Illustration of figure reaching down to another who looks afraid


Living Lovingly amid Fear

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Margaret Miles

Several Western authors have suggested that human beings and societies are defined by their love or their fear. This is not a new claim. The fifth-century African Augustine of Hippo, said, “If you wish to know who a person is, ask what she loves.” Centuries later, Sigmund Freud suggested that to understand a person, one must ask what that person fears. Two thousand years before, Franklin D. Roosevelt asserted that “fear itself ” should be feared for its capacity to undermine human well being, the author of the New Testament book of I John described the relationship of love and fear: “Perfect love,” he said, “casts out fear” (I John 4:16). Interpreting this text for his congregation, Augustine of Hippo said that God is love and when we love generously, freely, without self-interest, we are God’s body in the world. But, the verse also implies that if love has the power to cast out fear, fear can also disable love.

In order to live lovingly, we must somehow refuse to live in fear in a culture that constantly confronts us with well-publicized dangers. Of course, human beings have always had much to fear. Our vulnerable bodies are continually subject to disease and accident. But humans have not always lived in societies in which fear was actively cultivated.

In the last several years American daily newspapers, newscasts, and newsmagazines have featured many causes for fear. Isolated incidents are characterized as trends, and anecdotes are substituted for facts. And, since fear factors do not capture our imaginations for long, new reasons to fear are constantly discovered. Remember Y2K? Killer bees, razor blades in Halloween candy, road rage, mad cow disease, computer viruses, and, more recently, immigrants, bird flu, and even AIDS: all of these have now largely yielded front-page space to terrorism.

Moreover, there is frequently little correlation between press attention to a danger and its statistical significance. Americans fear the wrong things. That is the point of a culture of fear. Unrealistic fears are substituted for realistic dangers so woven into the fabric of everyday life that they appear to be intractable. For example, in 2001, over 42,000 Americans were killed in motor vehicle accidents, while 3,547 people were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks, 3,000 of them on September 11. But traffic deaths are not news, except when celebrities are involved. More subtle anxieties are also a part of the steady diet of fear we consume every day: fear of flying, harmful foods, fat, aging . . . the list could go on and on. My point is not that there is no reason to fear, but that the culture of fear in which we live often takes our attentions and energies away from creatively addressing the problems of American society and the world, encouraging attitudes of helplessness—or worse, aggression.

Who benefits from the production of a culture of fear? The most obvious beneficiaries are TV stations, newsmagazines, and news programs, advocacy groups selling memberships, lawyers selling class-action lawsuits, and elected officials. For example, according to political commentator Joseba Zuliaka, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, “transformed a president whose election had been the most questioned ever into a president with the highest popularity ever.” And, as Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek, the subtext of President Bush’s advertising campaign for the 2004 election was very clear: “We should be afraid, very afraid, for our physical safety should he lose.” More generally, fear prompts consumption. Michael Moore observed, “Keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume” in order to feel better temporarily.

In addition to asking who benefits from a culture of fear, we must also ask, who suffers? The answer is, everyone, but some more than others. Fear is hard on bodies. Anxiety is the number one health problem in the country, leading to epidemic depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and prescription drug addiction. In a culture of contagious insecurity, psychological vulnerability makes Americans willing to live in gated communities and to lose civil liberties and privacy in exchange for security measures.

Moreover, American society is violent because it is fearful. Americans incarcerate at 14 times the rate of Japan, 8 times the rate of France, and 6 times the rate of Canada. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that executions in the United States rose from zero in 1969 to 98 in 1999. On the global level, evidence suggesting that counterterrorism activities provoke more terrorism has not been taken seriously, and many Americans have become willing to accept proposals for pre-emptive strikes. It is startling that the wealthiest society in the world does not feed its needy young, care for the old and the sick, and assist the poor to earn a living wage. In fact, collective neglect of those who are vulnerable is the norm.

We must refuse to live in fear in a culture that constantly confronts us with well-publicized dangers.

