Fear, it seems to me, has always been a dominant force – perhaps one of the most powerful motivating factors in many of our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
Even for those of us professing faith in Christ – whose love we are told “drives out fear” – there are many things that we fear, if we are honest, which have the potential to negatively impact our witness.
Individuals, or typically groups of people, who are in some way “different” are a common source of “fear,” and this fear can of course result in hostility or simply avoidance.
Neither option seems appropriate for those called to live out the gospel among the nations.
As my wife and I prepared to move to Lebanon in 2005, it was some of our Christian friends who caused us the most sadness – not because of the pain of goodbyes, but rather in our witnessing of their fear “for us.”
No doubt with good intentions, they would say things like, “Is Lebanon a safe place to bring up your kids? Have you thought about their education? What would you do if there was another war?”
This broke our hearts, as it was as if safety and security were of greater significance than God’s clear and tested call on our lives.
In contrast, our Muslim friends, as well as our friends of “no faith,” would say things like, “What an amazing opportunity. Your kids will have such a great worldview. I wish I could do something like that.”
It struck me then that even Christ followers can be held captive to what Susan Synder refers to as “an ecology of fear” in her book “Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church.”
In contrast to the “ecology of fear,” she uses the term, “ecology of faith,” referring specifically to these ecologies in terms of the way the people of God have historically responded to the stranger, foreigner or alien in their midst.
While focusing on the church’s response to asylum-seekers and migrants, I would suggest that even well-established communities of “otherness” might evoke either fearful or faith-filled responses from the church.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply point to the Bible as a foundation for the welcoming and acceptance of the stranger, foreigner or “other” in our midst?
The reality, however, is that our Scriptures demonstrate contrasting narratives on this issue, and this is a paradox that I believe continues in our expressions of faith (and fear) today.
It is also one that I think we need to acknowledge and reflect on if we are to better understand particular communities – including Christians – who seemingly do not share “our” welcoming and open posture.
The post-exilic narratives of Ezra-Nehemiah demonstrate a powerful rejection of the integration of the stranger or foreigner.
The idea that the integration of other communities would in a sense “pollute” their identity and religious purity was a strong narrative that emerged in that specific context.
The fear, obviously as a result of their exile experience and domination by others, led them to a particular vision of their place in the world.
The need to affirm their unique and separate identity seemed in many ways to be rooted in fear. They almost defined their identity in opposition to the “other.”
By contrast, the story of Ruth and Boaz draws attention to a different response in the face of “otherness,” as I discuss in an article in “Moving Stories: The Bible and Migration” published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Boaz, an Israelite man of good standing, also had a choice to make when he first encountered Ruth working in his field.
The Moabites were the archenemies of Israel, as a result of their refusal to offer help to Israelite immigrants on their way to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 23:4).
Moabites would have also been regarded as the offspring of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, resulting in the birth of Moab.
The fact that Ruth is so often referred to as “a Moabite from Moab” is clearly a means of emphasizing her “otherness” within a community who viewed themselves exclusively as the people of God – pure and unadulterated.
Mixed marriages between “the holy race” and Moabites were also clearly unacceptable (Ezra 9:1-2).
So, would Boaz follow conventional social and religious wisdom, a path that would have been far and away the most acceptable option? One that would have kept his relationships “pure” and beyond reproach?
The risk-averse option would have been the norm for most then and, let’s be honest, for most of us today. Or would the actions of one man – albeit likely with mixed motives – become a prophetic framework for a nation?
His willingness to “embrace” the other became a transformative moment in the salvation narrative – a story that resulted in the inclusion of yet another “outsider of questionable moral heritage” in Christ’s genealogy (Matthew 1:5).
What is interesting to me within the story is that both Ruth and Boaz take extraordinary risks. Both offer themselves to the other. And both receive from the other.
Synder presents a sharp challenge to Christians, who throughout history have adopted an ecology of fear, not dissimilar perhaps to the narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah. “The attitudes and actions described in Ezra-Nehemiah with regard to so-called foreigners are in good company, and Christians need to acknowledge the complicity of their faith tradition in fostering ecologies of fear and endorsing the exclusion of strangers, foreigners and those perceived to be different in all sorts of ways.”
If a culture of fearing the other is dominant in many of our societies, what role do we have in countering this paralyzing and life-draining reality? Surely we are called to be subversive and offer a different narrative?
The truth is that for all of us there is more security in what and who we know. We feel threatened by those who are different. We hold on to a “golden age” where we “knew how to live” and had a strong sense of identity – and with it power and influence.
However, not wanting to own our fear, there is often the tendency to mask our cultural fears using religious language and authority. We become the protectors’ of a bygone age when we felt that God was honored more greatly.
So, do you and your communities want to be ruled by fear, perhaps the dominant paradigm, or by faith, a subversive alternative reality?
Arthur Brown is associate director of youth initiatives at the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.