Fear is a distressing, unpleasant emotion evoked by the dread of or threat of imminent harm. Its source is our anticipating a loss of some kind. Friday the worst fear of the parents of twenty elementary school children in Connecticut validated for parents across our nation that to harbor such fear in our hearts is, unfortunately, reasonable. That the loss of life was limited as much as it was speaks of lock down drills having trained staff and students what to do. The death of six members of the faculty and staff testifies to responsible and sacrificial behavior. That it occurred in an elementary school of 600 students that did everything right does little to assure us. While the horrendous act of acts of mass violence, first in Portland and then in Newtown, Connecticut, lit up the national news, our local news reported on two of the three bodies found in my neighborhood last week. Most Americans live in a state of hyper-vigilance, being really anxious and in fear mode most of the time.
Fear effects the physiology of our body and the chemical balance of our brain. While stress can generate fear, fear itself magnifies that stress sometimes beyond our ability to cope. Fear can cause tunnel vision, the loss of color perception, it distorts our perception of both time and depth. Being fearful chemically restricts our ability to access the higher functions of our brain, where our values reside. Anxiety keeps us stuck in that part of the brain that focuses on protecting all that is important to us. It’s hard wired into our DNA. If you live and breath basketball every day you will become a good basketball player. If you live and breath woodworking every day you will become a craftsman. If you live and breath fear or anger every day you will be a fearful and angry person.
Our public discourse force feeds us fear. Our economic lives seem suspended on tenterhooks. Religious charlatans line their pockets by marketing fear, both for this world and the next. How can we avoid living lives hyper-vigilance. Where can we go? Is there a place of safety, a place of peace, to know God’s Shalom?
Just prior to our recent national election Mark Danner, writing from Ramallah for the New York Review of Books, concluded his article saying: “Across eleven years of the war on terror, and two presidents, the politics of fear have not been forestalled, or banished, or defeated. The politics of fear have been embodied in the country’s permanent policies, without comment or objection by its citizenry. The politics of fear have won.” Its article “Islam Employs Fear as a Terror Tactic” drew me to the recent edition of an ostensibly Christian publication. Among the other articles the magazine offered were these titles: “Are You Ready for America’s Impending ‘Economic Armageddon’?” Fortunately there was another article on how Christians can benefit from the “fiscal cliff’. Another was “Where Will America Be at the End of Time?” The next was about a new Jbook which “Echoes Fears of Syrian use of WMD”. How about this one “The Spiritual Avalanche That Could Kill Millions”, described as an expose’ of “heretical teachings from Christian pastors and teachers that will cause the spiritual death of millions”. What was that criticism of Islam? Oh yes, that they employed fear as a terror tactic!
The events of this last week, as much as the commemoration of the attack on the World Trade Center or the decimation of downtown Oklahoma city which included the death of 19 small children reminds us that we have never been as safe and secure from violence as we’ve wanted to think. When in our community we see a reduction the number of officers on the street and the numbers of firefighters available and we process the expectation of mile and a half long coal trains restricting access to emergency medical care our anxiety rises.
And then comes the familiar passage in Luke that marks for us Christmas. It think it is here we meet the first New Testament Quakers.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
I didn’t get past the first verse of this passage of scripture. Something grabbed my attention for the very first time. It is the quintessential emissary of peace and ’good tidings of great joy’, no less than the angel of the Lord, who strikes fear into the heart of the shepherds. The shepherds were simply ‘abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night’ which was their normal routine. In the big cities fear of the oppression of the Roman occupation authorities and forces had to have been common. Fear reigned within the family of Herod, among his wives, his sons and daughters. They didn’t live in fear And, of all people, why should they have lived in fear. . A battle raged on the religious front and chaos was the rule. Jews who had returned to Palestine from where their ancestors had been in captivity had introduced alien practices to the faith. The Pharisees, a lay movement, called Judaism to faithful practices based in the Torah that spread beyond the Temple to daily life. The Sadducees, a priestly and aristocratic minority, were the upper crust and maintained lucrative ties to the Roman occupiers. There were the zealots who stirred up the poor and less educated to throw off the Roman chains. The Essenes, communists of the first order, opposed to the Temple and its priest hood. Don’t for a minute imagine that the life of first century residents of Judea was without fear.
You might say shepherds lived ‘lamb to mouth’. There’s was a very common profession in Judea because of the terrain. All the patriarchs and Moses were shepherds and even more important David had been a shepherd. A couple of the prophets came from the ranks of shepherds. So here they get first billing among all the extra’s in the Life of Jesus. People generally considered them untrustworthy and treated them as social outcasts. But there is no reason for us to think that these particular shepherds weren’t good shepherds. They kept their heads down and stayed out of sight. They had little to fear because they had little more to lose. It couldn’t have been a more peaceful scene. At that point they were unafraid … until, as Luke tells it, “lo” the angel of the Lord, the harbinger of peace and “good tidings of great joy” scared them out of their wits. The angels’ first words of “Fear not” it didn’t quell their panic.
It never before occurred to me that the voice of peace and good will might be the cause of another person’s panic. Do we pacifist Quakers may need to develop a sensitivity to how our pronouncements on avoiding or resolving conflicts, or how to make corporate decisions without voting, or the advisability of cutting Federal allocations for the military or even how to resolve the decades long conflict in the middle east could, despite our best intentions, stir fear in the hearts of others. Does it increase someone’s discomfort for us to suggest that arming yourself, as did the mother of the young man who after killing her went on to slaughter those adults and children at the elementary school with her weaponsl, is ultimately counter productive?
When you have entrusted your self and all you have to your own or to other peoples’ wits you’d be crazy to not be afraid – which means you do not have peace. And then when someone comes along and tells you that the trust you put in the military strength or the economic might of your country is misplaced or tells you that arming yourself to protect what you have and those you love is self defeating – I think, just like the Shepherds, will make you afraid. Peacefulness and fearfulness are contradictory. While we can generate fear in someone else, peace can’t be developed or fabricated. It is the sense of well-being.
The Jewish Peace Fellowship says that Psalms 34:15 challenges them to ‘seek peace and to pursue it’ and that shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is “the Name of God and the Name of the Messiah”. Micah 4:4 gives us a picture of what peace looks like. It reads: But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid….” Being at peace isn’t a result of all the work you do to make yourself secure. It is finally a question of trust. Possessing a radical trust in a loving God who knows you and knows your needs, beyond enabling you to endure despicable circumstances, actually offers peace of mind and a sense of well being. That’s what it means to live under one’s vine and one’s fig tree, to live in relationship with our creator. But what if your belief stops short of trust?
The shepherds were afraid until they did the unthinkable – they left their wooly charges on the moonlit pasture and took a walk to see what love could do. Only then, after a brief visit in the stable with the vulnerable infant and his exhausted and stressed out parents were they able to return, as Luke says in the 20th verse: “ And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.