Fear of the Other

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
April 30, 2017

1 John 4: 7, 16b-21 (CEB)
Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19We love because God first loved us. 20If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

One of the greatest movie songs of all time is undoubtedly “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. In fact, in 2004 the American Film Institute released a list of the top 100 songs through 100 years of film, and you know what the number one song was? “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The lyrics of that song were written by a Jewish man named Yip Harburg; he wrote the lyrics for all of the songs in The Wizard of Oz. And those of us who are familiar with the lyrics of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” know the message of hope that fills that song; the dream of Dorothy to go to a place “without any trouble.” As much as that was a song of Dorothy’s hope, I imagine it was also a song of Yip Harburg’s hope. The film and the song released in 1939. America was still climbing out of the grip of the Great Depression. Nazi Germany had already begun its massacre of the Jews.

To further complicate matters, Yip Harburg was a Democratic Socialist. At that time in history, Socialists were highly feared, along with Communists (though they are not the same thing). Though he was a wildly successful film lyricist, within a decade of the release of The Wizard of Oz, he had been blacklisted, named in a pamphlet, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” He was blocked from working in Hollywood films, television, and radio for a full twelve years. His parents were Russian, he was a Jew, and he was a Democratic Socialist at a time when communism was highly feared. So, out of fear, the writer of the words of the greatest film song of all time was denied the opportunity to continue his work for more than a decade.

Now, just hold on to that thought for a second while I confess to you something much more personal. And I ask you not to judge me, because I know that if I have experienced this, then many of you have as well. I am a child of the 1980s and 90s. It was a time when we thought that the racist history of our country was finally dying away for good. I attended integrated schools. I had friends who were white, black, Latino, and even my best friend, whose family was from India. When I got a little older, I was on the school basketball team, and frequently my Mom would pick up me and my friends and teammates, Gwen and Maunea (who just happened to be black), and we would all go hang out at my house until time for practice or the game or whatever. Somehow, though, somewhere along the way I learned to be suspicious and fearful of certain people; in particular, I am aware of these feelings in the presence of poor males, including (and maybe especially) black males. Now, let me be clear. No one ever told me I should harbor such suspicions; nothing in my life experience should have caused such fear in me. I have never been threatened or harmed by anyone fitting the above description. I don’t have any idea how I came to be this way, and this would certainly fall into the category of an irrational fear. But since I came to be aware of it, I have worked consciously to try and put this fear in its proper place; to make sure I do not act out of these fears in any way. Because here’s the thing: when there is an underlying fear of “other” people, our responsive actions are almost never admirable, as the case of Yip Harburg proves.

Listen again to the words of the Psalm we read earlier in the service. “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The Lord is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be frightened of anything?..I have asked one thing from the Lord—it’s all I seek; to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life…Because he will shelter me in his own dwelling during troubling times….” As people of faith, we proclaim the name of a God who is a fortress or protection. As people of faith, there is no reason for us to fear anyone. Yet, so often we don’t actively seek the shelter of God’s protection, and instead we get drawn into these exaggerated and irrational fears about other people. Then, the more we get drawn into those fears, the more likely we are to act out of that fear in harmful ways. Still, despite a history that has shown us over and over again the tragic consequences of irrational fear of “the other,” we nevertheless continue to harbor fears of those who are different from us. And we do this both as individuals and as a society.

So who is it we fear? Even today, we are still dealing with fears across racial boundaries. We fear Muslims because of the actions of a few extremists. We fear people from the LGBTQ community. There are those who fear Trump, or at least his policies. And in the prior administration, there were those who feared Obama, or at least his policies. We fear those who look different from us. We fear those who think differently from us. We fear those who we don’t understand. We may not agree with people who are different from us, “the other,” but we should never be afraid of them. These fears can lead to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors. On one end of the spectrum we disconnect from those we fear; which means we have no community with them. When we are disconnected, it makes it easy for us to view the stranger, those different from us, those we fear, as a potential threat. So the next step is that we come to view them as “the enemy.” When we view others as “the enemy,” then we demonize them. We attribute to them traits and characteristics which are probably not true, but that nevertheless grow out of that underlying fear. At its worst, this fear can lead us to actions that are dangerous and even harmful. Unfortunately, we see the tragic effects of such actions all the time.

But the thing is, as Christians, fear should never be the driving force in our lives. And even more than that fear should not be the driving force in our relationships with our fellow human beings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Christ instructs his disciples over and over and over again to LOVE. The greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God,” and the second greatest commandment is to “Love your neighbor as your love yourself.” Jesus tells us that we should love even our enemies. As you heard in John’s letter a few moments ago, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.”

Friends, just listen to that again. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” When we love one another—not only our brothers and sisters in Christ—but when we love our neighbor and our enemy, which is nothing less than the GREATEST THING Christ has commanded us to do, then we cannot fear the other. Perfect love drives out fear.

John Wesley, who was the founder of Methodism taught that sanctification, or moving toward Christ-likeness, is a process of growing in our love for God and love for one another. He called it growing toward perfection. In other words, if the greatest commandment we are to live by is to love God and love one another, then we reach perfection, total sanctification, full salvation, when we have a perfect love for God and a perfect love for our neighbor. And let me just remind you: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.”

We Christians have been doing some pretty terrible and un-Christian things as a result of our fear of the other. In saying that, I must admit that I am first. That fear of certain classes of men that I mentioned to you earlier; yes, I act out of that fear sometimes, and my actions are never Christ-like. Never. In fact, these actions unquestionably move me in the complete opposite direction of Christ-likeness. And yes, we act out of such fears individually, but we do so as communities as well. Society has set up entire systems and structures that help us to keep separation from those whom we fear. Sometimes, these systems and structures are important for maintaining order, but friends, we have to acknowledge that a lot of times these systems and structures are also harmful to the people who are bound by them. Christ came to give life and give it abundantly, and if we are not joining Christ in his work toward abundant life for all people, even those whom we fear, then we are moving in the wrong direction. We are letting fear rule us, and we are not living a life of faith.

Now, let me bring this to its conclusion. I want to share with you something that has been on my mind a lot in the last year. In fact, this is nearly the whole reason I am doing this sermon series on fear. I am going to do my very best to articulate this as clearly as I can, but I want to ask you to hear what I am saying and not what I am not saying. We harbor these fears of the other because somewhere along the way (perhaps without even realizing it), we learned that people who are different from us are a threat to us. So we fear Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus, or atheists because they are a threat to the Christian faith. We fear the LGBTQ movement because it is a threat to the institution of marriage. We fear foreigners because they take our jobs, or they launch weapons of mass destruction, or hack our computer systems. We fear the hypothetical burglar or drunk driver because they might kill us. But friends these threats are not stronger than the God we serve, and so these fears should never outweigh our faith that Christ will triumph!

We HAVE to remember that with God the worst thing is never the last thing, and even that which threatens us or causes us fear cannot overcome the redeeming work of Christ in the world. Such faith in Christ must consume us, and that faith must then be lived out in a love for God and for others that is so complete there is not even room for fear. “Perfect love drives out all fear.”

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