Do not be afraid!

FaithHopeLoveHere are excerpts from a thought-provoking essay by Marilynne Robinson, America’s greatest living novelist (next to Cormac McCarthy). As a liberal Calvinist, she is a curiosity. Her two-fold thesis is spot-on: “contemporary America is full of fear” and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Robinson reminds me of how Jesus often rebuked his disciples’ faithlessness, saying “Do not be afraid!”, and of how David yields his fear to God when the Philistines seized him in Gath, praying: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (56:3-4).

America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline—as in fact there always is—the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.”

Now, of course, there are numbers among us who have weapons that would blast that leaf to atoms, and feel brave as they did it, confirmed in their alarm by the fact that there are so very many leaves. But the point is the same. Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety however that word may be defined, can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. The text specifies the very real threat that fear itself poses—“you shall have no power to stand before your enemies.” There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective viewer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment should be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.

* * *

I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus’s teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word. We are not the first country where this has happened. The fact that it was the usual thing in Europe, and had been for many centuries, was one great reason for attempting to separate church and state here.

Jesus’s aphorism may be taken to mean simply that those who deal in violence are especially liable to suffer violence. True enough. But death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like “everlasting.”

The New York Review of Books: Marilynne Robinson, Fear

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