Saturday, August 08, 2009

Christians and fear -- an unfortunate mix

If you are over 30 years old and grew up in a Protestant church, it's likely that you were exposed, at some point, to the "fire and brimstone" style of preaching. This style was meant to motivate repentance, baptism, conversion, etc... by filling people with the fear of hell. Responses to God would sometimes come in droves at a church service or revival meeting, fueled by images of a vengeful God ready to condemn sinners to an eternity of torment.

If you are over 50 years old and grew up in a Protestant church, it's likely that your experience with this style qualifies as more than "exposure". You very well may have heard this type of preaching on a regular basis.

While it's still heard in some churches, the fire and brimstone message has greatly decreased in most churches. Yet the legacy remains, and it carries over into the entire lives of those generations who lived through the messages of terror.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of this carryover in the political discussions of Christians. It seems like every week at church, I hear someone lamenting the current government and fearing that our country is becoming socialist. I've probably received 50 political emails in the past six weeks -- all from Christian/Republicans, and all laced with obvious notes of fear.

If you've read this blog before, you already know what I think about the use of fear to motivate religious activities. In short, I despise it.

But fear can be equally destructive when it's used to motivate political activism. I think this can be especially true for Christians, because the religious fear of their childhood combines with nationalistic/political fear and creates a behemoth of panic that brings terrible consequences. Which consequences, you might ask? Here's what I've observed over the past month:

1) Religious/Political fear masks the individual, and creates mob mentality

-- I've seen Christians lump all Democrats into a category of "them", with the word voiced in a tone of outright contempt. Not all Democrats are the same -- they have the same diversity as any other group. But if we're too scared to be open to this diversity, we'll never see a person, a soul. Instead we'll see only a group label.

2) Religious/Political fear distracts Christians from the more important issues in life

-- Jesus lived in a society of oppression, slavery, legal prostitution and unfair taxation. He apparently only spoke to one of these issues (taxes, which he said to pay unto Caesar). He focused on people, not politics. Why should his followers do any different?

-- When churches send missionaries to foreign countries with socialist/communist governments (China, Eastern Europe), are the missionaries sent with a political agenda? No, I've never seen that. They're sent to serve those in need. Why should the local missionaries (church members) do any different?

-- A common theme of the bible, especially the New Testament, is that once we know we are loved by God, there is no threat from man. Paul wrote of his contentment with life, and his security that came from God's grace. It's hard for Christians to realize and demonstrate this deep-seated security if they're constantly upset over things like taxes and health insurance.

3) Religious/Political fear separates us into nationalistic groups that aren't very Christian

-- Personal opinion: I don't think America is "God's nation", because I don't think there's any such thing. Think about it -- if people think that our century-long dominance of world affairs is evidence of God's blessing, do they confer the same special status on Ancient Egypt? How about 16th Century Spain? Superpowers come and go, and we've had a nice ride in America. But let's be careful about saying that our strength is divine blessing, if we won't say the same about previous world leaders. I believe that every nation is an equal-opportunity beloved of God.

4) Religious/Political fear leads to the demand to be heard at any cost, even if our arguments are inconsistent or flat-out untrue

-- Like I said earlier, I've gotten at least 50 political emails from Christian Republicans lately, both at home and at work. Every single one has had blatant lies in it. Shouldn't we do better than that? Honestly, I've got plenty of disagreements with the current agendas in Washington, but there's enough ammo there to critique the policies truthfully. Truth should outweigh our need to be heard.

-- I've heard several Christians lament government's role in healthcare, but not one has volunteered to give up Medicare. Several have complained about socialism, but not one of them mentioned a surrender of their social security check. Some of them practically worship at the altar of economist Milton Friedman and his capitalist teachings, but none of them embrace Friedman's case for the legalization of drugs. Just three examples of inconsistency, but we're blind to it because we're motivated by out biggest fears, instead of our highest aspirations.

If I was to rephrase those four observations in a positive way, it would be to encourage Christians to:

1) Cast aside group labels and look for the unique nature of each soul we meet
2) Focus on what we can control, and what really matters
3) Remember that there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free -- we are all God's handiwork
4) Hold up the ideals of truth, honor and respect above our own need to be heard

In closing, I'll cite two of my references on fear from the world of entertainment. The first is from the epic science-fiction book Dune, where the main character often repeats the mantra "Fear is the mind killer". He's right. When we're scared, we don't think straight. That's not good a good place to live.

