Shipshewana and the American Way of Fear

[1] Follow the fear. It will tell you what you need to know about the challenge of Christian witness in these times. It also reveals the wound that the incarnation of God in human flesh hungers to heal-making us, our nation and world more truly human.

[2] A black pickup truck slows to make a left turn at the north edge of Shipshewana, an Amish hamlet in northern Indiana. Following the truck, I come to a complete stop as a buggy crosses the intersection, its passage accented by the clip of horse hoofs on asphalt.

[3] A crude sign in the back window of the truck catches my eye. Fashioned from individual black letters on metallic silver squares, the kind found in thousands of hardware stores, the sign echoes a common bumper sticker: “These colors don’t run.” An American flag in the corner of the window punctuates the message.

[4] The sentiment is more impressive for the energy expended to individually place each letter. This took far more time than simply slapping a bumper sticker on the window. And the trust it expresses in the positive value of military might and American determination to “stay the course” in Iraq is also more striking in this enclave of Amish and Old-order Mennonites. Here, notions of strength and security reside in community cohesion and cooperation, not in physical power to put down one’s enemies.

[5] The contrast excites the imagination, especially as we prepare again to contemplate the incarnation of God in the tenderness of an infant’s flesh. Christmas celebrates the definitive appearance of God, who comes in utter weakness, not standing firm in divine strength. The incarnate Word arrives needing everything. In that need, the holy incarnation of God seeks to draw all flesh into a beloved community of care, where human security and flourishing is defined not by what we can withstand or destroy but by what we, in interdependence, receive and share so all may live.

[6] The task of Christian witness in these times involves inviting the driver of the pickup-whose name is legion-to consider that the sentiment of his sign does not produce strength, security or human flourishing but a perpetuation of insecurity and fear. It involves demonstrating that seeking security in personal and national might is as much an illusion today as when the Hebrew prophets railed against it.

[7] Our witness needs to show that strength and security, human and national fulfillment, cannot be found in the extreme (at times, messianic) nationalism that has echoed from the highest levels of government to Indiana pickup trucks. Our task is to reveal that real security and strength cannot be had by pursuing one’s own narrow interests. Instead, they develop in relationships of mutuality and mutual correction of vision, exactly the kind of relationships that pugnacious unilateralism and political name-calling prevent. Such relationships reflect the deepest wisdom of our faith tradition, flowing naturally from the triune nature of the God Christians proclaim, but which we forget when afraid.

Politics of fear
[8] As a nation we have endured an almost constant exercise in the politics of fear since 9/11. “Keep fear alive” could well have served as the official slogan of the Bush administration. We have heard and continue to hear administration figures stir fears of mushroom clouds rising over U.S. cities, of Iraq’s non-existent chemical and biological weapons and of the danger of Iraqi insurgents to our personal security. The nation’s vice president continues to claim a link between al-Qaeda and Hussein despite the findings of the 9/11 commission.

[9] The politics of fear successfully produced a state of national insecurity, a society of souls whose anxiety level could be color-coded and manipulated with no apparent evidence. An overwhelming majority of Americans simply acquiesced to this and, worse, has countenanced abuse and injustice, the suffering and death of tens of thousands of innocents, and the ugliness of torture-all in the name of their security and, ironically, the protection of American values.

[10] In the past six weeks, the press has spilt considerable ink dissecting whether pre-war intelligence about the threat posed by Iraq was simply wrong or whether Americans were misled into war by leaders who manipulated the data. It is easy to point fingers, but honesty requires careful self examination: Were a majority of Americans all-too-willing to be misled? Did fear strip the country of its ability to breathe deeply, think critically and respond creatively at a time when the life and death of tens of thousands Americans and Iraqis literally hung in the balance?

[11] An easy majority of Americans readily believed the intelligence it received, refusing to question it even when there were plenty of reasons to do so, as other peoples and their governments around the world surely did.

[12] It is troubling that even now American Christians cannot cry out with a single voice against the denial and debasement of the image of God of those our nation has tortured-including children-according to the International Red Cross. Physicians for Human Rights reported in April 2005 that the United Sates has been involved in systematic psychological torture at least since 2002.1 The Vice President of the United States continues to argue that the CIA should be allowed the option of torturing detainees, while appealing to a core Christian base of supporters.

