I started writing this post weeks ago, long before the latest terrorist attack in Paris. As I’ve watched, read, and listened to the news the last few days, particularly related to how we should respond to refugees from Syria, I decided I have to say something, to express an opinion about what I believe is right – which simply stated is that we must not give in to our fears and close our borders to those seeking refuge from violence and injustice. To explain why saying that in a social media platform like this is difficult for me, let me describe what I consider one of my afflictions.
I coined a new word – “opinephobia,” or fear of expressing an opinion – to describe the affliction. There is so much happening in the world these days that seems to need some kind of response, with sane and wise voices providing perspective. When events unfold in the world, fragments of blog posts often take form in my head as I try to make sense of what I think and believe. I usually don’t finish them, however, because: 1) I decide not to take the time to flesh them out; 2) so much has already been said and I feel like I can’t add anything new to the discussion; 3) my post could easily degenerate into some kind of rant, given my extreme frustration sometimes, and that wouldn’t be helpful; or 4) I’m reluctant to put myself out there – in short, I’m scared of the reaction I might get.
Number 4 is the one I’d like to unpack a bit. Why am I afraid to express an opinion or give my perspective when so many people seem to have no such fear, and when I believe it’s important to stand up for what one believes is right? Here are some possible reasons:
- I fear judgment from those who will think I’m wrong, whether ideologically, theologically, biblically, morally, or whatever.
- I recognize that issues are always complex, with many shades of gray, and I can’t account for all those shades of gray when expressing a simple opinion. (Someone recently said, “The gray middle is vanishing and all that’s left is the light and the dark.” While I understand what the person meant – he was expressing his opinion about the current state of affairs in the U.S. – I still see shades of gray in almost everything.)
- I fear the mean-spiritedness that could be directed at me or those I care about. I don’t like it when people are angry with me!
- I fear being unable to express clearly what I mean and as a consequence being misunderstood.
- I recognize I probably don’t have all the facts, and don’t want to appear ignorant.
- I am well aware that equally sincere and well-meaning people I like and respect often see things quite differently, and I fear that people with whom I disagree will feel like I am judging them.
- Perhaps I also fear that even though my opinion is deeply held, I could be wrong and I don’t want to have to admit I’m wrong. (Hard to admit that fear!)
These fears are a little odd, I suppose, because for more than 35 years, I’ve been expressing my opinions in print publications on many difficult and controversial topics. Those opinions are not always in the mainstream of public opinion. This is particularly true when it comes to my commitment to nonviolence, which often leads to less than popular opinions on issues like guns, the death penalty, and war (I’m opposed to all three). I can be fairly fearless in print, speaking the truth as I see it while also recognizing that not everyone will agree with me. Why am I able to do it there but have more difficulty doing it here in this blog, on other social media, or in letters to the editor or online comments sections of various news outlets? Why is it so difficult to have the courage of my convictions in these contexts? I fear the response and I dislike the nasty turn so many online discussions can take.
This is not to say that nothing I’ve written or edited for print has ever received a negative response. But when the response comes by land mail or email to me personally, it’s easier to handle, perhaps because the disagreement is not immediately public and I have more time to think about how to respond. I can cool down from the initial emotional impact (if the letter seems unfair or is hurtful), consider the pros and cons of what the person said, and carefully craft a response that explains why I said what I did, perhaps apologizes for my lack of clarity or for over-stating something, but also acknowledges the value and the validity of the person’s critique. There’s time for nuance and a recognition of complexity that often seems impossible or impractical in the instantaneous world of social media. Online, some people seem able to fire back at will with rebuttals and counter-arguments, while it takes me awhile to formulate what I want to say and how I want to say it, and by then the moment has passed. Also, in online forums, often those who comment make personal attacks or come to wrong conclusions about the kind of person you are, based on what you thought was a simple and honest opinion. And then, of course, there is the issue of my introverted and basically shy self asserting itself, not to mention my long-standing dislike of conflict and desire to avoid it whenever possible.
When I first started writing this, I was thinking of opinions I would like to express on the Black Lives Matter movement, criminal justice, presidential candidates who seem to be the embodiment of the title character in the fairy tale “The Emperor With No Clothes,” gun violence and gun control, and the Iran nuclear agreement, to name a few. Right now, I’m thinking especially of the recent terrorist attack in Paris and the resulting efforts to close our borders to refugees from Syria because of fears that we will be vulnerable to a terrorist attack in the U.S. I understand those fears – as someone who fears many things I wish I didn’t – but I am convinced that we should not let those fears rule us. When people, and especially Christians, call for closed borders and/or only accepting Christian refugees, I am, quite frankly, appalled and embarrassed. In what Christian universe is this okay? Whatever happened to biblical principles like these: “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:1); “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35); “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers” (Deut. 10:19); “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).
Particularly, at this time of year, when (as various people have helpfully pointed out on my Facebook news feed) we celebrate the birth of Jesus who with Mary and Joseph had to flee death and become a refugee, it seems like the height of irony and hypocrisy for Christians to refuse to welcome refugees and strangers. (Or to quote a recent tweet: “If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people, seeking refuge, being turned away by the heartless.”) Let’s be Christian in the most grace-filled and compassionate sense of that word, refuse to give in to our fears, and open our hearts, minds, and hands to do what is right and what our faith tells us we should do. And that’s my opinion!