Reflections on Fear and Faith

By Arthur Brown

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

-Matthew 22:36 – 40

After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

-Ezra 9:1-3

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

-1 John 4:16b – 21.

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 behaviours. 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 world-view… 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’.[1] In contrast to the ‘ecology of fear’ she uses the term, ‘ecology of faith’. Synder refers 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’ may evoke either fearful or faith-filled responses from the church.

Fear and Welcome: The Biblical Paradox

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 which 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’.

Although writing in a UK context, I feel Snyder’s comments can be seen in diverse contexts around the world. Do you recognise this within your community? Snyder writes:

‘At a time when British national identity and other socio-economic and political identities seem increasingly fragile, the longing to define who ‘we’ are has become more pronounced, just as it seems to have become for the golah community in Ezra-Nehemiah. Migrants, including asylum seekers, are convenient ‘outsiders’ against whom a sense of ‘insider’ identity can be reasserted. Ethnic and religious factors remain a significant part of this process, as does the framing of the outsiders as pollutants. Those seeking asylum are, in many minds, all ‘non-white’ and ‘non-Christian’. It is not coincidental that that they are often labelled ‘scum’ and associated with disease. Moreover, while the public discourse around asylum may not be framed in explicitly religious terms, latent fears about the de-Christianization of Britain and overt fears about its Islamization should not be underestimated.[2]

However, the story of Ruth and Boaz draws attention to a different response in the face of ‘otherness’. 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 arch-enemies of Israel, as a result of them refusing to offer help to Israelite immigrants on their way to the Promised Land [Deut 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 emphasising 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 which resulted in the inclusion of yet another ‘outsider of questionable moral heritage’, in Christ’s genealogy [Matt. 1:5].

What is interesting to me within the story is that both Ruth and Boaz take extraordinary risks. Both offer of themselves to the other. And both receive from the other. Rather than a typical ‘helper-client / giver-receiver’ power dynamic, each recognises at different points in the story what they can offer and receive. Boaz’s story is transformed and his lineage restored. Ruth and Naomi are given security and a place to belong. All become important players in the salvation story.

All the social and religious barriers that appear to have been broken down within the story of Ruth occur as a result of individual people meeting each other, face-to-face, and recognising the humanity of the other. Boaz enquires about this strange woman in his field. He then breaks tradition and speaks to her, even ensuring that she will be provided for and protected. Ruth takes a huge risk by very blatantly and provocatively going to Boaz on the threshing floor at night.[3]

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. She suggests that:

‘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’.[4]

If a culture of fearing the other is dominant in many of our societies, what role do we have in countering this paralysing and life-draining reality? Surely we are called to be subversive and offer a different narrative? As Walter Brueggemann suggests,

‘The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us’.[5]

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 honoured 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?

__________________________

[1] Susanna Snyder, Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church, (Cambridge, MA: Ashgate, 2012).

[2] Snyder, p.155.

[3] This reflection on Ruth & Boaz was initially published by Baptists Together / The Baptist Union of Great Britain, in ‘Moving Stories: The Bible and Migration – A series of Bible Study Reflections’, available to freely download at: www.baptist.org.uk/movingstories

[4] Snyder, p.146.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p.3.

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