Making Fear Reasonable

Posted by Jared Byas on December 8, 2015 in Christian faith and life Jared Byas politics 14 Comments

Fear Not Posterby Jared Byas

Granted: The Bible’s stance on violence is ambiguous at best. That’s why if you read it as a Biblicist, as Pete describes it, you might genuinely think God wants us to violently defend our nation-state against foreign enemies. I mean, it is right there in the Bible. Alternatively, if you read it as a Red-Letter Christian, who feels Jesus’ ethical stance trumps the implicit ethics of the Old Testament, you might think the Bible says we should “love our enemies” (presumably by not violently defending our nation-state against them).

Of course, the problem is that both are in our Bibles. So the Bible’s stance on violence really just depends on how you read it.

But that’s not true with fear.

Old Testament: Don’t be afraid.
New Testament: Don’t be afraid.

But we are so incredibly afraid.

So it seems appropriate to focus on that for a minute.

When it comes to fear, America has become the Woody-Allen-Character of cultures. Our anxiety oozes out of us at every Starbucks-owned corner. We’re afraid of Democrats winning another election, that the gays will overrun our society, that someone will take our kid, that someone will break into our car, that someone with a gun will shoot up whatever public space we find ourselves in, that our kid will get hurt, that we don’t have enough money, that Trump might win, and on and on, ad nauseam.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is how infrequently we admit our fear. And why would we admit it? To be afraid, as the Bible seems to be univocal about, is to mistrust God. And we can’t have a bunch of Christians confessing that they don’t trust God, now can we? No, we can’t. We’re even afraid to confess our fear.

So, we hide it behind other, more acceptable emotions and tasks, most of them summed up as:

“I’m just being safe.”

“I’m just being smart.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

So yes, “Be not afraid.”
But also, “Be not afraid to confess our fear.”

Because each time we convince ourselves that our fear is just “being smart,” we bury the root deeper and deeper into our hearts. We lose sight of the fear that motivates us and start buying the cover: that being afraid really is just being safe. And of course, it’s always better safe than sorry.

And the more we convince ourselves, the more we convince others. And our narrative reverberates to those around us. Yes, yes, we all begin to say. It’s not fear. It’s safety. And being safe is being smart. Right? Yes, yes, we all begin to say.

And eventually, “just being safe” can justify just about anything we need it to justify. “Just being safe” is what makes being consumed by fear seem like the most reasonable thing in the world.

So, yes, let’s all work toward “Be not afraid.” But in the meantime, may we all be very wary of making our fear reasonable.

  • Gary

    A couple thoughts on this.

    First, wrt “Of course, the problem is that both are in our Bibles. So the Bible’s stance on violence really just depends on how you read it.” Indeed. For a good number of years, I’ve considered the Bible a bit of a Rorschach Inkblot Test.

    When you ask someone about what the Bible says about [____], what you’ll learn is less about the inkblots on the page and more the other person. I’ve even wondered if this is a defined characteristic of a text considered as “sacred.” I’d also suggest that this characteristic isn’t just possibly often true about the Bible, but more poignantly about God. People can believe almost anything they want to believe about God and gods. The sky’s the limit. If you ask someone what they think God says about [____], you’ll likely gain deeper insight into what their visceral values are than if you ask the question more directly. Perhaps this is related to trust among members of a religious in-group–through the language of religion they’re able to safely reveal the inner with the other for validation, growth, and more. If you do gain any insight into God through the dialectic (whether with friend, enemy, stranger, or even prophet), I’d suggest it’s only through this human context.

    Second (and I’d say it’s acutely related to the first point), don’t follow anybody who fears more than you. Simply, they’re not on a better path. Or maybe not as far along on a path as they think or proclaim.

    Yet despite the breadth of belief, I doubt too many folks would ever ponder Jesus of Nazareth to say such as, “I’m just being safe.” Or, “I’m just being smart.” “Or, “Better safe than sorry.” That just doesn’t seem like that’s what he would have done.