The second is a song called "Drive" by the band Incubus. Here are some lyrics, and then I've also posted the video.

Sometimes, I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I can't help but ask myself how much I let the fear take the wheel and steer
It's driven me before and it seems to have a vague, haunting mass appeal
But lately I'm beginning to find that I should be the one behind the wheel

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there, with open arms and open eyes yeah
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there, I'll be there

So if I decide to waiver my chance to be one of the hive
Will I choose water over wine and hold my own and drive?
It's driven me before and it seems to be the way that everyone else gets around
But lately I'm beginning to find that when I drive myself my light is found


Bob said...

Good words here, Michael. I am over 50 and, while growing up in the United Methodist Church did not hear too much of the fire and brimstone stuff, was exposed to a fair amount through other avenues. I am with you -- I don't like it.

James Dobson wrote a horrible piece before the election, a hypothetical missive of what life was supposedly like after four years of President Obama. Talk about trying to incite fear.

I think guys like Rick Warren are much more on target by offering both candidates a chance to speak at his church, then praying at the inauguration. You know he does not agree with Obama on everything but he seems to conduct himself w/ a lot more class than some of his peers.

I also have many concerns about where things are going with this administration but I think we have to be careful about voicing those concerns. Reasonable minds, as reasonable Christian minds, can and will differ.

Haven't had a chance to listen to your sermon yet but I am looking forward to it.

MamaRose said...

Another REALLY GOOD & PERTINENT POST, BUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THANKS!!!!

I was JUST reminded of the verse in II Timothy 1:7--"For GOD did NOT give us a spirit of TIMIDITY (fear), BUT a spirit of POWER, of LOVE, and of SELF-DISCIPLINE"

I TOTALLY AGREE with you on ALL of this--and, I DID grow up HEARING ALL those Sermons ON/about 'fire & brimstone' & Jimmy Allen SURE DID make it ALL SEEM REAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Scared me & lots of others--to death! SHAME on them, at the time, for NOT preaching MORE about God's LOVE & MERCY & GRACE--like he has 'come to do'--later in HIS life.

Good point about our 'local' church 'missionaries'/MEMBERS--need to CONCENTRATE on folks' SOULS/personal needs, not their 'politics'!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have heard the SAME kind of FEARFUL things about our NATION & 'where' it's going & SHAME on any of us who are pushing that along & NOT talking about GOD'S LOVE & POWER & GRACE & FORGIVENSS!

We ARE IN a 'stressful' time in our Country, but that's WHEN/where our TRUE BELIEFS should/do 'come out'!!!!!


THIS SHOULD be a 'time' when our talking about WHAT OUR GOD means to US, that we SHOULD be able to BRING MORE SOULS TO HIM!!!!!!!!!!
LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Don said...

Of course you are right here. Very good post. I, unfortunately, see this described reaction in my own family and it makes me so sad.

~aj~ said...

Can I just say 'ditto' to what Don said? My thoughts exactly. ;)

Debby said...

Just yesterday, I heard a sermon on the radio. The man was preaching at the top of his lungs about not being satisfied with what we have, about praying for more. 'We pray and we pray,' he bellowed. 'Finally, God says, " that what you think you want?" If you keep praying to God for something, he'll get tired of listening to you, and you'll get it, but you won't like it..." I turned the radio off. It was the stupidest thing I've ever heard. God doesn't work like that, IMHO.

Tit for Tat said...

Great Post Michael. I love the song and I am now glad to know the lyrics, they are awesome.

Steve H. said...


WHile I was home in the States I thought I would listen to one of the Christian radio stations in the Detroit area I used to listen to. The particular show had nothing to do about Christ or the Kingdom of God but how as Christians we needed to stand against socialized medicine!

Are you kidding me!! Its scary how Christianity has been so intertwined in America with political policy!

quid said...

Michael -

Pulled from Debby's blog that Redwifey might be getting close to the big day. My heartfelt wishes for a great and wonderful experience to both of you.