Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Can We Stop Being Afraid Now?"

That was the question posed this morning in a newspaper column: now that Osama bin Laden is dead, can we go back to when we weren't concerned a terrorist attack loomed around the corner? Can we go back to a world where we trusted strangers? Not only can we keep our shoes on at the airport, but can we go back to carefree travel? Can we go back to when we were seriously discussing in this country how we could spend the "peace dividend" - the surplus funds we'd gathered because we weren't spending our money on war?
Can we stop being afraid now?
On the one hand, the answer to the question, sadly, is no: not only are bin Laden's compatriots still out there and now enraged, but the organization he founded has metastasized. Al Qaeda is now a franchise operation, and truth be told, there are probably plenty of would-be sole practitioners, too.
As Jesus said, "those who live by the sword, die by the sword" - and everyone's flashing swords these days. In reality, we probably were the beneficiaries of an unusual time in our history, back before 9/11/01 when we thought we were safe.
I knew things had changed irrevocably when an armed man with a teenaged accomplice terrorized the DC area by shooting people randomly at gas stations. What is it, after all, that keeps these things from happening all the time? When socialization has unraveled to the point where such a thing is possible, then fear becomes the order of the day, doesn't it?
After all, what defense can you have against someone who is willing to kill himself to kill you - particularly if you want to live?
So, no: on that level, we can't stop being afraid. There are all manner of deadly forces out there, from al Qaeda to a random crazy person, along with the usual death-dealers of accident, tragedy and illness. And shooting one death-dealer probably has little effect on all the rest.

But on another level, we just celebrated the event that means we CAN stop being afraid.
This is the essence of the Christian story.
The world is broken. Do you believe that? The world is so broken that people will kill other people just to prove they were right. The one thing we can't do is make life - but we have perfected so many ways to take it away, as though that were equivalent.
The world is so broken that some people take it upon themselves to terrorize other people: if that is the only way they can have power over others, they will do almost anything to create that condition.
The world is so broken that the highest creation of God - humans - spend their time in futile striving, but in time all of them will be dead.
It's into that kind of world that God sent Jesus. Jesus came to set things right. He taught us that we didn't know much about life, power, authority or what we were made for. He acted out the kind of compassion, humility and love we WERE made for, and then he shouldered all the brokenness himself and took it to the cross, while humanity mocked him for it.
That would be noble and all in itself, but his resurrection changed everything irrevocably. Now we know that he was right: it is all broken and the kingdom of God for which we were made is not like this at all. Now we know we can not only be forgiven for behaving that way but we can be made new so that we don't continue to behave that way. Now we know that God is making all things new and the future holds a day when the heavens and earth will be remade, when God will dwell in our midst and all the deadly, violent jockeying for power will end. Now we know God will keep all his promises.
To put our faith in Jesus is to transfer our citizenship from these earthly tribes where all is fighting, to the kingdom of God where Jesus has already won. To be a Christian is to be made new now, to have the very Spirit of God within us, shaping us. To be a Christian is to have our minds set on things above - and from that perspective to re-evaluate what's going on where we live.
So CAN we stop being afraid?
In our flesh, as the apostle Paul would put it, we're going to experience fear as we contemplate our vulnerability and even more, the vulnerability of those we love. Jesus was overwhelmed in the garden of Gethsemane, too: the will to survive is part of our original equipment.
But if we are cooperating with the Holy Spirit within, if we are getting the message from our reading of the Bible, we must not act from fear. How many times are we told in the pages of the New Testament not to be afraid?
Fear is the opposite of faith. Faith is a usually a decision, a commitment, a determination to do what we have been told by our Lord to do, no matter how we feel about it.
Imagine that brother Ananias, called to lay hands on the apostle Paul just after his Damascus Road experience (in Acts 9). Paul (called Saul then) was a true terrorist to Christians - he was out to arrest and imprison them as enemies of God! Ananias, in his flesh, had every reason to believe that obedience to the Lord in this call just might result in his own imprisonment or worse.
But he did what he was called to do. He put his faith in doing things God's way, not in what would have been understandable as self-defense. He chose faith, not fear.
As I read the fear-filled directives of many who call themselves Christians, but seem to ally themselves with building walls, getting bigger weapons, killing more enemies and most of all, sending away and keeping out those who just might look like someone who is a terrorist or is a member of the religion so many of the terrorists believe authorizes their behavior, I want to ask: since when are Christians supposed to act from fear?
Feel fear? Sure; can't avoid it. But enshrine fear? Make fear our operating value? No. Be not afraid.
It is in just such moments as these that our faith is tested and shows itself for what it is (or is not). Do we believe that God has his hand on us? That he knows what is best for us and that "all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose"? (Rom 8) Are we "seeking first the kingdom of God"? (Matt 6) Are we part of God's purpose, his ongoing work in the world - are we "in Christ"?
So no, we can't stop being afraid: "they" are still out there. Death still stalks humanity and now there are more ways to be killed, and more people who believe it is their duty to kill. How sad. How tragic. What a blight on the good creation of God. There is really little to celebrate; though bin Laden is dead, it doesn't change much - and even he was once somebody's baby, and it could have been different.
But yes, we CAN stop being afraid - we know that God is at work. We know that God's purposes are not all about violence and hatred and who is on top - we know, because of the way that Jesus behaved.
The Bible implies that we who belong to Jesus have already, in the spirit, begun the eternal life we've been saved to. We are already immortal, already have nothing of consequence to lose; we are already agents of God's very different kingdom in the midst of this broken world.
We can ignore all that. We can bury it under an avalanche of bitterness and anger and fear. We can prefer to fight this world's fights and grieve the spirit of God. We can miss out on what God is doing. We can choose to live in fear.
But if we do, what we are doing is not at all "Christian."

Addendum: just read this from _Luke for Everyone_ by NT Wright:
"The real slave-master, keeping the human race in bondage, is death itself. Earthly tyrants borrow power from death to boost their rule; that's why crucifixion was such a symbol of Roman authority. Victory over death robs the powers of their main threat...Jesus has led God's new people out of slavery, and now invites them to accompany him on the new journey to the promised land...Welcome to God's new world."

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