The Thumb of Fear

John E. Phelan Jr is a recently retired senior professor of theological studies at North Park Seminary.

I love poetry. Nearly every morning I read one or more poems to begin my day. I love the evocative images and startling metaphors. Poets have a way of bringing us up short, of making us look at an overly familiar world anew. A good poet shifts your angle of vision—sometimes with a single striking line. One of my favorites is Mary Oliver. She is well known for nature poems, for poems about the adventures of her various dogs, and for evocations of her longtime hometown, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Recently I was struck by a line from her poem “May.” She describes an encounter with a snake, a copperhead—a poisonous and very aggressive snake. Rather than scooting away from her, it lunged toward her before “it flowed on across the road and down into the dark.” Her heart was pounding, and she stood still to quiet herself. She concludes, “After the excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.”

It was that last line that caught me: “When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.” These days it seems we are permanently under the thumb of fear. Wherever we stand on the key political, economic, and religious issues of the day, someone will tell us, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” If this person is elected or re-elected, or if this party or that faction holds on to or gains power, they warn that the world or the church or both will sink into a moral and spiritual quagmire, the economy will collapse into utter ruin, and our cities will be smoldering post-apocalyptic wastelands. Both liberals and conservatives use such tactics to terrify us, and both are very successful. In the end we can act out of fear rather than hope, despair rather than love, compulsion rather than compassion. We can see the “other” as evil, dangerous, hateful, disgusting, and incomprehensible. Rather than question and listen and love, we live under the thumb of fear and that thumb presses harder and harder. Our fears are killing us.

These days, wherever we stand on the key political, economic, and religious issues, someone will tell us, “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

The Bible actually says a good deal about fear. There is, of course, the oft-mentioned “fear of the Lord,” but that is about reverence and awe rather than abject terror (although there is a bit of that too!). In fact, whenever angels show up with a message from God, their first words are “fear not.”

But perhaps most famously 1 John tells us: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence in the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives our fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:16b-18, NIV).

John is not pondering here the danger to his 401(k) if the stock market falls. He is not perseverating over the possibility that the Democrats will seize control of the House or the Republicans hold on to the Senate. Rather, he is thinking about what happens when brothers and sisters are at odds. He is worried that perfect fear within the church has driven out love for one another. This, he knows, is the road to individual and communal death.

But the road to life is not an easy one. Fear and despair need to be repudiated. “If we say we love God,” he insists, “yet hate a brother or sister we are liars.” Hating someone wounds our own souls. To hate is to drink poison and expect the other person to die. If we live in fear and hate, we cannot live in faith and love; we cannot be fully alive. “Those who love God,” John concludes, “must love one another.” At the heart of the good news is the love of God for the alienated and irritating. At the heart of the good news is Jesus eating with anyone who would join him at table. He wasn’t afraid. And as John says, “In this world we are like Jesus.”

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2 Comments

  1. Good article John. We look at life from different angles because He made us each so unique. I am not able to love others that I disagree with without the Spirit empowering me to. Like the old Joe Isaacs song “I’ll be a Witness” says, “the Holy Ghost and the Word of God it doth agree”.

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