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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Giving Authority Away

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In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away.  To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.

Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility.  This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three.  In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests.  This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.

What do you value more than your own self?  What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team?  This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly.  We know your answer because we know our own.  Or at least we think we do.

It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes.  It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.”  When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.

I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little.  My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back.  We were driving past Bell Road and  32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help.  The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry.  I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry.  They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything.  But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going.  I am still haunted by that sin.  I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.

The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation.  We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.

There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community.  We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand.  We have to give away our authority intentionally.

We often give away authority unintentionally.  This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values.  In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent.  In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority.  They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage.  They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.

There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II.  But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed.  We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.

So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves.  We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does.  This is when we practice giving authority away.

It may be upward.  If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them.  My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church.  He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships.  So I give him my authority.  He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals.  It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.

We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work.  I have employees under me that are doing things that I value.  I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work.  This is more tricky than the vertical move upward.  Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.

If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals.  This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments.  They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure.  This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed.  Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs.  One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant.  We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.

Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work?  They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent.  Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?

We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally.  We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways.  It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.