Note: Based on some feedback I’ve received since posting, I realize that my initial goal in writing eight months ago and my ultimate goal in writing last week both got a bit lost in the proverbial weeds. I’ve tried to tighten this post to make my points and goals more explicit.
About 8 months back, I wrote the following.
I rarely sink into a rage among this group of friends. All are people who care very deeply and who I’ve known for months, if not years.
However, last week I found myself seething, forcing myself to sit silently in my chair and listen respectfully to person after person describe their fears. Now, I realize that fears make us feel highly vulnerable, and so they can be very difficult to share with a group, especially if you aren’t very close to every person there. I realize that many people probably have deep-seated fears that they would not ever share with another person, let alone this little group of nine Baptists. Instead, person after person talked about terrorism, “people over there” and “crazies”. Next, someone brought up the presidential candidates. One person confessed trepidation at the idea of ISIS gaining access to a nuclear weapon.
At least no one started talking about spiders.
I studied terrorism extensively in college, so I know I have a different viewpoint than most. And I don’t deny that ISIS is a serious problem, and a daily concern. But I wanted to talk about fear. The most recent time I felt fear was the previous evening. I went to a friend’s house to play board games, and as I was coming home I realized I was coming home to an empty house. My roommate was away for the weekend, my neighbors were all probably asleep, the dog wasn’t alive to bark, the light was on in the carport but I couldn’t see into the darkness past the gate or in my neighbor’s backyard. Before I got out of my car, I had my house key in my hand, angled so it could slide into the lock as quickly as possible. I scanned 360 degrees before I got out and again when I stood straight. I listened carefully for footsteps, breathing, anything amiss. I unlocked the door and still knew I wasn’t safe. Not until the door was shut and locked behind me. And maybe not even then.
I am far more likely to be killed because of someone else’s road rage than I am to be killed by a terrorist of any kind (and there are so many kinds). I am at a much higher risk of being followed into my house and raped than anyone in the world is at risk of dying from radiation exposure due to a nuclear attack by ISIS.
Of the seven of us in this conversation, five were men. Up to that point, only men had been talking. While trying to tamp down my rage at all these fears that have so little bearing on how I live my life and what I worry about, the other women in the group spoke up, describing the moral ambiguity rising in our society and expressing her worries and fears for what her children will have to face, what they will fear as they grow up, how they will be safe and happy and good people in a society like the one ours is becoming.
Finally, something practical.
I built off of my friend’s fears for her children, describing how, in our society,people don’t do right for the sake of right. Here, freedoms and rights are not preserved for many, many people. I pointed out that, as a single woman, I am a more vulnerable target to random violence (not the most vulnerable, certainly) than men who share so much with me, including religion, skin color, socio-economic status, and geographic region. I described my fear of making eye contact with another driver because he might decide on that alone to follow me, to harass me, to hurt me. (It’s happened to me before, and I thank God that he never got out of his car.) I mentioned choices I make every day because of fear, like avoiding filling up with gas at night, like not walking between large vehicles in parking lots, like not going to the neighborhood park alone without texting someone else to let them know where I am and when I’ll be back.
My fellow Christians heard me. Their eyes softened. There was a pause.
One of the men started resumed talking about the “moral decay of our country” and brought up a presidential candidate. And accompanying my rage this time was disappointment. Isolation. I wanted them to be honest about their daily fears, even if they were different from mine. But no one had mentioned cancer or car accidents. No one did.
[Before I go further, I want to point out that every single one of us was white. Every one. Every one, as far as I know, is heterosexual and abled and neuro-typical. We are draped in privilege, swaddled in it from birth. I have real fears related to being a woman, but my fears as a white woman are nothing compared to the fears of people of color, and specifically of women of color. People with disabilities have entirely different and entirely valid fears. And we weren’t even addressing those depths, just the gender discrepancy in the fears.]
I wanted to ask these men, “When was the last time you felt fear? Maybe it was over a news headline but did you ever consider what you would feel if you were a refugee who no one wants to help because they think you might be part of the same terrorist group you’re trying to escape?” I wanted to scream, “Are you thinking about other people’s lives? Are you really more worried about Hillary’s emails than whether someone is going to target you just for existing? Are you really more concerned about Sanders’ socialist policies than whether your father’s cancer will come up in you?”
I might have been letting my anger carry me a little ways, but I don’t think I was being unreasonable to want these Christians to be personal, to match vulnerability with vulnerability as we talked about our lives. Why else are we here, anyway, but to share and support one another as a community? That’s the kind of living Christ encourages.
Again, I don’t mean to imply that terrorism and politics aren’t important concerns, aren’t daily threats for many, many people. They are. These issues and these hurting people should be prayed over fervently. The fears my friends shared valid. And I know they care deeply about their loved ones, friends, and the state of our country and world.
But when I think about fear in the Bible, I think about a son dying, a sinking boat, a terrible storm, a troubling message, a dead spouse, a flood, and standing in the very presence of God. Were more people afraid of Caesar or of the single armed centurion? Of a mass conspiracy or of being recognized by a servant in the firelight? All are worthy of fear, though we Christians are not called to fear but power, and yet I still feel frustrated, angry, disappointed by the way the conversation played out.
My relationship with fear has changed since I wrote this. I better understand now that people can take the words of their elected (and not-yet elected) leaders as license to do or say to you whatever they want. To threaten you. To hit you. To try to kiss you. And worse.
The people around me that day eight months ago were right to fear the election and the candidates, and I wish I had better understood the connection between these macro issues and individuals’ personal fears. I felt so frustrated then, but maybe my friends knew what they were talking about better than I did.
Yet I still find it disturbing that there was such a difference between what my female friend and I were willing to admit as daily fears and what the men were. I think this is a problem. But I’m most disturbed that, filled with so much anger, such frustration, I didn’t ask more questions. I didn’t say, “This is what I think you mean. Is that right?”
In the months since that conversation, let me tell you some of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been listening to marginalized people describe the harassment they face at rest stops and in restaurants and in the checkout line. I’ve been reporting Neo-Nazis who are photoshoping the faces of Jewish people into photos of gas chambers. I’ve been retweeting stories of brutality and terror. I’ve been sharing others’ words about how useless, worthless, hated, inhuman they’ve been made to feel. I’ve been sharing ways to support and help people being harassment in public. But I’ve been doing this almost exclusively on Twitter. Few people in my life are on Twitter, and if I see a problem in my reality, I need to address it in the places where my views might do some good. That includes Facebook. That includes a dinner out with friends.
I didn’t say what I was thinking then, but I’ve have eight months to think about it and to see the truth in my friends’ words, as well as realize some related truths.
I still fear the single centurion more than Caesar, but my fear of Caesar is greatly increased because of what people who think of themselves as centurions have done and said as a result of Caesar’s words and actions. They feel justified. And Caesar doesn’t have to deputize every such person to make him or them dangerous. That is the link between the macro and the personal.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that the second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. For most people like me (white, abled, heterosexual, etc.), our civil rights weren’t under threat this election. I wish I had urged my friends to listen to people who aren’t like us, to hear their fears and find the macro connections and meet their vulnerability with our own.
I wish I’d made my opinion more plain, so I’m doing so here: I believe that loving others means be afraid of what marginalized people are afraid of, then using your vote and voice to fight for their rights as if they were your rights. I believe that is a significant way we white, abled, heterosexual Christians need to love our neighbors. I believe that I have been failing miserably at loving other people.