Silencing Christian witness
[13] The relative silence of Christians and churches in the face of this willingness to torture and imprison-often, the innocent with the guilty, and in allied nations that are less squeamish about torture than we-reveals the triumph of the politics of fear. Fear has created a state of insecurity that continues to shape the national conversation, justifying policies that undermine core American values and stretching the country’s willingness to countenance the suffering, hunger and deprivation of others for its security.

[14] Fear elevates security over all other values. It shrinks the soul, blinding us to the legitimate interests, needs and suffering of others. It awakens a willingness to invest strong leaders with nearly unquestionable power as long as they provide protection.

[15] In fear, we tend to locate national strength, security, honor and identity in the ability and willingness to stand against those who challenge our values and interests, not in the strength of those values or the value of those interests. American strength shrinks to the ability to take a punch, stand fast and hit back harder. Failing such demonstration of strength and resolve, we lose dignity and standing.

[16] Gripped by fear, we view the community of nations through lenses that see only what they can do for us-or take from us. We do not see them first as peoples and nations among whom fresh perspectives and partnership may be found, both to support us and to challenge the limits of our own vision.

[17] This state of national insecurity eclipses the country’s historic moral vision, largely silencing political discussion of using our nation’s vast resources to shape a more just society and world-feeding the hungry, developing Africa, improving education, committing serious resources not mere rhetoric to the AIDS pandemic, addressing the egregious and growing gap between the world’s haves and have-nots, a grave threat to the world’s future. Instead, the nation seems content to hunker down and spend more on defense, while our government remains the globe’s stingiest industrialized nation in humanitarian and development assistance.

Christmas witness
[18] In our culture, Christmas is always a time when human fears and hopes bubble into consciousness from unseen depths of soul. This year faithfulness requires us to name and address the frequently fanned fears that threaten our souls and the soul of the nation. To those fears we apply the only balm that cures. “Perfect love casts out fear” our tradition tells us (I John 4:18). Christmas draws us into the length and breadth, height and depth of the incomprehensible love of God, inviting us to know, savor and be filled with the Love Inexpressible that bears the face of the virgin’s child.

[19] This love alone frees us from blinding fear to see that we live in the milieu of immeasurable mercy, where the Spirit labors to bring all to life. It awakens the desire to consider the welfare of outsiders as morally equivalent to one’s own, even the welfare of one’s enemies. In an intricately interconnected world where we live at close range, such consideration-such love even of enemies-is the price of our own security.

[20] We can not invite our fellow citizens to make national policy based on a faith they may not share. But the trinitarian conception of God suggests insights into ways of relating that are more conducive to security and human flourishing that the pugnacious unilateralism that has gripped national policy in the current administration.

[21] In trinitarian theology and spirituality, the term perichoresis describes the active, mutual, loving (really, dancing) relations that flow among the Father, Son and Spirit. The doctrine describes who we think God is, but it also expresses the nature of human beings, who they are and what they are to become. Created in the divine image, human beings and societies flourish and find fulfillment as they cultivate and sustain relationships that embody active mutuality, an interdependence in their giving and receiving that is grounded in the equal dignity of each one.2

[22] The Spirit constantly labors to create relationships with just this theonomous character (Ephesians 1:8-10; 2:14) The ongoing task of Christian discernment is attending to opportunities to participate in the Spirit’s work of shaping and nurturing such relationships in our personal, social and national life. As we cultivate and nurture such relationships, the perfect love that casts out fear begins to take shape in common human affairs, alleviating fears of losing control or of being changed by the presence and perspectives of others.

[23] Just so, we are drawn into a more inclusive and beloved community of holy care, however partial and imperfect, where we discover a strength deeper and a security more sound than any we might find in the sentiments of bumper stickers in Shipshewana. This is the Spirit’s doing among us whether we, blinded by fear, see it or not. And it is the reason angelic messengers at Christmas had one clear message for Mary and the shepherds: “Do not fear.”

End Notes

1. Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter, Simon and Shuster, 2005, pages 116-133.

2. Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality, Michael Downey, Orbis Books, 2000, pages 72-73.