It seems we have come a long ways, and not for the better, from this inaugural address given by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression. It was a time where fear was palpable as people wondered about how they would feed their families, where they would find work. Roosevelt realized something that we might consider for our day — nameless, unreasoning fear paralyzes.
There are times when fear is good — when we recognize real danger, like stopped traffic and take action like hitting the brakes. Nor does what I am saying mean we don’t reckon with real dangers that we may face as a nation and take appropriate action–and go on with our lives. But we often get this far out of proportion and focus on things that are more distant threats while ignoring common sense things in front of us. We fear Ebola outbreaks when more die every month of heart disease due to poor diet and exercise (roughly 50,000 per month) than all who died in last year’s epidemic in west Africa, bad as it was. That’s what nameless and unreasoning fear does.
It seems that the political rhetoric, as well as news media stories, foster a state of free-floating fear in the populace. Cancer, epidemic, terrorism, guns and those who use them, Wall Street, immigrants, gays, homophobes, health insurance, the “liberals”, the “conservatives” are all objects of fear. In politics, it seems the basic tactic is to focus on a fear, summons our worst nightmares about that fear, and argue that if you elect the other man or woman, that’s what you will get. Along the way, we demonize a whole group of people, because a few from their group have done something horrendous.
We’ve created a politics of gridlock and a politics that pits our citizenry against itself rather than summoning us to listen to each other, to work together to solve real problems like our national infrastructure, whether physical or digital, and the perennial challenge of how we will raise our children to be people of character who have the skills and industry to foster the common good. In Roosevelt’s words, it seems we choose retreat rather than advance. By protecting ourselves from what we fear, we may also wall ourselves off from opportunity.
What troubles me most is when I see people of faith succumb to the politics of fear. A friend of mine observed that often the very first thing God says in encounters with human beings is “be not afraid.” Many of the Psalms chronicle the spiritual journey of people from fear of their circumstances to faith in the God who cares not only for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, but also for the people made in God’s image. Somehow, living in a steady state of fear seems inconsistent with being a person who trusts in the care of God, and that the good, the true, and the beautiful will in the end endure.
Some time back I reviewed a book titled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear that explores the culture of fear we have increasingly surrounded ourselves with. One of the most moving chapters is one describing the response of the Taize’ community to the brutal murder of Brother Roger by a mentally deranged person in the midst of their worship. Most of us would install metal detectors and have armed security available. This community decided that this would be to give way to fear instead of remaining a community of welcome and shalom.
For these reasons, I’m putting our politicians, and the media wizards who surround them, on notice that I will not vote for those who try to win my vote through fear-mongering. We can do better than that. Life is inherently unsafe, and the only true safety, at least from my faith perspective, is in the God who holds me in life and death. I want those who will call us, not to fear, but to both courage and compassion as a people, who appeal to “the better angels of our nature”, of which Abraham Lincoln spoke in his first inaugural address.
Is that too much to ask?