    And here’s the sadness. Much of Christianity, as it’s been packaged and presented, has been substitutionary in its core constructs. He did; you don’t have to. In the last months, I think I’ve seen better reflection on the paradoxical perspectives of Jesus from texts of the Evangelists than what I’ve seen by Christians–the ones who are vocal, visible, and yet common too. The Christianity that I see most of my family and friends invested in is one that frankly is one I personally find no hope in. I see many Christians wrapped by fear.

    It’s immediate human fear. It’s grand eternal fear.

    In some regards at least, I don’t see the rise of the Nones in our culture as a turning away from God, but paradoxically a greater trust in God (whatever that is… Who cares?) than what Christian luminaries, leaders, family, friends, and neighbors seem to live in. When they’re too afraid to confess their fears, perhaps it’s best to just let them be. There are better roads ahead.

    • charlesburchfield

      wow! light! things just got bright in this room! jesus did so I can too! */:D

      • Carlos Bovell

        Yes! Because Jesus did so, that’s exactly why I have to (or at least sincerely try to do so from the heart). Well said indeed.

        “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” — Matt 10:21-23

        Grace and peace,


  • charlesburchfield

    not long ago I asked someone on a blog I follow to ask himself this question (or rather a query as the Quakers call it, or taking an inventory as Alcoholics Anonymous calls it);
    what do you fear and why do you fear it?
    I’ve heard it said somewhere that love perfected or a perfect love casts out all fear. I hope and pray it will and I try to keep a daily focus on that hope. the longer I discipline myself to do this I see a casting out of all fears and am able to get to process the memories of the ‘why I am fearing’ as they come up throughout my day. this is now what i suppose perfect love or love perfected is; this daily privilege of being in constant contact with a God who loves me and every detail of my life is important and significant to him & if I am willing to turn over my control freakyness I can hear him guiding me & instructing me in the way I should go and do and be in every domain of my life.
    well I ain’t sceeeerrrd to ask what am I afraid of and why am I afraid of it and I guess that’s the beginning of understanding what love perfected is cuz I’m asking someone who’s there
    Not the air.
    I like it that Hagar said of him that he was the God who sees me. */:D

  • Larry Behrendt

    Jared, kudos to your main point. The Bible does not promise a fear-free life. It sets forth firm rules about what we’re permitted and not permitted to do in response to fear.

    But I have to take issue with your introduction, about the “both” you claim to find in the Bible: the “implicit ethics” of the Old Testament, versus the potential trump card provided by “Jesus’ ethical stance.” Can’t we put this old, tired canard to rest?

    Jesus’ ethical stance is not something he offered up in opposition to the Old Testament. It is an interpretation of the Old Testament. In many cases, it is verbatim Old Testament. The “both” you find in the Bible appears in roughly equal measures in the Old Testament itself.

    Moreover, at least as presented in the New Testament, Jesus is not exactly a pacifist. He tells his followers to carry swords. When one of those swords is used in a potentiall deadly assault, Mark’s Jesus does not rebuke the attacker, and the rebuke of Luke’s Jesus is only, “No more of this!” In the same Gospel where Jesus preaches love of enemies, he tells eight parables where the enemies of God are thrown into a furnace, bound hand and foot, cast into darkness, cut and broken into pieces, crushed, destroyed (along with their cities) and otherwise consigned to miserable death. Let’s not forget the bloodbath that is the Book of Revelation. Or the interpretation of the NT that claims the majority of humankind will suffer an eternity of torment for the “crime” of disbelief. As your faithful Jewish reader, I cannot forget how Jesus’ condemnation of Jews in John’s Gospel, and Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel, have inspired centuries of violence beyond measure.

    Like you, I am invested in an interpretation of the New Testament that sees Jesus’ “ethical stance” as one of love, peace and brotherhood. I’ve even been known to defend this interpretation. But it’s an interpretation, and I think, it’s a generous interpretation. But if this generous take on the New Testament requires the juxtaposition of an ungenerous take on the Old, then something’s gone wrong, generously speaking.

