Open your ears, God, to my prayer;
don't pretend you don't hear me knocking.
Come close and whisper your answer.
I really need you. (MSG)
When I heard of the bombings in our area last weekend I felt afraid. Not afraid of riding the train, or what might happen to my children, friends or family. I had no fear of terrorists running amok. I was afraid of our reaction, what fear will change in us. So I gave thanks to God for the two homeless men who found the bomb at the Elizabeth train station and reported it to the authorities before anyone could be injured. Indeed, I was even more relieved when a suspect was arrested. It was blessing to move on before fear could be stoked further.
Listening to an interview with film director Antoine Fuqua later in the week, I heard him begin his remarks about the unrest and conflict over the shooting of black men by police officers by saying everyone is afraid, black men, the police, the rest of us as well. Mr. Fuqua is right, and a large part of the dysfunction in the relationships between the differing groups of our society is due to the fears that each group has.
These fears are real. Black men have a radically different experience of American life than I do, and these experiences have led to very real and indeed rational fears. It is not one incident that has sparked these fears but the repeated daily negative experiences people of color have in America. Police officers also have very real and understandable fears. Service in the police is a very dangerous calling in our country. They are repeatedly placed in the most stressful situations that happen within our communities. It seems however that in certain areas (particularly in regards to race) that we are unable to listen to and understand our neighbor's fears. The problem seems to be that dealing with our own fears crowds out our ability to grasp the fears of others. Therefore with our empathy blocked, situations escalate.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that fear has seemed to become a preferred method of communication for many of us. Since the invention of the printing press, media has used fear to sell newspapers. What is different today is that in our social media age the boundary between the media and the general public has been blurred. If I post on my twitter or facebook account stories in the news, or my opinions of events, then I have effectively joined the media. We have met the media and it is us. So when I repost an article highlighting a particular fear, I am embracing, validating and spreading that fear. By embracing that fear I may be closing myself off to understanding the other. The more I broadcast my own fears, the less I am able to listen to you. The more I see other people's fears shouted from the rooftops the less able I am to feel that others will understand me. Perhaps this is why FDR famously said they only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
The only way I know to go forward is to follow the advice of St. Peter "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:7 NRSV). Indeed it is in times like these that our faith matters most. When we trust in who is God good enough to offer us salvation without condition (grace), it gives us a foundation to stand upon when dealing with our fears. When we pray, the first work to be done is within our own souls. It is to remove the veil of fear so we are able to receive God and love our neighbor. If we cannot empathize with their fear, we cannot love our neighbors. Furthermore, if I cannot empathize with someone else's fears, why would I have the nerve to think that they would even stop to give me the time of day?
When we are better able to understand each other, we are better able to meet together and work towards solutions grounded in justice. So the idea is simple, ask God to help you deal with whatever fear you have today, so you are more able to love others and understand that you are loved yourself. As with most simple ideas, the practice will be harder than the concept. Perhaps you will be impatient or angry with me because I am really not offering a solution to anything, but just asking you to pray. Prayer is not a solution in and of itself, it is a means to work toward that solution hand in hand with God. Prayer is never the finish line, but is always the start.
I am hopeful because I know that around the country and around the world there are people of Christ who are in prayer about what is going on today. One of the underreported facts about what is happening in our country now, is that in every city where there has been unrest these past few years churches and faith communities have been on the front lines trying to do the very hard work of getting people together to work on ways to move forward towards mutual respect, dignity and justice. When these folks go to those front lines they are just as fearful as you and I, but their prayers help them move forward to build solutions. So answer the call to prayer perhaps all you have to lose are your fears.