Fear destroys dialogue. It negates any possibility for civil conversation and rallies the troops to one extreme or the other. It draws a line in the sand and dares you to cross. And it dominates virtually every important American conversation.
Somewhere along the line, we have abandoned community and open-minded discussion for the satisfaction of “winning” the conversation. While we are guilty of stifling genuine conversation in a hundred different ways, I want to focus on what role fear has played in its slow death.
As I mentioned, “winning” has become the goal of discussion in our two most public and most important communal worlds- politics and religion. The tactic of choice is no necessarily to prove the merits of your own position, but rather to demonize your opponent’s position (or, if need to be, your opponent himself). The argument for me consists of explaining why you are uninformed and a danger to all of us. Rationality has no merit in this scenario- it doesn’t matter if my words are far-fetched, unlikely, or even a clear lie. If I can cause people to fear you and your position, then I’ve won the day.
This is most evidenced in modern day politics. Most political ads spend most of their valuable seconds attacking opponents and warning what life will look like if said opponent is elected. Fear played a huge role in our last presidential election. The right endorsed their candidate by painting dire pictures of our current president. The left endorsed their candidate by saying that we would be one failed heartbeat away from a certain vice presidential nominee if the opponent was elected. While the right is considerably more skilled at this particular nefarious tactic (Did you know that “Yes We Can” is really code for “Thank You Satan”?), the left is no innocent bystander. Even now, as we discuss border control, healthcare, anchor babies, and ground zero mosques- rational thought and genuine conversation that seeks to examine the merits of both sides is nowhere to be found. We only hear doomsday scenarios that try to manipulate us into voting one way or the other in the coming midterm elections. And it will work.
As disturbing as this political trend is, the fact that it dominates the religious landscape is far more troubling. While our Christian history is littered with systemically approved manipulative techniques, it seems that it has become an official component of Christian “pop culture” today. It shows itself in many forms. Most commonly, fear is used from the pulpit. The main reason for becoming a person of faith is, of course, to avoid an eternity of torment in the fiery underworld. Red-faced preachers shout and warn their congregations of the coming woes that Revelation so “clearly” tells us are coming (more on that topic later, im sure.)
One of our college professors grew up in rural South Carolina and explained to us what the annual camp meeting routine was. One night during the week they would gather all the young people together, turn out the lights, make sure the heat was on high, and scream at them about what hell would be like. Our professor told us, tongue in cheek, that he would get saved and sanctified every year! I’m sure many of us have experienced similar situations. I, for one, would get saved every year at the “Judgment House.” For those of you who don’t know what that is, I’ll explain. Every year a local church would rent out a warehouse and set up a bunch of rooms for different scenes. One scene would have some teenagers partying, and the next would have them in a terrible car wreck. Shortly thereafter we would be escorted into hell, where the fun loving teenagers were thrown. It was hot, humid, and full of people dressed as demons. The star, however, was Satan himself. He laughed at the teenagers demise and explained how they had fallen right into his little trap. We would be taken to similar scenes, some ending in Heaven (which always smelled like cigars) and some ending in Hell. Fear is an effective manipulator.
I would imagine that defenders of these sorts of programs would argue that the results speak for themselves. Actually, I would argue the same. And while they may be correct in that many “decisions” are made on the spot, how effective can it be if we are all getting saved again the next year and the year after that? Could it be that manipulating our emotions like guilt and fear isn’t an effective way to create disciples?
We American Christians have become a fear-mongering people. Everything we do is driven by fear. We go to the altar because of fear for our own eternal security. We take friends down the Roman road of salvation for fear for their eternal security…. Or is it because of fear that we may be judged if we don’t? We give our tithes out of fear that God will not bless us. We wear suits and ties for fear that the old ladies may judge us. We are known by our capacity to induce and feel fear. I humbly suggest an alternative by which people should recognize followers of Christ.
“By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 (NASB)
I propose that we eliminate fear as a religious tactic for rallying the troops. Although seemingly effective, it destroys unity and wears off with subsiding emotions. Let us be a people who love one another enough to listen, and more importantly learn from one another. Let us not view people of differing denominations, or even differing faiths as the enemy- but fellow sojourners. Let the fundamentalist among us not spread irrational fear about the postmodern church, and let the postmodern among us not discount the experience of the fundamentalist.
Let’s work together. Let’s talk together. Let’s build unity together. Let’s watch the Kingdom of God invade our world in a mighty way… together.