    • Jared Byas

      Sure, I’ll put it to rest. Not that important to my larger point to say that it’s ambiguous within the testaments and I’d agree. Thanks Larry!

      • Larry Behrendt

        My pleasure! Keep up the good work.

    • Dean

      Larry, I have to take issue with this and I also take issue with Jared’s overly generous stance on how the Bible commands Christians to respond to the violence of this world. I would say that Jesus’ interpretation of the OT is not just an interpretation, it is THE interpretation. I would also so that we can’t just look to what Jesus said, but we have to look at his entire ministry, after all, he is the Word of God. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to imply that we have very profoundly misunderstood the OT, particularly with respect to violence (“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say to you do not resist an evil person.”). I would also say that Jesus said the entire OT was about him and that we are to interpret the OT in light of what Jesus did, not the other way around. We are to radically interpret it, as I would say Paul did. To do otherwise would “flatten” out the Bible, it would be to say that Jesus, being the perfect image of God, the culmination of the law, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, that somehow, his teachings are on the same footing as Moses. That’s simply not what the OT writers or anyone in the early Church believed. So we start with this foundation.

      Secondly, I think the only reasonable case that can be made is that Jesus commanded pacifism. I didn’t used to think that, but I think the argument is nearly air tight. Opponents of this view cite the exact same passages as you do, I’ve read the arguments ad nauseum in several responses to the recent terrorist events and they all fall flat in my opinion. They usually go something like this:

      1. The two swords verse. Gun advocates love this verse, but if you read the entire passage, there are several hints that the writer gives you to show that the swords Jesus asks them to bring were not for self defense, but to fulfill prophesy. Jesus says so himself, he says “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’ ; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” That sounds pretty explicit to me. Moreover, two swords were certainly not sufficient to defend Jesus against the Romans and on top of that, when Peter tries to use the sword in self defense, Jesus stops him and heals the guy’s ear instead. And Jesus’ response was not “No more of this”, again, he explains his rationale very clearly for why he stopped Peter, “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” There is no ambiguity there either.
      2. The cleansing of the Temple. You didn’t bring that up here, but again, this was a prophetic act (not to mention that the passage does not talk about Jesus actually hurting people). Jesus also explains why he does this by quoting from Isaiah and Jeremiah, so there was nothing “violent” about it at all.

      3. Book of Revelations and Hell/judgment Passages. Well this is finally where we land, and it’s probably the weakest of the three in terms of both exegesis and analogical reasoning. Exegesis 101 says you use clearer passages to interpret less clear passages, so if anything, you need apply the explicit teaching of Jesus against violence to Revelations, and I think when you do that, you will seem many remarkable hints that Revelations is not the violent bloodbath that you think. Just two things jump out, the first being that Jesus’ robe is blood soaked even before the battle begins, I think it is safe to say he is soaked in his own blood. The sword that Jesus carries comes out of his mouth, the sword, the Bible says, is the word of God. I think if you care to look, you will find that Revelations is not the best tool for those seeking to show that the Bible advocates the use of violence by Christians, even in self defense. Finally, this interpretation upends Jesus’ entire ministry (I guess loving your enemies doesn’t really work after all?!) and sounds exactly like the same kind of mistake that the Jews made when they thought that the Messiah was going to come and kill of their enemies and establish an earthly kingdom. Sound familiar? As for the hell/judgment passages, I think it’s a stretch to talk about what happens to saints and sinners the afterlife as an analogy for how Christians should act in this world. Again, the language is hyperbolic, it’s metaphoric, and there’s nothing in there to suggest that God’s judgment of sinners (however you want to interpret it) somehow gives Christians permission to use violence against others in this life. In fact, just the opposite, the fact that sinners will ultimately be judge by God takes that burden/responsibility from us as Christians, Paul speaks to this very explicitly.

