1/07/2008

Beyond Fear: a reflection.

Watching the debates on Saturday I was struck by one of the questions asked of the candidates. It was during the democratic candidates debate I believe, but don't hold me to it…there have been so many debates that it is all beginning to blur.

The beginning of the question went something like this: "We know that at some time in the future there will be a nuclear bomb detonated somewhere in the US by terrorists." The rest of the question had to do with how we might try to prevent it from happening and how the candidate would act afterwards. I can't remember the answers. I was too shaken by the assumption – that there will be such an attack. What I do remember is that no one challenged the premise and no one began with an expression of horror at the possibility.

It reminded me of a debate question in a previous presidential contest (1988), where candidate Michael Dukakis was asked by Bernard Shaw ""Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" While it was a stinker of a question, Dukakis' answer was devoid of any emotional content. He handled it as a legitimate question and gave a very calm answer. There was no challenge to the question, there was no expression of horror at the possibility. Nothing.

It is, I suppose, almost impossible not to get it wrong. If there is no emotion, people sound hollow, if there is emotion they seem too vulnerable. When Hillary Clinton got emotional today (Monday before the New Hampshire Primary) the press snapped it up. When Edward Muskie got emotional in New Hampshire in 1972 the press snapped it up as well. So being emotional under perfectly normal conditions becomes a liability. On the other hand, not being able to react in disbelief or horror at a question is a liability as well.

The question raised in the debate this last Saturday had to do with a possibility – a bomb used by terrorists in the US. The lack of affect in receiving the question or even in posing ought to disturb us all. The lack of affect can be simply the signs of worn out candidates and unthinking commentators. If so it is understandable, just as tears and emotional tremor in the voice is. But perhaps that lack of affect is indicative of a deeper matter. The deadening of emotional breadth of response can be a sign of a people living in fear, in traumatic circumstances in which what otherwise would elicit an emotional reaction is simply greeted with no emotional reaction at all.

I believe what we saw was not the realistic understanding that such things as terror bombings were possible, but the deadened reaction of people who have accepted fear as the context for living, politicking, and getting by.

This sort of thing happens in Anglican Land as well. There has been considerable conversations in Anglican blog land about the comments of Bishop Michael Nazir Ali in an article in the Telegraph about areas in English cities that are becoming "no-go" areas for Christians because of religious extremists (read Islamic). Bishop Nazir Ali is raising all sorts of other questions, of course, mostly having to do with the notion of Christianity as the State Religion in England, the value of the established church, and the greatness of England. But back in there in the text there are other texts peeking out, not hidden exactly, but not clear either. One of the texts is that we need to be afraid of other religions, religions that will or can be extreme.

The bishop does not talk about just why these no-go areas are cropping up or just why immigrants are somehow bundled together into certain areas or communities, or just how this is to be distinguished from ghettos or from "across the tracks" black communities in southern towns in the US. Instead he talks about the novel idea of multiculturalism. He talks about the alarming notion that the Muslim call to prayer might be amplified in some English towns and neighborhoods. (One wonders how he feels about the great bells in Cathedrals in England that go off at the oddest sorts of times, and loudly enough to be heard all over town – that of course being the purpose of using them.) And then, of course, he talks about these areas not being welcoming to regular paid up English folk. And then the fear creeps in, not as part of the text, but as part of a subtext.

I have no notion how England is going to solve the question of the rapid change in its society. I have no idea if the Bishop is on target or off. Still, there is the subtext of fear. And that subtext is not addressed, at least by the bishop.

We fear the terrorists bomb, the unchecked emotion, the strangers in our midst who live in neighborhoods and are not hospitable. We fear.

This last Sunday, being the Feast of the Epiphany and our turn, St. Peter's Church, Lewes, had the bishop here for his visitation. It was a wonderful service. A great group of young people were confirmed, two babies were baptized, the Worship with Alternative Music (WAM) Band played, and Bishop Wayne Wright preached. The Rector of all Lewes was in top form.

In his sermon the Bishop pointed out the great extent to which we have become a people grounded in fears – all sorts and conditions of fear. And into a culture of fear comes the Epiphany in which the great and small alike are given not fear, but hope. That hope is the light, and the darkness has not overcome it, and that light is Christ. Well, he did a fine job and was as they say, on the case. The sermon was better than this, but this was part of it.

