Fear is an ugly thing. A couple days ago I wrote about how my own fears about potential responses to opinions I might express on social media sometimes keep me from standing up for what I believe is right – in this case, how we think about Syrian refugees. I could go on about other fears I’ve had or still have that sometimes cause me significant anxiety: cancer or other serious illness, something bad happening to a member of my family, financial concerns, interpersonal and organizational conflict, violence directed at me or someone I love, and so on. While these are fears I’ve faced personally, there are other more “global” fears that afflict many people to a greater or lesser extent: economic collapse and financial disaster, crime, loss of freedom and our way of life, persecution, death, catastrophic illness, and of course the big one right now, terrorism.
Fear of terrorism, specifically as perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Quaeda, is making many Americans irrational and/or mean-spirited, if you ask me. Witness the following:
- one presidential candidate didn’t completely disavow the idea of registering Muslims in the U.S. in some kind of database, and said that it might also be a good idea to close mosques;
- another made the unfortunate (and perhaps unintentional – I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt) comparison of Syrian refugees with rabid dogs;
- others suggest allowing only refugees who can verify they are Christian to enter the country;
- national polls show that a majority of Americans want to stop the flow (however small it has been so far) of Syrian refugees into the U.S.;
- the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill prohibiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entry into the United States until security and background protocols are strengthened (never mind that security for incoming refugees is already pretty strict) and the Senate is working on similar legislation;
- more than half of the nation’s governors have stated they will not accept refugees into their states;
- the comments sections after many online news stories about refugees are filled with hate, with truly vile sentiments being expressed by people, including some purporting to be Christians.
And we could go on. Presidential candidates and others are playing to our worst fears, and many people are allowing themselves to succumb to those fears against all reason.
This all makes me very sad and disheartened. While parallels to U.S. hysteria about Germans during World Wars I and II and about Japanese during World War II are not exact, they are close enough that they should give us pause. The same attitudes and fears that drove our response then seem prevalent today. Do we really want to repeat what we did when we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Have we learned nothing from history? And then there is the hypocrisy and blindness of being so concerned about the relatively small threat of being killed by terrorism here in the U.S. that we close our borders to refugees who are fleeing actual terrorism, while at the same time not having the national will to do much of anything about preventing the daily toll of death by gun violence in our streets, schools, and homes.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and I confess that it has motivated me far more often than I care to admit to think and act in ways that I wish I hadn’t. I really do understand the fear. But I don’t want to be ruled by it. Fear is not emotionally healthy and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful either, especially when it turns me into something other than my best self. Plus, for Christians, the Bible repeatedly tells us not to be afraid. During a particularly stressful time of my life a number of years ago, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would quote Psalm 23 to myself, including these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” More often than not, I would soon fall asleep – not because the psalm was some magic potion, or because the fear was gone, but perhaps because I had focused on something other than the fear and been reminded of something/someone greater than myself and my fears.
Fortunately, there are rays of hope, decency, and compassion; not everyone is giving in to fear. Many religious organizations (such as Mennonite Central Committee, National Association of Evangelicals, and Sojourners) have categorically stated the need to reach out to Syrian refugees and remain faithful to the clear call of Scripture. My own Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has indicated that we will accept refugees into our state, despite the political backlash he is receiving. Many individual Christians are speaking out about the need to follow the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger,” reminding us that Jesus himself was a refugee; many are making valiant efforts to counteract misinformation with facts, about what it actually takes to be able to enter the country as a refugee, for example. And many are trying to inject the toxic conversation with kindness, compassion, and common sense, often at the risk of being ridiculed and called horrible names. All of these things give me hope that we will all come to our senses and live up to the values not only of our faith but also of our country.
I want to have the courage to stand up for what I believe is right and not give in to fear, to be compassionate and welcoming to people in great need, including refugees from Syria.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).