Over the years, I have attended the ordination ceremonies of many newly elected pastors. As a gift, it has been my practice to give Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited.” I give this because it is my hope that it will impact the recipient as it did me the first time I read it. Until reading this small but powerful book, the forces at work against the disinherited were nestled in the fabric of seeming social progress. In this bold redaction of the ministry of Christ, Dr. Thurman succinctly provides a view of Jesus that is healthy and helpful. The development of “Jesus and the Disinherited” is masterfully done as Thurman demonstrates and illuminates how Jesus lives in a culture under siege by paralyzing forces within his culture of origin and the prevailing forces of Rome. According to Thurman, the force that seizes the souls of the disinherited is fear. Thurman noted, “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.”
Fear currently is a common thread that runs through our present culture. It is a tactic that is used to paralyze the mind and spirit of the poor as well as the privileged. The poor are paralyzed because fear builds on threatening seeming security. Fear imprisons the mind by painting pictures of what life would be like when or if this security is interrupted or dismantled. This is done systematically over time. Theo Tsaousides writes in Psychology Today, “Fear is hardwired in your brain, and for good reason: Neuroscientists have identified distinct networks that run from the depths of the limbic system all the way to the prefrontal cortex and back. When these networks are electrically or chemically stimulated, they produce fear, even in the absence of a fearful stimulus. Feeling fear is neither abnormal nor a sign of weakness: The capacity to be afraid is part of normal brain function.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted in his book “Strength to Love” that there are two types of fears; abnormal fear and normal fear. “Normal fear protects us, abnormal fear paralyzes us.”
Abnormal fears, he indicated, were like “snakes under the carpet”–things that are not really there.
There are many things that have contributed to the escalating element of fear. Over the past few decades America has had to face challenges that seem different than those of previous generations. The increased violence with guns in schools has prompted measures of security not thought of twenty years ago. Violence in general has seemed to escalate with attacks on public places like the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2017, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, and recently the horrific violence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a Jewish synagogue. Violence has long been a tool that causes fear. Violence by its very nature is a threat to one’s safety and security. It creates, for the powerless, fear. While the discussion on gun control is indeed one that has merit, however, guns alone are not the perpetrators of violence. Yes, guns have been used to assault people in mass numbers. However, the source, the root, the base of the issue for those who have chosen to use violence is fear. The perpetrators of violent acts are afraid. Perhaps their fear is driven by threats to their security. Perhaps their fears lay in not knowing what is on the other side of the unknown or “the snake under the carpet.” The public rhetoric on differences and untruths spread about people of different ethnicities and nationalities only fuel the fear of the unknown. The discourse, not the rhetoric, has the power to turn the tide of fear. Leaders have the power to move the needle of fear from paralyzing to positive potential.
Leaders are individuals with influence. Leaders are everywhere. Parents, teachers, public figures, Pastors and yes, the President are leaders. As a child, my father represented leadership and his influence silenced fear. There were no “snakes under the carpet” for me. However, for many today and perhaps in the future “snakes under the carpet” are a reality. It burdens my heart to realize that many will live in fear. This unfortunate reality will result in many lives paralyzed by fear and not able to realize their full potential. However, true leaders are an inspiration to those they influence. Inspiration is as powerful as fear, perhaps more so.
Influential leaders can inspire courage to act harmoniously as opposed to in hostility. Courage is not the absence of fear but acting courageous in the presence of fear. In this culture so infected with fear, how will our children face the future with courage? How are the disinherited to live unencumbered by “snakes under the carpet”? It would be easy to resurrect Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inspiring message to the nation in his 1935 inaugural address, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is a great sound bite, however the very thing that causes fear, is fear. Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, and most likely to cause pain or be a threat.
Both King and Thurman found the antidote to this threat in the life of Jesus. For those living in the shadows of fear and paralyzed by its presence, Jesus introduced a more powerful tool. A tool more powerful than hate, anxiety, animosity and acrimony. The great minimizer of fear for Jesus is love. Scripture indicates, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment.” (1 John 4:18 NKJV) The Christian Church has the potential and the platform to influence culture. It is the mark and mandate of the Christian Church to love. Christ used love to rise above the paralyzing force of fear. It would be helpful to live in a culture that encourages love and one where love is nurtured. Love is a force that brings people together. Love harmonizes. As I view our country and culture, I am reminded of a song from the 1970’s, “What the world needs now.” “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Love that has the power to harmonize differences is a love that looks beyond difference and the unknown. It takes courage to love in the presence of unknowns. When viewing life through the lens of love, we are able to see more of what we hold in common, than our differences. And we are stronger together standing on common ground than we are separated by fear. “Snakes under the carpet” are dispelled by love.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.