Are We Building a Fear-based Community? – the power of gossip and group fear

We are afraid.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the United States we are afraid.  We live in one of the most secure countries in the world,  in one of the most secure geographical locations, surrounded by the world’s largest military complex, in the pinnacle of pinnacles of history in terms of wealth and material excess.  We throw away more food than most countries eat.  We make (and sell) more arms than any other country on earth, maybe more than all other countries.  We are a secure people who are terrified.

We not only buy and carry weapons, increasingly arguing about whether we should have the right to carry in schools and churches!  We fear people around the world.  We fear natural disaster.  And we fear crimes.

I like to blame the media.  It is fun to judge others, and I judge them guilty.

The moment of realization for me came when I did not have a television in Phoenix, but my congregation began to talk about kidnapping.  It was rampant.  Children were being snatched off the street.  People worried about our girls who did not even know them.  I was in a hospital room on a visit with an unconscious parishioner when I saw the cable news.

Kidnapping was everywhere!  Seven references in less than one minute.  Constant pictures of cute blonde girls and one little boy.  I was worried.  Then I noticed that there were only three pictures.  They were looping the same story constantly.  I looked it up online.  There were seven open cases at that moment.  The FBI agent I called said it was actually a low point in kidnapping as a national crime. It was just the news cycle.

Why do we invest so much in weapons?  Why do we idolize snipers and praise drones?  We have become a people of unjust war.  We have become a war culture.  We love Rome.  This is just plain reality.

We could point back to World War II.  Or we could blame communists.  We could look for capitalists under the blanket, but the truth is we, the American people, have become a culture of constant fear and violent reprisal.

I am a priest.  I am wearing all black except a little dash at my Adam’s apple of white.  I am a paid Christian, follower of Jesus.  Yet when I saw the news of ISIS online and read the reports, my instinct was war, bombs, murder.  I watched the beginning clip of the martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians before I was snapped out of my fervor.

“Witness” is what martyrdom means. It was the witness of the early church that we died for our faith rather than killing for it.  The Ethiopian martyrs were doing what we have done for two millennia.  But that is not my instinct.  I am more trained by Die Hard and the Terminator than Stephen and the early church.  And that concerns me deeply.

Am I willing to die for my faith?  Am I willing to say with Christ, “If it is me you seek, then let these men go”?  I am and I am not.

“Too long I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” said the Psalmist, “I am for peace, but when I talk about it, they only talk about war.”  I preached about this recently and made the tie to gossip.  Gossip is not the well meaning, Do you know what is going on?  It is the Did you hear about so and so  . . . ?  It is the sniping of the distant foe with news and rumors.  It is destructive to community as surely as war.

It is the same instinct: to protect something or gather a people we offer up a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always someone else.  I caught myself a few years ago using little bits of gossip to connect with people.  I am still deeply ashamed to say that.  It was horrendous.  It was wrong.  It was an attempt to build community.

Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (2014) names the communal responses to crisis as avoidance, shallow community, fear-based community, and deep community.  He points out that fear-based community is a perverse attempt at meeting the desire for deep community.  It is gathering a group around an enemy or perceived enemy or I would add the rumor of an enemy.

This little version that we get when we gossip is cheap community.  It does not deliver on the promises of community.  It cannot deliver trust, togetherness, support, outreach, justice, and peace.  It cannot deliver joy, but it does give us that cheap moment of being on the same side for a minute or two.  It feels like community.

We have turned this, like many vices, into a national past time.  My favorite eight feet in creation somedays is that line of magazines lined up for our downfall at the cashiers of grocery stores.  I can peruse the latest gossip about people I don’t know but judge viciously based on what I know to be half-truths, at best.  We may not know each other, but we can both agree that the Kardashians are horrible shallow people and that Jenner fellow needs our pity.

Let’s revel in our moment of togetherness.  Is this the wine of our age, the drink that lubricates our friendships?

To take one step further, open Facebook.   Look at the feeds that are gathering communities around fear.  Gay people and their allies, notice the language, fear religious people.  Religious people fear gay people.  Let’s share relevant news stories to make the point that they’re out to get us.  Look at what a violent criminal the latest black man was when the police shot him.  That cop should be afraid.  Look at those police in their special forces gear and their violence.  Be afraid.  And share this.  Like it?

We are told repeatedly in the gospel that we are not to be afraid and not to judge.  We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  We are told to build communities that cross the very lines that we use to define our fears.  We are told to be communities of love.

Our moral life is supposed to be based in our love.  We are to be a people of restraint, not seeking our desires and vengeance, but rather a simple people who offer forgiveness freely.  We are called to love strangers and to be open to people who are different from us, to serve them, to love them.  And to do this because God is that way toward us.

We have to admit our sins in order to confess them and be forgiven.  We have to admit our need in order to be healed.  We have to admit that we have become a people of fear, anxiety, worry.  We have to admit that we have become a people of violence, war, gossip, and lies.  And we have to do this because it is the way of Christ we seek to follow.

We know of no other name under heaven by which we might be saved. It is clear what we are to do and who we are to be.  But we are afraid.

In the last few years it has become clear to me how much fear is natural for human beings who begin to follow Jesus.  We are called into exactly the kind of places that make us the most fearful.  We have to learn to be a people of faith, trust.  We have to trust that God will watch over us, that we will be provided for without recourse to violence, and we have to trust that the Spirit will fill us with the love we need for those who terrify us, who anger us, who make us afraid.

Jesus came to his disciple in that locked room in John and breathed on them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  The sins you hold on to, you hold on to.”

Do not be afraid.

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Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.