Did you ever have that kid in grade school whose parents let them do stuff your parents didn’t allow you to do? Cool stuff. Stuff your parents said wasn’t healthy, or was too expensive, or too dangerous. Stuff you secretly tried to figure out how to get away with, but could never quite bring yourself to attempt because you knew what kind of trouble you’d get into.
You know, the kid who got to go to Disney World every year, had a T.V. in their room, and rode a Pee Wee Herman bike with a speedometer, a head light, and heavy duty shocks.
And that kid wasn’t necessarily a jerk either, all arrogant and condescending. But she or he just seemed to live in a different world from you, one with a completely different set of rules and expectations . . . and dessert after every meal—even breakfast.
When I was in second grade, we had a kid like that. His name was Scotty Minor. He was an only child, and his parents had him when they were older . . . like in their thirties or something. So, they doted on him. He had the coolest lunchbox and the best bike. He always had real Hostess Twinkies in his lunch, not the lousy generic brand vanilla crème cookies. His mom packed him a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Every. day. Meanwhile, I’m sitting over there with my stupid Red Delicious apple and celery sticks.
One time, Scotty invited me for a sleepover. I could not contain my joy . . . for two reasons: 1) Scotty didn’t have a bed time, which meant we could stay up as late as we wanted, and 2) his parents let him watch Creature Feature, which was 1950s horror movies that came on at midnight on the weekend.
All of this was thrilling to me because: 1) I did have a bedtime, and 2) I never got to watch Creature Feature . . . due in no small part to the fact that I had a bedtime (and midnight was a distant and exotic land to me), and I was forbidden to watch scary movies—which I thought was pretty dumb and unenlightened behavior on my parents’ part, but I was going to Scotty Minor’s house, and what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
It was a great night. I don’t remember what we ate for supper, but it was something like Butter Brickle ice cream and RC cola. No celery sticks at Scotty Minor’s house, I don’t mind telling you.
What I do remember about that night, though, was midnight. We were up in Scotty’s room, which had a T.V., of course. He turned on Creature Feature, and I knew my life was about to be different. I didn’t know how, but it felt like something momentous was taking place.
I don’t remember the name of the movie, but I remember it was a black and white movie about some guy who was accidentally shrunk to the size of an ant, and how this little ant-guy tried to navigate the normal-sized world of his house. A really dark version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
It was pretty intense, but I was doing fine. Then this spider, the size of a small SUV started tracking the ant-guy. Big, hairy legged spider creeping around, sneaking up on this poor shrunken man. Stunned, the guy started running, but there’s no way he’s going to outrun that enormous spider.
Ant-guy runs past a pin cushion and grabs himself a sewing needle, which he wields like a pole-vaulter’s pole. Still, the spider’s stalking him.
Backing up, ant-guy falls down. And it’s clear to my seven year-old non-Reese-Peanut-Butter-cup-having self that ant-guy is about to get his insides sucked out of him by a giant mutant spider. At the last second, the guy thrusts the sewing needle up, hitting the spider in its abdomen—causing it to curl up in its death throes, legs still moving spastically, jerking and pitching.
At seven years-old, I had heard of heart attacks. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were, but I knew they were something generally to be avoided if you could—and that night at Scotty Minor’s house I was pretty sure my seven year-old heart had lived out its usefulness and was soon going to shut down. After all, I figured, a heart could not work as hard mine was working at that moment without blowing some sort of internal gasket.
I told Scotty to tell his parents that I was pretty sure I was dying, and that they should call my parents and gather my affects for disposition at the funeral home. It had been nice knowing everyone, but God was calling me home.
My dad showed up within a couple minutes. It was Chillicothe, Illinois, after all. He didn’t have to take the bypass.
Bleary-eyed, my dad got me in the car and said, “What were you doing to make you so afraid?”
And even though I was pretty sure I was dying, I knew that telling my father I had been up past midnight watching horror movies I was expressly forbidden from viewing was the wrong answer. And so I said what every seven year-old with a heart condition, staring into the vast abyss would say, “I’ll tell you what I wasn’t doing: I wasn’t watching Creature Feature.”
My dad just shook his head—as if to say, “I’m glad you’re all right. Seriously. But, come on son, it’s 1:00 in the morning.”
I understand that shake of the head, which in a way is a mixture of irritation and parental relief. I’m a parent. I’ve made that late night drive to pick up children who are too frightened to complete a sleepover.
And why do we go, dashing off into the darkness in our pajamas, sporting a horror-inducing case of bedhead? Because our kids are scared, and as parents we would stick our own hearts in a blender to keep those we love from being afraid.
