyrants, both greatly outnumbered by those they seek to destroy or those they seek to rule. Fear is a powerful tool wielded with the aim of manipulating entire populations.

And this use of fear is not even limited to military or political enterprises. All you have to do to realize that is watch prime time television.

Our news is marketed to us with terror. “This common every day object, likely in your home right now, can kill you! Details at 11!” Those always make me so angry—if there’s something that can kill me, tell me now! Don’t make me watch your subpar newscast. But the news promoters know that fear will draw eyeballs, and so they keep using it.

In the summer of 2001, a young intern named Chandra Levy went missing. Chandra lived across the street from me, her apartment visible from my own. Her disappearance had all manner of intrigue: an affair with a congressman, a mysterious cover-up. But even before the tragic reality of her disappearance was fully known, the news stations made full use of the fear it engendered. One station teased its 10 p.m. newscast: “A wave of abductions has one D.C. neighborhood living in fear. Tonight at 10!” That was my neighborhood and so I watched. Only to discover that they were grouping together Chandra’s disappearance with two car-jackings of two different women in Shaw and Columbia Heights. Both of whom were now safe, neither of whom lived in the same neighborhood as Chandra and me. I’d fallen for it. The fear sucked me in.

And the fact that it sucked me in is the reason they keep using it. And why in a post-9/11 world, why fear is our number one theme on most newscasts.

But it’s not just our news programs that make use of fear. Our advertising is full of fear. Subtle fears that you didn’t even realize you were supposed to have: fear of bad breath, fear of off-white teeth, fear of not getting the girl or the boy you like, fear of not being able to match the status of your neighbors, fear of a loss of sexual potency, and on and on. Fear is a powerful motivator.

And everyone knows it.

III. OUR CAMPUS

Including the coward who targeted our campus last week.

He knew that he was outnumbered. He knew that there are more people both here and in our country who disagree with him about race and equality. There are more people who find his beliefs repugnant than those who find them laudable. And so, with such an inequity, the only thing to be done is an attempt to sow fear, to demoralize, to rob the fervor and passion of those who are here.

He sought to make students fearful of their classmates, and erode the community that students should have with one another. He sought to make students of color distrust their university and undermine the confidence they should have in their institution. He sought to make students afraid for their safety in a place that students consider home. After all, a college campus is not like work, where you have to put up with your annoying co-worker’s political views for a few hours but then get to retreat to the safety of home. This is home for our students. And our sower of fear understood that.

He understood that if he pushed at all these pressure points long enough, then perhaps, our students would abandon the work for justice they’re already doing. They’d grow up cowed and complacent. And their white allies would lapse into greater complicity. He understood that his only option in advancing his hateful agenda was through the use of fear. To make us here as fearful as he is.

As our Muslim Chaplain Dr. Ahmad so correctly pointed out last week at the rally, it’s not we who are afraid, he is. He’s the one sneaking around campus in disguise. He’s the one afraid to attach his name to hateful ideology. He’s the one afraid that when whites become a minority they’ll be treated just as badly as whites have been treating other groups when we are the majority. He’s the one so afraid of a diverse and inclusive world that he spends hours planning his deceptions and disguises in order to hang his pathetic flyers and store-bought crafts.

Because that’s the only way he can win.  By making us as fearful as he is.

But see, what he doesn’t realize is that we have a secret weapon, against which he is hopelessly outmatched.

IV. LOVE AND FEAR

Years ago, I took a group of students on a spring break trip to Cherokee, North Carolina. There we had occasion to participate in a sweat lodge ritual led by a man named Curtis, himself a Kansa Indian who’d moved to Cherokee. As he was leading our group through the four-part ceremony of the sweat lodge—a ceremony involving songs, prayer, healing, and forgiveness—he said something that has stuck with me ever since.

“There are two emotions,” he said. “Love and fear.” I was struck right away—we are usually quick to pair love and hate. He continued, “All of the bad things come from fear: hatred, anger, violence. All of the good things come from love: mercy, peace, justice, compassion…” In the many years since, it has struck me just how right he was.

As we have discussed in this service before, love is more than an emotion, it is a way of living. It is a way of living in right relationship, a way of being vulnerable, it is a way of self-sacrifice and being present for the Other. It is standing with arms wide open, seeking to embrace the world in compassion and mercy.

Fear is its opposite. It is selfish, suspicious of others, self-protective. It stands with arms crossed and fists clenched seeking to fend off the world to protect its own.

If you saw two individuals similarly poised you would realize which was the stronger of the two: it wouldn’t be the one with fists clenched, but the one with arms open.

And that is why love is such a powerful antidote to fear, because it’s stronger.

