“Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
I have read several thought-provoking statements made by religious leaders in response to the recent executive order limiting immigration to the United States. Many have focused on the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger. Most poignant are the many commandments concerning the way “aliens” are to be treated within Israel. For example:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 24:22)
“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19 (NRSV)
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)
Similar ideas are expressed in the New Testament, which makes the point that Gentile believers are themselves “aliens” who have been welcomed graciously into the people of God (Ephesians 2:12 19; 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2:11-12). Believers are repeatedly commanded to show hospitality to strangers (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 3:9). Most notably, Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), which is to say, how we respond to strangers is de facto how we respond to Jesus.
All of this is important and relevant, but I’d like to focus on an even larger biblical theme, that of (overcoming) fear, because fear lies at the root of so many of our problems. Fear is ever present, of course, but it seems especially widespread today, in no small part because we are actively encouraged to be afraid.
Fear is a primal and powerful emotion. Humans are pre-wired to react strongly to perceived threats. That is perfectly understandable given the life-or-death stakes in our primitive past. It was far more prudent to flee at the first sign of danger than to ignore it. But there is a downside to this natural instinct. Studies have shown that persons placed in a threat state are less capable of thinking clearly, find it harder to attend to new information, and are more likely to come to erroneous conclusions. To varying degrees, we are predisposed to view anything unfamiliar, especially strangers, as a potential threat.
People are much more easily manipulated when threatened, a fact that countless political (and, I admit with sincere regret, religious) leaders have exploited throughout the centuries. This is not the strategy solely of either the right or the left. Both have from time to time used it to their advantage. The key is to identify an enemy who is “other,” even subhuman, not like us and so unworthy of our respect and kindness. If we can demonize, we can delegitimize and even destroy.
Fear is by its nature a blunt instrument. It speaks in generalities. To acknowledge individual differences among people is to weaken fear at its foundations. When I was young, we sometimes spoke of “using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.” You might or might not succeed, but you almost certainly would do far more damage than the ends could justify. Laws born of generalized fear predictably overreach. Many of the gravest errors in American history—the times we most failed to live up to our ideals—were the result.
Fear works. Fear consolidates power. Fear encourages us to cower beneath the empty shell of our principles. That’s the bad news. The good news is this: we do not need to be afraid.
Of course, it is reasonable to ask government to do a capable job of stopping people who want to kill us. But that is not action born of a generalized fear. Instead, it requires making discrete and careful distinctions. It does not require us to stigmatize entire classes of people, as we did, for example, when interning Japanese Americans during World War II.
The politics of fear should concern us all, Republicans and Democrats alike. “Be not afraid” is—and that by a considerable measure—one of the commonest biblical commands. Here is a small sample from across the whole of scripture:
Genesis 15:1; Exodus 14:13; Numbers 21:34; Deuteronomy 1:17; Joshua 1:9, 1 Samuel 12:20; 2 Kings 1:15; 1 Chronicles 22:13; Psalm 118:6; Isaiah 7:4; Jeremiah 1:8; Ezekiel 3:9; Daniel 10:12; Joel 2:21; Zechariah 8:13; Matthew 10:28; Luke 2:10; John 14:27; Acts 18:9; Hebrews 13:6; and Revelation 1:17.
We are told in 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love casts out fear.” We have in fact already been loved perfectly. We do not need to live out of fear. We are called instead to live out of love.
There is no perfect security in this world. We could each construct for ourselves a Howard Hughes bubble against every conceivable threat. We would still be vulnerable, and we ourselves would become the ultimate victims of our isolation.
The world is a complicated place, and answers to its problems are typically complicated. The desire for easy answers usually produces bad answers. Acting out of undifferentiated fear is one of the worst. We can do better. Indeed, as believers we are commanded to do so.