Fear is a useful emotion. It is part of our inner senses that serves as an alarm to notify us of potential or actual risk or danger. It is analogous to when our physical senses let us know that we are too near an intense source of heat. Fear is an emotion that can help us avoid unnecessary injury and pain. It is useful to us as individuals and as communities and manifests in both.
Fear is an emotion that needs to be “trained” however. Fear is rooted deeply in our physicality; a tool of animal survival. It tries to override mental focus and draw our awareness towards a potential threat to our safety or even our life. Left uncontrolled and unregulated it can be a powerful and destructive force in our lives, however. If it is allowed to overpower good sense and reason — especially over prolonged or repeated instances — it quickly leads to the disintegration of the functionality of our minds and the crippling of our spirits. Fear can break down anything in us; including our moral lives and our relationships.
I draw our attention to the topic of fear because it appears often in our lives as individuals and communities as an undermining and destabilizing force. Fear becomes a means by which individuals do what, under other circumstances, they would not do. It also becomes a means by which the actions of the church become perverted; sometimes leading to it doing the opposite of what Jesus teaches. To grow in faith, to be disciples, to be God’s church in the world, we need to face fear, see it for what it is, and make deliberate choices about what to do — and not be ruled in our thoughts and actions by this important emotion.
Fear has done much over the millennia to drive disunity among Christians. It has also led Christians into becoming a force for disunity in the places where they have lived. Christians are human and subject to all the challenges and frailties of anyone else sharing a human existence.
We all have experience of fear. Sometimes it manifests in a sudden and intense incident such as an automobile accident. A car comes speeding into an intersection against a red light. It seems as though time slows down and you see the car drawing closer to a near-certain collision with your car door. You wonder if you will survive; or if you will be horribly injured. It looks as though your life will change in an instant. The driver of the vehicle (you are not driving) also has a flash of fear upon the recognition that a collision appears imminent. Her mind sharpens in response to the threat. She has focused all her thoughts and energy upon facing the problem and dealing with it as best she can. She has felt the fear and has taken its warning. She, however, has now set aside all of her emotions and all thoughts that do not help her deal with the crisis. In what seems like a super-human maneuvering of the vehicle, she flips the car up onto only two wheels (those on the opposite side of the car from the automobile closing in on you). Those few extra feet allow her to move past the point of contact and out of the intersection. If the car had not moved up on two wheels contact would have been made. A couple of seconds later, the collision averted, the car slams back down on all four wheels. The driver pulls over on the shoulder of the road. Her emotions and the race of thoughts — putting in front of her all the possible outcomes (including those that might not have ended so well) — pour over her. She begins to cry; releasing the energy of the fear she had held at bey for those crucial seconds.
The driver was my mother. I was perhaps six or seven. If Mom had not heeded the warning brought to her by her fear — and then controlled her thoughts and emotions to deal with the emergency — I might well not be here today. It was the first lesson I recall learning about both the utility of fear and the importance of being able to control emotions and thoughts in order to do the best thing possible.
Crises confront us every day. The origin of the word crisis refers to a moment of decision. Some of those moments of decision are big and some are small. Many times, since our reality of the present moment is subject to change as a result of how we respond to the crisis, we feel fear. It alerts us that something important is going on; something that needs our attention. It is like the family dog that barks to let you know potential danger is lurking nearby. So long as fear performs its function to keep us alert, that is fine. Indeed, it is a blessing1.
The problems with fear arise when we cannot control it and get it out of the way when it is time to do something. As with the family dog, as we move to investigate the potential danger about which it is warning us, it is important to get the barking to stop so you can concentrate your awareness and focus your thoughts. When the barking continues — when your reason is put on hold by rising terror — fear becomes part of the problem. It can even get you killed because you do not respond as best you could. Likewise, when fear is left to idle, with no clear target of its attention, its warning benefits are diminished or no longer present. This idling of fear without a clear focus is anxiety; and it can, to varying degrees, rob you of your ability to control emotions and thoughts as well. Anxiety can lead to decisions that do not have the full benefit of your intelligence. It can lead to actions that are not shaped by your sense of what is right and wrong.
The church, which is made up of human beings with human emotions, can experience a wide range of emotions of fear. Times of persecution, in which being a Christian threatens the well-being and lives of individuals and communities, rightly bring about fear in the hearts and minds of the members of the church. This fear can alert them so they take appropriate measures to protect themselves and/or bear witness with their lives (and deaths) that are worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many times in the history of Christianity, the fear warnings raised by persecution have helped Christians to prepare for those challenges that lay before them; to live and die holy lives in the contexts in which they found themselves. The history of Christianity also shows us examples of people who let the warnings offered by fear become cause for the unsettling of their hearts and minds; losing their connection to what they believed, running and scattering — denying and betraying those whom they loved and tearing down the virtue they had worked so long to build in conformity with the teachings of Christ.
In our present day, we see the effects of fear on societies in North America and around the world. Following the murder of thousands at the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001, fear and its alarms spread through nations of people who had thought, perhaps, that they were mostly immune to violence on such a mass scale. Many of the decisions taken by leaders in the wake up the trauma of this event have been questionable in terms of wisdom and morality.
The church, unfortunately, has a long history of not properly controlling its fears and causing tragedy because of the failure to set aside the warnings in order to deal with crises in a manner that matches the teachings of Christ Jesus. Many of the church’s fears have been warnings of potential dangers that did, indeed, require the attention of Christians and the Christian community. Some of the fears were warnings of imagined threats. Whatever the cause for the alarm of fear, the response was always something that could have been controlled and shaped in a way that conformed to Christ’s teachings — but it often was not.
As an example, one of the most frightening challenges to the Medieval church in Europe was the Albigensian (sometimes called Cathar) movement (based mostly in southern France). This group of Christians held many beliefs that were at odds with the Christianity taught by the church. It was a form of Christian Gnosticism (that, in other manifestations, centuries before had been battled against as a heresy; a heresy that had almost destroyed the church). The threat to the church was very real on many levels. The Albigensians had many thousands of people who were counted among their numbers and the movement seemed to be spreading. In response to their perceived false doctrines and their persistence in promoting their views of Christianity, Innocent III, Bishop of Rome, declared a crusade to eradicate the Albigensians and their teachings. The crusade lasted twenty years and was also bound up in political struggles and ambitions that took advantage of the season of religious instability. This decision was an example of fear leading the church to employ means — meting out death — that was not a part of Jesus’s teachings to his disciples. Indeed, it was an action in clear contradiction of those teachings. That response of violence and death employed in the name of Christ and Christ’s church has led to questions, from both inside and outside the church, of what has been taught by this action2.
In facing challenges in the present-day to long-held beliefs and social practices many in the church feel the emotions of fear that warn them to pay attention to important moments of decision that lay in front of them. Such moments will come to every generation in different forms. What matters is how those who take up the cross of Christ will, or will not, be true to Jesus’s teachings to love all people — especially those with whom we struggle. These are the tests and challenges that train us to grow in grace and strength as Jesus’s disciples.
Learning to rule over our thoughts and emotions is not something that comes automatically for virtually anyone. It is a skill and it needs to be trained. Christian communities are appropriate places to train those skills; because authentic Christian discipleship requires that we have those skills at the ready — all the time. It is essential that Christians learn both to hear the warnings of our fears, and, make our fears stand out of the way to let us think, speak, and act in accord with the Way of Christ Jesus.
1 Please see definition of the word “crisis” at merriam-webster.com.
2 For a history of the crusade against the Albigensians, please see Jonathan Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (New York, NY: Faber & Faber, 2000).