Marc and Marque-Luisa Miringoff’s book, The Social Health of the Nation: How America Is Really Doing, argues that while Americans receive constant reports on the nation’s economic health, reports on the nation’s social health are few and episodic. Social health is measured by assessing such factors as “the well-being of America’s children and youth, the accessibility of health care, the quality of education, the adequacy of housing, the security and satisfaction of work, and the nation’s sense of community, citizenship, and diversity.” Reports on these factors are not publicly and regularly available as part of our picture of “how we’re doing” as a society.

A culture of fear can paralyze our ability to address systemically the evils of poverty, hunger, desperation, and violent aggression in our homes, on our streets, and across the globe, convincing many of us that all efforts are doomed to failure. But passivity, a “helpless victim” mentality, and aggression resulting from fear, can be challenged by a committed practice of political and social engagement.

“Love,” in our media culture, is a much overused and abused word. Romantic love is the subject of most of our television and movie dramas. And we employ the word for even the most trivial of our fondnesses: “I love animals,” an HDS colleague once said, “I think they’re delicious.” Rather than attempting to define love, let us for the moment accept Augustine’s insistence that love is not primarily a state of mind or emotions, but an activity. He said: “Love has feet . . . love has hands, which give to the poor, love has eyes, which give information about who is in need, love has ears. . . . To see love’s activity is to see God.” Love is not a state one falls into passively, as usually represented in American media. It is something we, as individuals and as a society, can actively make. We make love. Love is not, in the words of the twentieth-century poet e. e. cummings, “Words, words, as if all worlds were there.” In short, love is not rhetoric, but what Pierre Bordieu called a “practice of everyday life.”

I suggest that the rhetoric of romantic love in our entertainment culture effectively functions as “misdirection.” “Misdirection” is a magician’s term referring to the dramatic gesture that attracts attention in order to prevent spectators from noticing what the magician is doing with his other hand. Our society’s preoccupation with romantic love takes our attention away from noticing that loving treatment of needy human beings, in the form of social services, health care, and support for education, is disappearing from our society.

Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ can be seen as another example of misdirection. In the context of a society that is becoming meaner and meaner—often in the name of Christian values—the movie invites spectators to contemplate the sufferings of Christ. Its focus on the last hours of Jesus’ life effectively erases most of his life and teachings. If attention were directed to Jesus’ own life and actions, instead of on what was done to him, a very different picture of Christ’s mission would appear. For, according to the gospels, Jesus spent his adult life healing sick bodies and feeding people, as well as teaching them. In the context of a society in which tax cuts ensure the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor, however, to claim that Jesus’ life and work represented the kind of compassion that would establish a more equitable distribution of resources may not be the basis for a box office hit.

The daily practice of love requires that we acknowledge that we live with our uncertainties rather than cater to them. As human beings with limited knowledge and perspectives, we are always uncertain, even about the most crucial matters. We do not know the generously responsible way to address particular situations. We always pursue the common good in the dark by faith, not knowing for sure what it looks like or feels like; sometimes we do not even recognize it when we see it. However, fear that we do not possess certain knowledge of the humanly good must not be allowed to prevent our passionate commitment to it.

Our religions have not helped us at this point. The numerically dominant religious and intellectual traditions seem to have neglected the urgencies of this world in favor of attention to another world of ideas or values. Christianity, like other world religions, has traditionally been very concerned about the danger of attachment to power and possessions. But the equal dangers of resignation, passivity, cynicism, and indifference to the suffering and struggling of other living beings have not been articulated as frequently or as forcefully. Christian scriptures use the phrase “the world” ambiguously and confusingly. On the one hand, Christians are enjoined to be “not of this world.” On the other hand, God so loved the world.

Similarly, Christians often emphasize the power and greatness of God in ways that de-emphasize human responsibility. Theologies that focus on child-like dependence on God fail to challenge Christians to mature activity and accountability. The feminist philosopher Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote, “We never feel as grown-up as we expected to feel when we were children.” Because we do not always, or perhaps often, feel confident and capable, we evade responsibility. Yet we are the grownups. No spirituality should help us transcend the needy world in which we live, a world that requires our attention, our love, and most of all, our work.

Margaret Miles, Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, was the Bussey Professor of Historical Theology at Harvard Divinity School. This article is excerpted from her address at HDS’s Alumni/ae Day on June 7, 2006.

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