In the wise, charming and funny movie, You Can’t Take It with You (1938 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Frank Capra), there’s a conversation on a park bench between Alice Sycamore (played by Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James Stewart) about learning to be unafraid. Tony says he is very struck by the Sycamore family because “they have found what everyone is looking for – the courage to live”. Alice responds: “Grandpa taught us that most people are run by fear. He says that people are afraid of what they eat, what they drink, their jobs, their health, their future, scared to save money and scared to spend it. People are commercialized on fear. They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need. Grandpa taught us not to be afraid of anything and to do what we want to do.”
“They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.” We live in a culture of fear. Such exploitation continues unabated in 2017. Politicians throughout Europe and the USA are taking advantage of people’s fear of terrorism, promoting anti-Muslim immigration bans. Everywhere (according to the Ipsos polling institute in Paris) people estimate Muslim populations much higher than they actually are. For example, in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, voters estimate that 31% of the population are Muslim. The actual percentage is 7.5%. In every European country voters think the Muslim population is much higher than it actually is. Same is true in the U.S.A. where the Muslim population is 1% and respondents estimate 17%. Clearly fear distorts peoples’ perception of reality, and they are open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians (The Christian Century, March 15, 2017, p.14).
Without a spiritual anchor that grounds us in reality many people in the world today give way to fear and are tossed about on the waves of political manipulation. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world”. Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed this: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
We were in London in 1993 as a family and got on a bus at the Aldwych and journeyed 15 minutes to Russell Square where our hotel was. It was about 7 p.m. When we reached the hotel, we heard a loud noise in the distance, and turned on the TV. An IRA terrorist bomb had exploded on a bus at the very bus stop in the Aldwych where we had boarded 20 minutes previously. We were shaken to think we had missed death so narrowly. I don’t think it really sunk in what had happened, but we continued on with our vacation, determined not to let terrorism change our plans. That’s the way you have to live in the face of these threats. The world is safe for Westerners most of the time – we must exercise common sense precautions and then get on with our lives.
The Bible says as much about fear as anything else. The disciples of Jesus were not overjoyed by his resurrection – their first response was fear. The angelic messenger said to the women “do not be afraid” and then Jesus repeated those words before going on to reassure them “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:5, 10, 20). If we truly believe this promise of Jesus then we will let “love cast out fear” (1 John 4:18) and not let our fears oppress us. Love is the only antidote to fear.
Fear of terrorism is a red herring, used by right wing politicians to justify huge expenditures to the military industrial complex and cuts to social programs and cuts in taxes to the wealthy. No Americans have been killed in the last 40 years by persons from the seven nations named in President Trump’s immigration ban. Yet in the same period 1.4 million Americans have been killed by guns (murders, accidents and suicides, reported in The Christian Century, March 15, 2017). Nothing is done by the federal government to “ban” easy access to guns, including assault weapons. The exploitation of fear has led to the increasing militarization of America. Trump is surrounded by retired generals in his cabinet, the budget for diplomacy through the State Department has been cut, the Defense budget is more than half of all discretionary expenditures and Trump wants a 10% increase. Already the USA spends more on defense than the world’s next seven nations combined. “They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.”
Jesus rejected the ways of the world: violence, bullying and fear-mongering. He turned instead to the ways of God: forgiveness, trust, compassion (even to those who crucified him), and the love which overcomes fear. Love powers the courage to live. It does not mean you will not be afraid. Knowing you are loved means being able face reality and not let fear defeat you.