In recent days I have heard far right commentators use the propaganda of fear to capture the imagination of their audiences and to fuel irrational political agendas. They suggest that the ban on assault weapons will lead to taking away all guns, that illegal immigrants are ruining our country, or that we are heading toward becoming a socialist nation. Each of these lies, and the liars who tell them, only serve to create a false sense of fear.
Yet, as history has shown us, fear often leads to extremist reactions such as exclusion, isolationism, xenophobia and hate-filled violence. Moreover, fear suppresses our desire to live boldly as messengers of the gospel of peace.
One of the more interesting biblical stories detailing the contrast between faith and fear appears in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. In the midst of their nautical journey, a raging storm quickly arises and threatens their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear in the face of evil.
A deeper understanding of the force of the story rests on the ancient belief that the sea was the place of chaos that threatens God’s good creation. Simply put, people of the ancient world held the view that the sea was under the power of evil and the unpredictable storms on the sea were a challenge to the creation and a threat of the return of chaos.
In the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, the followers of the crucified Jesus may have identified this story as a narrative about their own persecutions at the hands of an oppressive regime. Feeling lost in a sea of violence and oppression, and longing for Christ’s victorious return, these early believers may have felt that God had left them, that Jesus was asleep.
The crux of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters: Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In one character, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear in the face of evil’s most powerful force, death. From the other, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence, even as evil seems to be winning.
This is brought out most clearly in the only two sentences spoken by these two characters. Faced with fear, Peter, seeing that Jesus is asleep, calls out, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Peter’s question exposes the volatile situation of the disciples, and the shock, even the distress they feel because Jesus is sleeping during the onslaught of evil’s power. They are overcome with the enormous propagation of fear – a fear that blinds them to the quiet presence of divine power that is with them in the midst of the storm.
In response to this fear, Jesus asks two extremely profound questions: “Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?” Through these questions, Jesus expresses disappointment and anger at the fear his disciples have, and he questions whether they have faith at all.
Yet, for Mark’s audience, Jesus’ query switches the natural human reaction to evil from fear to the divinely empowered response of faith. Jesus’ questions assume that his followers should have responded to the life-threatening storm with the faith that he himself had – a faith that gives abiding and confident assurance. But where does Jesus find such faith in the face of fear?
The answer can be found in another text from Mark. We are very familiar with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we see Jesus at one of his most human moments, a moment of vulnerability, despair and fear. The intensity of the scene cannot be overlooked, as the hot breath of fear breathes down Jesus’ neck as he comes closer to facing evil’s worse action, death.
Yet, Jesus does not let the manipulative power of fear overtake him. He turns to the God in whom he places his faith. This faith leads Jesus to reject the force of fear, to reject the violence that fear produces and to embrace the calling of God to go to the cross. Jesus’ faith overcomes his fear.
Fear is a powerful force. But if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live peacefully and courageously in the world. Fear will only lead us to irrational conclusions and intolerant, and even violent, responses. Faith, however, is the divinely given power that combats and defeats our fears. Indeed, faith gives us courage to reject fear and its reactions in order to live as Jesus lived.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.