Just a few minutes ago we heard our guests Treble in Paradise sing their rendition of Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. I will admit, that as one who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s there was a nostalgia element to this song that was hard for me to resist when Laura shared Treble’s song list with me. But there was something about the lyrics that leapt out at me as I listened to it once again:

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know

Love doesn’t come in a minute
Sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, love isn’t silly, love isn’t silly at all

Love isn’t silly; it’s powerful. And it is the nemesis of fear.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Love is the antidote to fear; it is the force that can overwhelm the tide of hate. As Oscar Romero said, “Love must win out; it is the only thing that can.” As we have seen throughout the religious traditions, love is the ally of all those who seek to resist the powers that wield fear to persecute or oppress.

Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who helped to deliver Moses as a baby, were fearless in the face of Pharaoh’s edict because of their love for God and for the children of others.

The disciples of the early church were fearless in the face of a priesthood that was quick to collude with the Empire, and with the help of the fearless Rabbi Gamaliel were released and continued their proclamation out of the love they had experienced from their Master and in community.

Paul reminds the church at Rome that they have nothing to fear, because nothing can separate them from the love of God found in Jesus.

And as the Qur’an relates: those in the early Muslim community, who trust in God and God’s mercy find themselves fearless in the face of persecutions and dangers.

Love is such a powerful ally against fear. Not because it drives our fear out, but because it robs fear of its power to control us.

V.  END

We are creatures like any other. We are going to experience fear when confronted by changing circumstances, unfamiliar environments, and threats to our life and well-being.

And unlike the heroes of fiction who are without fear as they confront untold dangers, we must bear the reality that we will always experience fear.

Is it frightening to step out of our comforts zones? To have conversations and encounters that make us uneasy and uncomfortable in the name of justice? To build relationships with those who are unlike us? To offer support and solidarity to strangers? Can it be terrifying to risk rejection by the crowd for taking a courageous stand on behalf of the marginalized or oppressed? To champion what is right, even though it may cost us much?

Of course it’s terrifying.

But we need not let that fear control us. We may not be fearless in fact, but through love, we can be fearless in deed.

We can embrace the power that love gives us, to dare to step out into the world in to do what is right, even when it scares the living daylights out of us.

And we can choose to step into the daylight of love—selfless, self-sacrificial, open, strong—living lives of such boldness and courage that others might ask of us as Sherif Ali did of Lawrence, “Have you no fear?”

That light, that power that love gives us, enables us to face the challenges of the world, to see the obstacles and perils in front of us, and to summon up the transforming power that love offers us, and nevertheless to set forth, in faith, into the world with fearlessness. 

Word cloud of sermon text
This meditation was delivered by our University Chaplain at the Interfaith Chapel Service, October 4, 2017. (Image courtesy wordle.net)

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Words of Sacred Tradition

Texts Used in the Interfaith Chapel Service

Exodus 1:15-17 • The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: "When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it's a boy, kill him. But if it's a girl, you can let her live." Now the two midwives respected God so they didn't obey the Egyptian king's order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.

Acts 5:27-35, 38-42 • The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: "In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man's death."

Peter and the apostles replied, "We must obey God rather than humans! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead-whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."

When the council members heard this, they became furious and wanted to kill the apostles. One council member, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law named Gamaliel, well-respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be taken outside for a few moments. He said, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Here's my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won't be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!" The council was convinced by his reasoning. After calling the apostles back, they had them beaten. They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, then let them go. The apostles left the council rejoicing because they had been regarded as worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name. Every day they continued to teach and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, both in the temple and in houses.

Romans 8:31-38 CEB • So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn't spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won't he also freely give us all things with him? Who will bring a charge against God's elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God's right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us. Who will separate us from Christ's love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers"

Qur'an 3:172-180 • As for those who heard the call of God and His messenger after the harm befell them (in the fight); for such of them as do right and ward off (evil), there is great reward. Those unto whom men said: Lo! the people have gathered against you, therefor fear them. (The threat of danger) but increased the faith of them and they cried: God is Sufficient for us! Most Excellent is He in Whom we trust! So they returned with grace and favour from God, and no harm touched them. They followed the good pleasure of God, and God is of Infinite Bounty. It is only the devil who would make (men) fear his partisans. Fear them not; fear Me, if ye are true believers. Let not their conduct grieve thee, who run easily to disbelief, for lo! they injure God not at all. It is God's Will to assign them no portion in the Hereafter, and theirs will be an awful doom. Those who purchase disbelief at the price of faith harm God not at all, but theirs will be a painful doom. And let not those who disbelieve imagine that the rein We give them bodeth good unto their souls. We only give them rein that they may grow in sinfulness. And theirs will be a shameful doom. It is not (the purpose) of God to leave you in your present state till He shall separate the wicked from the good. And it is not (the purpose of) God to let you know the Unseen. But God chooseth of His messengers whom He will, (to receive knowledge thereof). So believe in God and His messengers. If ye believe and ward off (evil), yours will be a vast reward. And let not those who hoard up that which God hath bestowed upon them of His bounty think that it is better for them. Nay, it is worse for them. That which they hoard will be their collar on the Day of Resurrection. God's is the heritage of the heavens and the earth, and God is Informed of what ye do.