We have a lot to be afraid of, right? RIGHT? DON’T YOU AGREE!? I mean, violent crime and murder and terrorism and dangerous chemicals in my food and Monsanto and immigrants and people with drugs and guns and me losing my job and not being able to pay my bills and child predators and cyberwarfare and government corruption and identity theft and so many things. SO MANY THINGS. I am afraid. I am very afraid.
I don’t generally ascribe to this line of thinking, (or the use of all caps, just so we’re clear), mostly because I find it difficult to defend, let alone sustain. Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” It’s a primal response—one of four foundational emotions in the human spectrum—and an instinctual reaction to the charging bear, the sudden sea of brake lights, the mysterious phone call from the doctor’s office. These base emotions biologically overwhelm our heart rhythms, clam up our hands, and tunnel our vision. They also help rewrite our laws and overwhelm our politics, despite consistently reasonable evidence that might suggest alternate solutions.
Note that fear is not defined as something that is actually dangerous, but the belief that something is dangerous, whether it truly is or not. This important qualifier is particularly relevant across a broad range of complex topics, but especially in faith and politics. Various writers, including Molly Ball, Marilynne Robinson, Neil Strauss, Emma Green, have worked to frame and articulate these intersections, where this base emotional instinct has renegotiated our daily comings and goings.
One such place: parenting. Now, full disclosure: I am not a parent, and will not claim to have conclusive evidence and experience on parenting. But you should read this fascinating and complicated account of one mom’s experience. Kim Brooks is a writer and mom who relays and unpacks the fallout of leaving her 4-year-old son in her car on a 50 degree day, running into a store for 10 minutes, and ultimately getting arrested when a bystander videoed her son and eventually called the police. She was arrested, charged with endangering her own child, and faced with the possibility of losing custody of her kids and even jail time -- though ultimately she did community service instead. In her best judgement, facing the complex set of choices provided to every parent at pretty much every moment of the day, those 10 minutes in a 50-degree car were a lower risk than other considerations in the moment. But to a passerby, and even the police and social services, her choice was not just an incredibly risky choice, but a moral failing as well. She was a bad mom. And prosecutable by law.
Brooks has articulated the reality, also observed elsewhere, that raising children today is subject to the approval of strangers and the general public, whether they have appropriate insight or not. Parents must make choices not necessarily just based on their beliefs, experience, and best judgment, but on what other parents’ and bystanders’ best judgments would be. And those public perceptions of strangers, even if they are not backed up by evidence, are driving social behavior and public policy. Parents who “allow” these “risky” behaviors are “bad” parents and punished, even if the perceived high-risk behaviors are actually no more risky than other accepted behaviors. In this landscape, you are more likely to get arrested for the less risky behavior because it is morally judged as “wrong.”
For instance, “common sense” says that leaving your child in a parked car is much more risky (and therefore dangerous and subject to be judged as morally bad) than bringing your child into the store. However, evidence shows that walking across the parking lot is actually much more risky than the comparative risk of leaving the child alone in the car. Another common example is being snatched by strangers, which is exceedingly rare, though reference to it is common enough to change entire community protocols and even local laws. (This is often an example of the availability heuristic, by the way, which is a fascinating concept). Therefore, in regards to aspects of parenting like this, risk assessment is detached from actual risk and more connected to moral beliefs and values, cloaked in the language of safety in order to assert one’s moral judgement—a different idea entirely. Parenting is hard enough as it is, and other parents, such as here, here, and here have faced this strange culture of moral vigilantism, often based in unmoored perceptions of fear grounded more in preconceived moral beliefs rather than evidence, tradition, or shared reasonable and appropriate judgement.
I recognize the nuances of parenting are complex. Scenarios are situational, and not always clear cut. But, I introduce this to circle back around to fear and in particular, the unpacked questions stemming from using fear as a primary decision-making cudgel in both our personal beliefs and national politics. Now, clearly fear is biologically honed to protect our personal safety when faced with a charging bear, but how does that primal biological instinct work against us in infinitely more complex and important matters, such as parenting, race, and healthcare? This is especially troubling when I consider issues of immigration, where our president has made a living exploiting this primal gap in our biology. Anti-immigration rhetorical exploits our preconceived beliefs about the risk of the immigrant or Other to overwhelm the reasonable logic that immigrants benefit communities deeply, let alone the moral charge to help the marginalized or those in need. Using fear in this way -- as a cold, wet blanket over the warm and fragile flame of empathy -- denies the deeper spiritual imperative, snuffing out the possibility of seeing a foreigner as another feeling, thinking, loving, hope-filled, sweaty child of God in order to transform them into a dangerously unknowable Muslim or a murderous Central American gang member.
I struggle to accept this—that fear and miscalculated danger, in this sense, acceptably become a blanket justification for moral judgment, harnessing discrimination and violence through the misinterpretation of danger. I struggle to fight back against the visceral rawness of fear, tightly intertwined with our human struggles to connect morality, perceived risk, and the Other. I struggle as a Christian to appropriately advocate for empathy, to speak truth and share Christ’s call to not be troubled or afraid, to risk vulnerability in loving the stranger and the foreigner and the enemy, when that seems so out of touch with presidential speeches and travel bans and commonplace political rhetoric. How does the church take part in all of this? How do we seek peace amidst all this?
This is a messy and complicated topic, and I welcome more conversation about the many threads woven into it. As we as a country (and honestly, as a global set of nations) stare head-on at the realities of immigration, I wonder how we might practice abundance and radical hospitality rather than fear, opening ourselves to risk so that Jesus’ words echo beyond the real and imagined borders of first century Palestine, contemporary southern Texas, and our own hearts.