One of the Internet sites I frequently visit is operated by a grassroots organization known as Faithful America. Its focus is to get people of faith to address the pressing moral issues of our time, such as poverty, immigration, climate change and peace. As their website states, they are "building a powerful grassroots movement to put justice and the common good back at the center of the American values debate."
If we surrender to fear, it "draws us from God and God's call for us to live faithfully in the world," Smith observes.
Recently, Faithful America began a campaign "to counter the fear and the lies the Tea Party and extreme pundits are spewing." To create a name for this campaign, they held a contest and the winning slogan is, "Driven by Faith, Not by Fear." When I first read those words, I immediately thought of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels; it's located in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. For me, there is no other biblical story that offers such a contrast between faith and fear.
In the midst of their nautical journey to the other side of the sea, Jesus and his followers encountered a raging storm that appeared quickly and threatened their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear.
It goes without saying that the disciples were afraid of the storm, for they believed that they were about to perish under the torrent of the sea. But the theology of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters: Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In Jesus, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God's presence. In Peter, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear.
How might this story speak to us about the crippling power of fear in our own context?
Since the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, many politicians have used the tragedy to attempt to convince us that we ought to be afraid and that we should especially be afraid of the other.
At the heart of the immigration debate is a fear that America will be overrun by immigrants. At the heart of arguments against allowing the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero and the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., is a fear that we are somehow giving leverage to terrorism.
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At the heart of the past debates over healthcare is a fear that we are now on the slippery road toward socialism. It seems that every issue offers an opportunity for some to inject unsubstantiated and irrational fear into the debate as a way of convincing us that this is the end.
This fear-mongering rhetoric defines the world in black-and-white terms, seeing only good or evil and leading those who utilize such rhetoric to more easily define who and what are our enemies. The now infamous "war on terror" tagline became the rationale for waging war, torturing prisoners and infringing on the freedoms we have always cherished, all in the name of national security.
Arizona's recent passage of a law targeting immigrants, as well as several other states seeking to pass similar legislation, have come about as a result of the power of fear. Moreover, the use of fear as a tactic of political campaigning has created the illusion that only one political party can save our nation.
What shocks me the most about all of this rhetoric is that many Christians have bought into fear as a thoughtful reaction to terrorism, immigration, heathcare and many other important issues. Yet, the reality is that if we surrender to fear, our faith in God and in one another will diminish, and we will become less than the humans we were created to be. We will become fear-induced extremists instead of humans made in the image of God who are commanded to love others and to do good.
Faith, on the other hand, embraces the other as made in the image of God and worthy of love and friendship. Indeed, in the story from Mark 4, Jesus desires to cross the Sea of Galilee because he knows that on the other side are the Gentiles, enemies of his own race, and he is compelled to cross boundaries to embrace them in friendship and love. While faith does not deny the existence of evil or those who may cause evil, faith relies on the eternal goodness of God whose love conquers evil. Faith is truly the power that overcomes fear.
Fear is a powerful force, but if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God's call for us to live faithfully in the world. While so-called threats to our security and to our way of life, whether real or imagined, naturally produce feelings of fear, we must follow the model of Jesus, who at the most vulnerable point in his life, turned to the God who gives faith that triumphs over all fear.
May all that we think, say and do be driven by faith, not by fear.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.