Fear is blinding our eyes and deafening our ears to the words of Jesus that command us to love our enemies.
The year of missionary home assignment ended and my husband and I, along with our four young children, headed back to Israel with heavy suitcases and hearts. It was not just the farewells that made leaving difficult, but we were moving from Nazareth to Jerusalem as soon as we arrived. We didn’t know what was ahead. Earlier that summer of 1990 a ruler named Saddam Hussein began to rant and rave, but that was not unusual. After all, anger and bullying were common place in the global neighborhood where we lived.
But the threats intensified and the country prepared for war. Our children attended an international school and brought home bulletins informing us about the safety precautions they intended to make—gas masks, evacuation procedures, air raid drills, and safe rooms. The tension, stress and fear in Jerusalem increased daily.
As parents, we tried to hide our anxiety and fear from our children, but that wasn’t easy since we were constantly listening to a radio or TV broadcast for an update of the situation. On the local level, the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians was escalating. It was a daily challenge to keep fear from consuming our lives. The “worse case” scenario seemed to be turning into a reality.
On January 17, 1991, Hussein shot missiles towards Israel. But before that happened, we were relocated to Cyprus until the Gulf War had ended. It was difficult to leave our church family, friends, and neighbors behind but we had four children and were relieved to get them out of harm’s way. Our two teenagers were angry that they had to leave school and friends; our younger two were relieved to leave behind the air raid sirens and gas masks.
Living in an environment that is full of fear is exhausting. Our bodies and spirits were worn down by the time we arrived in Cyprus. That’s what fear does. That crisis ended, but there is always another conflict in the Middle East. The handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 brought a few years of peace but by the late 1990s the violence between Palestinians and Israelis was worse than ever.
We heard F16 jets fly over our apartment on their way to drop bombs in Bethlehem and we felt our apartment shake when a Palestinian suicide bomber exploded a bomb on a bus near our neighborhood. Our children were no longer small, and knew the realities of the conflict but learned to live with it. We tried to live normal lives with a few extra precautions: no riding public buses or hanging out at cafes with friends.
When one of our college-aged daughters was home for a short period, she had been invited to a friend’s home for dinner that required a 30-minute drive on an isolated highway. She was an adult now, experienced at making her own decision. But I knew that a few days earlier, a terrorist had killed a priest on the very road she would travel. A sinking feeling came over me as she told me her plans. I really wanted her to cancel her dinner plans but didn’t want to force that decision on her.
Finally she called the friend to check on the situation. To my great relief, the friends told her not to come, it wasn’t safe. A good dose of fear can guide us to wise decisions; fear was given to us by God to protect and help us. When living in the Middle East, we listened to our fears many times and took the safer road to church, or canceled a trip to an unstable area.
Our son Reuben was nine years old when a large stone was thrown through our van window and hit him in the head. It scared the whole family. All of us felt more vulnerable, but especially Reuben. Lindell and I prayed, “We can’t stay if our kids are consumed with fear. Help them be able to handle their fears. Keep their fears from growing into hate.” A six-month home assignment allowed a break at just the right time, and God answered our prayers.
Paradise Road is a movie that came out in 1997 based on the true WWII story of foreign women who were POWs at a Japanese camp. The atrocities were horrific. Hate, fear, and death permeated the camp. The two main characters, a socialite and a missionary, were unlikely friends who worked hard to lift the morale of the prisoners. My favorite part of the movie is this conversation.
Socialite: “You don't hate them do you?”
Socialite: “Why not?”
Missionary: “I've tried, but I can't bring myself to hate people. The worse they behave, the sorrier I feel for them.”
What we fear most are those things over which we feel we have no control. Illness, joblessness, poverty, violence, being alone, war, and terrorism are just a few on a long list. Our lives overseas taught us that fear is the enemy of our souls and can rob us of peace, joy, trust, faith, and even our ability to love. Fear keeps repeating “what if,” but we’ve learned to respond with “even when.”
Fear keeps repeating “what if,” but we’ve learned to respond with “even when.”
We prayed for wisdom, safety, the binding of evil, but also prayed for our thoughts, words, and actions to be taken captive by love. An important lesson we learned was this: God intended us to find our strength and peace in Him not in the power and protection of governments. Only God can help us “love our enemies” instead of allowing our fear to become hate that steals our peace in Him.
Lindell and I moved back to the U.S. a few years ago and were surprised to find how the media and politicians take advantage of the fears that were plaguing many people. It’s no wonder—fear sells. In the 1960s people paid to have bomb shelters built. At the end of the 20th century, Y2K panic caused people to stockpile food, water and supplies in homemade safe rooms.
Now, in the 21st century, fear is blinding our eyes and deafening our ears to the words of Jesus that command us to love our enemies. It’s easy to be swept up in the inflammatory rhetoric that promises to empower us against the enemy. The truth is terrorism, in all its forms, will continue to plague the modern world we live it. Evil is at work in our world until the end of time.
Barry Glassner, sociologist and president of Lewis and Clark College, says that fear doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When there is culture-based fear, politicians, companies and ideologies exploit that fear. It leaves us with the worry that we will no longer be kept safe and that worry will only increase our fear level. But as followers of Christ, we must show the world that we handle our fears differently. Love must orient our response to those who are “the wrong kind of people.” Jesus had no problem with the “other.” He made it a practice to reach out to the prostitute, the leper, even the crooked government official (tax collector). And God chose Saul, who once terrorized the early Christians, to bring good news to thousands.
Adlous Huxley wrote in one of his novels, “Love casts out fear; but conversely fear casts out love.” That is what can happen—fear trumps love and swallows up our compassion for the “other.” The world is watching Christians to see how they respond in these fear dominated days. Do we hunker down and respond with anger and inflammatory words? As a people of faith, as the church, we are at our best when we love our enemies and don’t hate them. That’s what Christ’s followers are called to do, love when it doesn’t make sense. Love when it feels counter-productive to your need of self-preservation.
Theologian N. T. Wright wrote in his book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is:
Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion.
Christians should not let our fears be the driving force in our lives. Huffington Post posted Nazarene pastor Chris Gilmore’s blog “When Christians Fear the Wrong Things.” He wrote, “I am afraid that when we respond in fear to people, politics, religions and whatever things are different than us, we are not responding in the way of Christ. I am afraid that fearing ‘the other’ will leave me only loving myself.”
May we find freedom from fear with all of its torments so we, as the church can respond with love to our sin sick world.
Kay Browning served with her husband, Lindell, in the Middle East, and now reside nearer family in the U.S.