      4. Finally, I would say that the first 300 years of Church history pretty much seals the deal in terms of Christian pacifism. It was clear that Paul and the other apostles all died martyrs and there is no record of them or anyone in the early Church using violence to defend themselves or their loved ones. I guess modern Christians would have to say they were foolish, misunderstood the scriptures, misunderstood Jesus’ teachings, that they were suicidal or crazy or delusional. What, what if by not standing up for themselves the Romans would crush this movement before it could even get off the ground? How could God’s glory be revealed to the world if that were to happen? Sound familiar?

      I would say that the Bible is pretty much crystal clear when it comes to Christian pacifism and what is most misunderstood and maligned about what that entails is that Christian pacifism is some sort of pansy, cowardly stance. Far from it, what it entails is the fullest commitment to what Jesus called Christians to do in a fallen world, which is to lay down your life for your friends, to challenge evil with unconditional love, even at the risk to your life and the lives of those you care about, which is why if you love your life, you will lose it and, if you hate your life on account of Jesus, that is how you attain eternal life. It’s an unfettered belief in the Resurrection, that death isn’t the end, that death has been conquered and because of that, there isn’t anything left to fear, least of all evil men, least of all those who could harm the body. That’s the message of the Gospel, that’s good news, that the hope that we bring to this fallen world. That’s the exact OPPOSITE, of what Jerry Falwell Jr. advocated the other day. There are tons of books that do a lot better job on this, but these are the tidbits I have collected over the years.

      • Larry Behrendt

        Dean, I’m not sure what you’re taking issue with. I’m with you on the nonviolent Jesus, in large part because it’s the Jesus worth caring about. If Jesus was the Zealot that Reza Aslan talks about, then to be blunt, he was kind of a nebbish, and I can’t figure out why anyone would have thought twice about him after his death.

        But you and I are interpreting. That’s precisely what we’re doing, and the clearest proof of this IS the existence of folks like Jerry Falwell Jr. Now please, I hope you go out into the world and proclaim that people like Falwell are distorting Christianity and do not belong in positions of Christian authority. That’s what I believe, but I’m Jewish, so I don’t have any say in who runs Christian universities. But Falwell’s not alone out there. The followers of his brand of Christianity may be in the majority among American professing Christians. Being in the majority doesn’t make him right, of course. But do you really believe that every single one of those Falwell Christians is insincere? That they haven’t studied their Bibles? That they couldn’t argue chapter and verse with you?

        Please. Argue your case with THEM. I’m on your side. Since your side here is the side of the angels, I will skip lecturing you about the dangers of supersessionism and the obligations that come with Jewish-Christian dialogue. You might want to be careful about statements concerning Jewish “mistakes,” for example, or what the OT writers believed. You might want to be more cognizant of the foundation I start from. No reason why you should want to alienate potential allies. Right?

        But mostly, I’m happy about what you’ve written here. Just take your message to where it will do most good!

        • Dean

          Point taken, I would have used different language if I knew you were Jewish, that’s typically how Christians talk to each other as an explanation for why more Jews are not Christians! Sorry about that. I’ve actually listened to a Rabbi debate a Christian as to whether any of the texts that we typically use to “prove” that Jesus is the Messiah and he was spot on, you do have to read a lot into the OT to get that, which is what Paul did and to take issue with that is definitely fair game. Evangelicals absolutely overstate the persuasiveness of the Gospel to non-believers, but I do think Jesus’ radical message of self-sacrificial non-violence is the singular issue that makes him unique and it depresses me that American Evangelicals have largely abandoned it wholesale and that even moderate and progressive Christians are “on the fence” so to speak, which is how this blog post read to me. I don’t think it’s an issue of sincerity, I think people read what they want into the Bible, sometimes that’s ok, sometimes the departure is such that I think you largely lose the whole thing (how did love your enemy turn into kill your enemy?). Thanks for your thoughts!

          • Larry Behrendt

            You’re welcome!

      • Wayfaring Michael

        Larry, like you, over the last few years I have come to believe that Jesus was clearly a pacifist. Yes, of course, we can and should study and pray over both testaments, though that is not a commonplace for many Christians. And I think that is especially true when it comes down to this question of violence, which I consider to be one of the bedrock issues.

