Fear No Evil

Lessons: 1 John 4:16b-21; Psalm 23

Last Wednesday we learned of a terrorist attack outside London’s Parliament.[i] In response, British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stirring address to Parliament, which began, “Mr. Speaker, yesterday an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal – as generations have done before us, and as future generations will continue to do – to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid.”[ii]

“We are not afraid.” “I will fear no evil.” I don’t know about you, but I long for these words to be true for me. Sometimes they are true. Other times they are a hope. I’m not saying I wish I were never, ever afraid. Fear is a necessary part of being human. There really is such a thing as healthy fear, as every parent of a teenager wishes kids would remember. Fear helps keep us safe, and we are hard-wired for self-preservation.[iii] Fear can even be a powerfully creative force. If people didn’t fear the dark, they’d never have invented the electric light bulb.

But fear can also be unhealthy and unreasonable. Sigmund Freud said it’s reasonable for a person to be afraid of snakes in the heart of the jungle, but it’s not reasonable to be afraid of snakes under the carpet in your apartment in the city.[iv] Unhealthy fears control and consume us. Fear can paralyze us and rob us of joy. Fear can make us hide our true selves and live a diminished life. Fear can also cause us to try to control or dominate others, develop hatreds and prejudices, build up armies, start wars, commit acts of terrorism, and fail to stand up for what we know is right. Rather than preserve us, these fears poison us.

So when Theresa May and the psalmist say, “We are not afraid,” and “I will fear no evil,” it’s these fears to which they refer. It’s these fears that not only do not preserve us, but actually threaten our safety and the safety of the world. In response to a terrorist attack a few years ago, public theologian and author Brian McLaren wrote, “As a first step in protecting our values and safety, we must know who and where our greatest enemy is. Our greatest enemy is not the enemy out there or over there. Our greatest enemy is the invisible army that lives inside each of us and therefore among all of us, camouflaged, hidden, subtle. Within us hide terror cells of fear that tempt us to react in folly rather than act in wisdom. Within us hide the improvised explosive devices of anger that tempt us to respond to evil with evil, rather than seeking to overcome evil with good. Within us is the enemy spy called division, who tempts us to build power bases among ‘some of us’ by building fear and prejudice against ‘others of us,’ and so turns us against one another. Within us are enemy collaborators named naiveté and denial, who tempt us to hope against hope that quick and easy answers will solve complex and long-standing problems. The ringleader of all these inner enemies is pride, both personal and national, that tells us we are a better breed of human being than others and so we deserve special privileges or special exemptions. If we fall prey to any of these hidden inner enemies that our faith traditions call ‘temptation’ and ‘sin,’ then whatever we do in relationship to outside opponents and threats will backfire. Coming from a spiritually wise and healthy place within, we will more wisely engage with every external threat.”

How do we figure out which fears are really the enemy inside us? Which are the snakes under the carpet? How do we find that “spiritually wise and healthy place within”? And can we tackle this in one 15-minute sermon? No. And so even though it isn’t on the calendar, I invite whoever is interested to join me for a “sermon talk-back” in the Fireside Room at 11:30.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that more often than not, fear involves the misuse of the imagination. So perhaps a place to begin is with an honest look at our fears. What is true? What is folly? Maybe all of our fears have both a degree of truth, and a degree of ridiculousness,[v] and the trick is figuring out what’s ridiculous, and then treating it that way – as ridiculous, as laughable. In the Harry Potter books, there’s a magical creature called a boggart.[vi] No one knows what a boggart actually looks like. They hide in dark places like closets and under beds, and then take the form of the nearest person’s greatest fear. The way to get rid of a boggart is a spell that causes it to assume a form that’s funny to the person casting the spell. A fellow student of Harry’s who was afraid of one of their professors imagined him wearing the student’s grandmother’s moth-eaten hat and carrying her over-large handbag. This ridiculous image caused the student to laugh, which defeats the boggart. But even without magic, we can look at the facts behind some of the fears that torture people today and realize those fears are, indeed, laughable. For example, there’s a meme making its way around the Internet that says, “Muslims make up 1% of the population, commit .5% of the mass shootings, and account for 10% of U.S. doctors. So if you’re ever at the wrong place at the wrong time and get shot by a Christian, don’t worry. There’s probably a Muslim that can help.”[vii]

How do we deal with those fears that have more truth than ridiculousness? The psalmist tells us, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.”[viii] In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates this verse, “Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.” The temptation, I think, is to rely on platitudes about God’s presence: God is with us, trust God. God’s presence with us is profoundly true, but how does that become real for us when we’re afraid? We know the psalmist doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. The Lord is not a shepherd who makes all the bad and scary parts of life go away. This is a psalm that says there are green pastures but also dark valleys and enemies. It says we can get lost, and sometimes we do. It doesn’t say there’s no evil, or that evil will never touch our lives. It doesn’t say God will intervene to protect us, as much as we wish that were true.