Why? Because we’ve tasted fear ourselves, and we know that most of the time the fear is far worse than what we’re afraid of.
But, to be fair, fear offers an evolutionary advantage, doesn’t it? There was a time in our very ancient past when our early human ancestors survived only because their threat detectors were so finely tuned to their environment. If, for example, a saber-toothed tiger is an actual threat in your world, it pays to have a close relationship with your fear.
Our problem nowadays, however, is that our biggest threat is no longer large human-devouring mammals; our biggest threat is the person at work who keeps secretly stealing our locally-sourced micro-lot Kombucha out of the employee refrigerator.
Fear is critical for saving us from real dangers. Absent real danger, however, fear is maladaptive behavior. It’s not only not appropriate, it’s severely counterproductive.
But why is fear in the absence of real danger so destructive?
Because, beside the physical and emotional stress it places on the body, fear is an obstacle to love. How can you love anyone you live in fear of?
Indeed William Sloan Coffin once said that “the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear.”
One of the perils of a certain form of politics today is its willingness to weaponize fear. I’m increasingly convinced that politicians and cable news hosts who scapegoat minority populations in our midst are motivated less by an actual fear of those who are different than by the possibility that emerging forces threaten those who take for granted that the world owes them the privilege they enjoy. Consequently, these shameless hucksters work to make everybody who doesn’t look and think like them frightening.
Why, for instance, have we stopped receiving Syrian refugees? Politicians seem more than vexed by the plight of oppressed Syrians who remain under the thumb of their tyrannical leader, decrying the use of chemical weapons against Syrian children. So far so good, right? We want our leaders to have compassion for the embattled and the vulnerable.
Except that the logical next question is, “Why don’t we take in some of those endangered children right here in the United States? We can protect them from chemical warfare—if not in Flint, Michigan, then at least in Des Moines or Fort Wayne or St. Matthews.”
But we don’t protect those children by taking them into the bosom of our country. Why not?
The usual answer is that we can’t ensure that in taking in refugees we’re not letting in terrorists. It doesn’t matter that since 1980 not one single fatal terrorist act has been committed by a person who’s come to the United States as a refugee.
Because of the fear of Islam or the fear of brown people, and in order to retain a false sense of security, we’re willing to sacrifice the lives of children—rather than stare down the fear.
If terrorism and not Islam or people of color were the real fear, we’d have a national white guy registry—because that’s who commits most of the terrorist acts in this country.
As it is, we have our own huge terror production machine, the primary purpose of which is to whip up as much fear as possible against anyone who might threaten the world that has been so good to those in charge. Angry black men. Latinos who steal our jobs. Scheming LGBTQ people and their “agenda.” Bitter feminists. Plotting scientists and their environmentalist minions who want to ruin the extremely profitable fossil fuel industry.
Why do we need so many guns? Why do we need such a robust private prison industry? Why do we want everybody to celebrate Christmas and pray Christian prayers in schools? Why do some of us want to retain the right to refuse to bake wedding cakes for people we disapprove of? Why do we send national guard troops to protect us from a caravan of women and children fleeing violence in Central and South America? Why do we need to slander teachers looking to redeem their vocation as educators?
Because the folks in power need us to be afraid of “those people.” And if we’re preoccupied fearing “those people,” we may not stop for a moment, take a breath, collect our thoughts, and start paying attention to the really scary goons who manufacture “those people” left and right to distract us from the evil being committed by the bigwigs who write the laws and hold the checkbook.
But John, in our passage this morning, pulls the curtain back on those who create fear, who put up obstacles to love: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
Those who trump up fear are at odds with God, whose primary action and identity is love. Preachers preach. Engineers engineer. Doctors doctor. God loves.
Consequently, sowing fear against those who appear different is an act in direct opposition to God.
John says, “We love because God first loved us.” The way we typically read that passage is as an exhortation: “God loved us; therefore, we ought to also love others.”
But the older I get, the more convinced I am that it’s not an exhortation but a description: “God loved us; therefore, we are now capable of loving . . . where before we were incapable, bound up in our fear of losing our place to someone else.”
You know why I think this?
Because of the next two verses: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.”
And here’s the thing: The family we’re called to love isn’t just the one who gets back similar DNA results from Ancestry.com; it’s everybody—especially those we’ve been taught so assiduously to fear.
All the people we’re meant to fear aren’t only people whom God loves—which they are; but they’re the very people we need to love to demonstrate that we love God.
Swimmers swim. Runners run. Dancers dance. God loves. And those who claim to follow Jesus, love those whom others would have us fear.
Loving God can feel like loving an abstraction. Fortunately, God put a face on that abstraction. According to John, now we can see the face of God everywhere we turn.