Many voices have spoken with profound eloquence in response to our latest reminder of how the deranged anger of one person can erupt in unbelievable violence.
These voices have helped me see and believe that such violence is not isolated misbehavior but an expression of the way fear has managed to take control of our society.
I’m thinking of fear as more pervasive than the natural and healthy response to danger – the fear that makes us move away from a rattlesnake or avoid engaging in risky activities without proper safety equipment, or even the fear that another event like the Charleston shootings can happen again.
My earlier reflection focused on fear as a political tactic and lamented its pervasive use in our electoral campaigns.
Listening to our public conversation over the past few months has led me to wonder if fear has moved beyond a political strategy to a cultural sickness.
The fear that seems to have a grip on our collective consciousness can be seen in two ways.
First, in its pathological expressions when fear moves from caution to control, often referred to as phobias, that cripple us from living fully as the free and creative beings we are created to be.
This pathological fear has broader expression than might first appear.
It is the fear of not being in control that fuels bullying in its many forms.
Fear of losing one’s certainty in matters of faith feeds fundamentalism. Fear of losing privilege and dominance emboldens resistance to diversity. Fear of losing one’s sense of superiority feeds the ever-festering sore of racism.
Fear of change can lead to opposition to emerging social frameworks that facilitate the compassion and justice that one even claims to believe in.
Fear of disapproval and rejection can lead us to be silent in the presence of degrading or contemptuous expressions of prejudice and disrespect.
Fear of the wilderness in any of its forms can prevent us from being open to the discoveries that await us there.
The certainties of bondage in Egypt have a strong appeal over the possibilities that lie beyond the liberation of the Exodus (Exodus 16:1-3).
The vulnerabilities to fear’s control lie within all of us, and we are susceptible to the second arena of fear’s power: the work of those who understand fear and exploit it for agendas that are detrimental to the common good.
If the first arena is pathological in its crippling effects, the second is demonic in its ability to influence our thought and behavior.
For every fear that is evident or latent in us, there are people who are poised to blow on those coals and ignite them from latent to active expression.
Our natural fear of the uncertain “other” can be fanned into an open resistance to the hospitality that is an essential component of community.
Our natural caution of being taken advantage of can be nourished into an opposition to any proposal that threatens the nourisher’s advantage.
Only an extreme lunatic fringe openly encourages direct violence that brings society to a hand-wringing standstill.
But there are other voices who appeal to that fear and fertilize its roots in a way that keeps it alive and part of our public consciousness.
A 21-year-old young man who procures a gun and embarks on a violent crusade to stand up against those who are taking his country away doesn’t come up with that idea on his own.
All of us have heard that rhetoric and have heard it go unchallenged in the various settings of our lives.
What can we do to loosen the grip of both the pathological expression and the demonic use of fear that lie at the heart of everything from racism to the monetary captivity of our political process?
Perhaps the frequent gospel admonition of “fear not” offers a clue. Depending on the context, this admonition can mean, “Do not let fear be the controlling reality of your life – opt for faith instead.”
We can start by not being afraid to speak up when we hear the parroted rhetoric that offers fearful rather than faithful responses to our various problems.
And we can stop reinforcing with our listening those voices that seek to gain from exploiting our fear by framing our public narrative around “dangers” of their own (and their sponsors’) design.
Taking down a Confederate flag is a good thing, but unless we address and exorcise the demon of fear from ourselves and stop listening to those who monger it, we will continue to live with its disastrous effects.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.