        I saddens me so to see “Christians” like Jerry Falwell, Jr. promoting such mindless violence, just as it did when Franklin Graham was cheering on the war–organized and very mindful violence on a massive scale–a decade ago. We do indeed have to speak out about this as lovingly and as intelligently and compellingly and as often as we can.

        Since I’m coming to this a day late (worst strep throat EVER for me) I want to piggyback this with an appreciation for Larry’s comments. I feel that it was very Providential that when I was converted almost a decade ago one of the first Old Testament scholars I got to know through a chance interview on the radio was Robert Alter, and the book he was talking about was his translation and commentary of the Psalms. Since then I’ve added his Five Books of Moses and Wisdom books translations and commentaries to my little library, and read a number of his articles in essay collections. I will spend the rest of my life reading and studying the usual suspects on the Christian side–and I’m doing #Inspiration and Incarnation# now, with #Paul and His Recent Interpreters# on deck for a hint of who that includes–but I can’t imagine making my pilgrimage without the wisdom of the rabbis, from Rashi down to Abraham Heschel, along side them.

        Now more than ever we need to be clear that we are all sons and daughters of Abraham, and all worship on the One.

        Shalom to all!

  • Ross

    Pardon the view from outside the US, but isn’t a paranoid fear part of the US psyche? Maybe it is somehow rooted in the mindset from the beginning, of dissenters coming from an oppressive Europe? I’m not sure of pre-Cold war but the massive paranoia against communism and Russia following WWII was all pervasive (we even felt it in the UK and admittedly it was not groundless) and in the vacuum that the fall of communism left, this has been almost immediately filled by the fear of Islam.

    Maybe this is part of the state of man, but throughout history there has always been a fear of something and it seems to be the one uniting element we have. Generally we need a fear of something and certain elements of Christianity seem to run on it all the time.

    Admittedly the bible itself doesn’t help when it says in several NT places that you should fear nothing but God. An interesting approach to defeating fear, very ironic in fact.

  • Guest

    Jared Byas

    Larry Behrendt

    4 days ago

    Sure, I’ll put it to rest. Not that important to my larger point to
    say that it’s ambiguous within the testaments and I’d agree. Thanks

    For me at least, this destroys any credibility. So truth be told, which you have purposefully avoided, you don’t actually believe the very premise you used to suck people into you ideology. The actual truth is you cannot possibly reconcile the two with your point of view. It can’t be done because you are in fact comparing apples to oranges. Your comparing the authority of a nation and or legal system to obey God’s command to protect those they are responsible for, to that of an individual. But let’s be real. You don’t actually believe in the divinity of the word to begin with. How do I come to that conclusion you probably ask? By the new age nature of your arguments. Bottom line is, if Judeo/Christian faith has been wrong all along for thousands of years, there is no possible way or reason to believe you suddenly have it all figured out, unless you claim to be a new prophet. If that is the case at least have the decency to claim it as it is, a new religion, instead of disguising it. I hear often the concept that religion is man made, you make it appear that way for Christianity when you destroy its legacy. I have also found what people believe is largely based on which new version of scripture they read, this also leads people to believe it is just a man made religion, as I am certain no one would dare change the word of God to fit their own worldly views. Unfortunately I see that trend increasing every year. I am sure you are very proficient with English as you write books. Wouldn’t you think modern translations of the Bible would at least be able to be consistent with present tense versus past tense? When it replaces words, shouldn’t they replace them in a way that the meaning isn’t changed? The truth of the matter is, you simply want to change Christianity to fit an ideology that fits within the progressive ideology. You believe in your new Christ if you wish, that is up to you. If you truly believe Franklin Graham, or Jerry Fallwell Jr. are wrong, contact them. Don’t simply fluff your own market. Permissiveness isn’t love. Maybe when you get older you will see, more conservative people are not being hateful, they are trying to save you. That is what loving people actually do, not just use fluffy words.