It would seem that in recent news there’s something happening to make almost everyone afraid. Gun violence in general, the Pulse nightclub massacre, and killings connected with racism, are all viscerally upsetting. Political stakes have never seemed higher, with voters on the left and the right portraying the upcoming presidential race as near-apocalyptic in its possible outcome. Even before these recent events, Time Magazine, at the start of this year, published an article titled “Why Americans are More Afraid Than They Used to Be.” It included terrorism as a cause, along with “the politics of fear” (the trend for politicians to invoke fear as motivation for their causes). They add that the widespread loss of trust in government (on all sides) leads to the perception that citizens must handle threats increasingly by themselves — adding to the sense of anxiety.
Christians in mainline denominations have a well-established and laudable reaction to fear; we redouble efforts for justice. This certainly reflects Jesus’ priority to “seek first the Reign of God, and God’s justice.” There’s a risk, however, in passionate involvement even for thoroughly good causes—activists can fall prey to the same fears and anxieties that afflict persons who are not involved in justice work—and when that happens, people of faith lose their distinctive witness.
In uncertain times, belief in the Living God can counterbalance the temptation to fear and its attendant maladies (such as anger, desperation, withdrawal and poor judgement). Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, wrote about how his wife would teach adult classes the meaning of faith by asking them “How many of you have taught a child to swim?” Borg then notes that “Faith … is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.” He goes on to explain “The opposite of trust is not doubt or disbelief…its opposite is ‘anxiety’ or ‘worry.” He concludes “Growth in faith as trust casts out anxiety.”
More recently, John Cobb, the famous process theologian, released his book Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed. Cobb laments that misunderstandings of God’s nature have led many liberal Christians to eschew robust faith in the Deity that Jesus followed. The unfortunate result is that such a religion “rarely challenges its members to devote themselves to God.” Cobb understands the problems that have led believers to eschew God-talk. The list of these problems includes: claims of God’s absolute omnipotence, lack of compassion, scientific unreasonableness, and exclusivity. But these problems—he says—are not attributes of Jesus’s Abba God. We need to relate to God with the same manner of faith we see in Jesus, because The pressing issues of our world require actions that will be “hard to achieve without the belief in the One who is, or relates to, the whole and is felt worthy of our total devotion.”
In Luke 18:1, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (NRSV). This seems a timely word for our situation today. We need to keep our focus on the reality of God, who is present in the rough-and-tumble physicality of our world and is constantly working to create openings for grace and redemption. Accompanying such a focus, we need to remain steadfast in time-honored practices of prayer and contemplation that keep us “tuned in” to God. The stories of faith in our Scriptures include the presence of great evil, of intolerance, and of dire injustice. We should not be surprised to see the same powers and principalities at work in our world today; and by the same token we should expect to see Abba God powerfully at work in our midst. When fear and discouragement knock at our door we can reply “we have faith in God, nonetheless.”