And yet, says the psalmist, in the face of evil, he will not fear. Walter Brueggemann writes, “It is God’s companionship that transforms every situation.” I suspect most of us know someone who would answer Brueggemann with, “What good does God’s companionship do us when a truck plows into a crowd in front of Parliament? You can keep your God; give me an assault rifle. Or an M-1 Abrams tank. Or a drone.” But then, is that standing up to evil? Or is it capitulating to it? Isn’t that what fearing evil looks like? I agree with William Sloane Coffin, who wrote, “Frankly, nothing scares me like scared people, unless it’s a scared nation.”[ix]

Rabbi Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says, “The Twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question, ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’”[x] That sounds like a lot to ask from a psalm, even a comforting and familiar psalm. But there’s more to it than comfort and familiarity. Besides addressing fear, the psalm talks about revenge. If our first impulse in the face of evil is fear, our second impulse is vengeance. “You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows,” writes the psalmist. The psalmist doesn’t ignore the cold hard fact that there are people in the world who mean him harm. But as soon as the psalmist mentions his enemies, and confesses his frankly petty desire to make them jealous by eating a sumptuous feast right in front of them while they look on with their mouths watering, he moves into a more important confession. He confesses the goodness of God and the bounty with which he has been blessed.   The movement in the psalmist’s thinking goes like this: “I have enemies. Man, I would really love to rub their noses in the fact that God has blessed me. Wow, God has blessed me! Surely goodness and mercy will follow me.” And it’s that last thought that carries the day. His impulse to take revenge is short-circuited by the deep awareness of God’s grace and love. The energy he would have spent on retribution is transformed into joyful thanksgiving.

It’s a different way of approaching a threat, isn’t it? Pausing to reflect on God’s love and grace before reacting in fear and revenge? It opens up the possibility of transformation, which might even include the enemy.

The First John passage affirms why God’s companionship really is the transforming presence that helps us to “fear no evil.” It all begins with God’s love. God is the source and the definition of love. God is love. God loves as the sun shines: love expresses who God is. This isn’t an abstract concept or a feel-good aphorism. To know God’s love for us is to overflow with God’s love for others. Seeing ourselves as God’s beloveds means seeing our sisters and brothers as God’s loved ones too. How can we possibly love God while we hate God’s beloveds? If we love others as God has loved us, there can be no boundaries in our own love. Jesus ignored the limits that religious communities imposed. He ate and talked with people whom the religious leaders had rejected as heretics, as sinful, as unclean and despicable. He touched people who were considered untouchable and welcomed people whom everyone else had kicked out. His harshest words were reserved not for the imperfect, but for unloving, self-righteous people who saw some of God’s children as beneath their attention and certainly as unworthy of their love. If Jesus shows us what God’s love is like, then there can be no doubt how far our love for others must extend: to every single human being.

It is love and only love that transforms us from people who live in fear, hide behind hatred and seek revenge into people who choose to end the cycle of fear, hatred and revenge. It always has been. It always will be. John’s first letter tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because God first loved us.”[xi] Martin Luther King, Jr., again, wrote: “Hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love. … We say that war is a consequence of hate, but close scrutiny reveals this sequence: first fear, then hate, then war, and finally, deeper hatred.”[xii] The same sequence causes the hatred we call prejudice. It’s fear – the fear of loss of economic privilege or social status – that leads to the hatred that leads to dehumanizing treatment and even violence, which in turn create more fear and hatred. Again, some sense of the ridiculous might be helpful here. I saw a t-shirt that says, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not a pie.”

We love because God first loved us. This transforming kind of love comes from God and it takes prayer and practice and community and time – maybe a lifetime – to let God’s limitless love come alive in us. Together, here, we practice that presence of God. That’s why theologian Karl Barth said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

I’ll leave you with this poem by Michael Leunig that speaks to our time, and perhaps to all time:

There are only two feelings. Love and fear.

There are only two languages. Love and fear.

There are only two activities. Love and fear.

There are only two motives, two procedures,

two frameworks, two results. Love and fear.

Love and fear.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.” May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[i] Katrin Bennhold and Stephen Castle, “Near U.K. Parliament; Car Plows Victims on Westminster Bridge,” in The New York Times, March 22, 2107,

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/world/europe/uk-westminster-parliament-shooting.html.

[ii] For the full speech: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/theresa-mays-statement-house-commons-10082707

[iii] F. Emelia Sam, “3 Reasons Why Fear Is Actually a Good Thing,” October 8, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-f-emelia-sam/why-fear-is-a-good-thing_b_8258746.html.

[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Antidotes to Fear,” in Strength to Love (Harper and Row, 1963; reprinted as a gift edition by Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 121.

[v] Scott H. Young, “Fear Is Good,” October 2010, https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2010/10/14/fear-is-good/.

[vi] J. K. Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkeban (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1999), 133-137.

[vii] On a less humorous note, but supporting this meme: “But more importantly, foreigners pose less of a threat to Americans than right-wing extremists on domestic soil. In a 2015 New York Times article, University of North Carolina Professor Charles Kurzman and Duke Professor David Schanzer found that Islam-inspired terror attacks accounted for 50 deaths since 9/11, but that “right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities.” Esther Yu Hsi Lee, March 1, 2017, https://thinkprogress.org/trump-false-claim-foreign-born-domestic-attacks-54e99b0e11b6#.l7ayeorab. See also: “Critics Are Decrying a Trump Plan to Exclude White Supremacists From the Counter-Extremism Program,” February 2, 2017: “The Anti-Defamation League also criticized the plan, citing internal research that found 74% of deaths caused by domestic extremists between 2007 and 2016 were caused by “right-wing extremists such as white supremacists, sovereign citizens and militia adherents.”

http://fortune.com/2017/02/02/trump-counter-extremism-program-white-supremacists-islam/.

[viii] Psalm 23:4.

[ix] William Sloane Coffin, “Loving Your Enemy,” February 6, 1983, in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 8-9.

[x] PBS Interview with Harold Kushner, November 26, 2004, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/november-26-2004/harold-kushner/15271/

[xi] 1 John 4:18-19.

[xii] King, 125.

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