"Perfect love casts out fear" so says John. (1 John 4:18). It's hard to get the political candidates to buy that, for love is not the primary market share in an election year. Fear sells better than love. And, indeed fear sells better than real emotions shown.

It's hard to get the various forces in Anglican Land to live beyond the fears that are cast about –fears of heresy and schism and all sorts of theologically nasty possibilities.

But only those who can love and feel horror and joy and delight and hunger and all the rest have any business being our leaders and guides. Those who have been traumatized to the point where they cannot express emotion, or don't know when to react in horror or delight, or who fear engagement with people who don't like them very much or who aren't like them, and on and on, make poor guides into anything like a reasonable future in whatever land we live in.

So Bishop Wright was right on target. It is time to shine a little light on the matter of living. It is time to overcome the culture of fear with something better, something we all have more or less at hand because it is given to us as a gift by God. We should use it wisely and well.

Those in Anglican land who are driving the forces of fear had better be ready. The lights are going on. Those who would wring their hands and moan about the end of the Anglican Communion as we know it will have their day. They will inform us that if this or that happens our souls are in peril and our faith is grounded in shifting sand. Many will be denounced and there will be shouts in some of the rooms of the Mansion. And when it is over, there will still be bodies of believers throughout the world connected to one another by a vision of a faithful community in which we were able to keep our bodies, minds and hearts in something like a "holy, reasonable and living sacrifice," kept whole in Christ Jesus. We will probably call that the Anglican Communion.

Turn the lights on. Perhaps people will think there is someone home.

4 comments:

  1. You're right that the setting off of an atomic explosion in a US city is not inevitable. The project is more difficult than just carrying a suitcase. Odd, however, that someone could entertain that notion and not reflect that the US has now been responsible for a million or more deaths in Iraq and the destruction of its civil society. Further, a group of US Marines who massacred an Iraqi family have one by one been let off without consequence.

    No, the US didn't ask for the attack on the World Trade Center. But the perpetrators didn't hate us for our freedom, except for our presumed freedom to station our troops all over the world and interfere in their home countries. The prophets kept threatening Israel with retribution at the hands of its neighbors. Where is Jonah when we need him?

    Murdoch Matthew
    NYC

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  2. This quote from your post struck me:

    "But only those who can love and feel horror and joy and delight and hunger and all the rest have any business being our leaders and guides. Those who have been traumatized to the point where they cannot express emotion, or don't know when to react in horror or delight, or who fear engagement with people who don't like them very much or who aren't like them, and on and on, make poor guides into anything like a reasonable future in whatever land we live in."

    I know this is not a political blog, but that quote right there sums up why I support Hillary so strongly. People have accused her of being cold and distant and not likable. I see her as completely opposite...as passionate and fired up, as committed to the American cause. She get's angry, she gets teary-eyed. She's human and we need so desperately that kind of hope and true depth of character in our next president. She engages those who disagree with her...she takes the most direct questions from voters on the campaign trail. I just wish people would see beyond the "Oprah hype" and all the Hollywood of this race and look deeply at the compassion and commitment of these candidates.

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  3. Mark

    Thank you for your cogent thoughts! As always they are an inspiration. I think however, you neglected to mention the talented guitarist who assisted WAM so well, namely YOU! We are very blessed to have your ministry in our parish family!

    --the Vicar of Lewes

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  4. This is a fine essay, and I agree: turn the lights on!
    Shedding a little different light: as a former political reporter, I understand how "creepy" it must seem to see the lack of affect when discussing a terrible possibility, the lack of affect of candidates responding to the suggestion...and the fact that grown people can sit around and try to sound rational about it all. It is sad. And the majority of those who bring you the news quite often are people I would describe as "asleep". Because for them to be "awake" would ruin their ability to be "objective", which is what is demanded by the profession. When you put on a mantle of lightness, you develop the ability to really empathize with others, and connect in a more meaningful way. And, suddenly, objectivity gives way to subjectivity...and your "cred" as a journalist is called into question.
    I've been there and had my own awakening, so I say this from personal experience.
    More light. Less darkness and fear. For the Episcopal Church and the world!

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