Not Fearing Our Neighbors

Fear of others is a powerful emotion. It is a very human response toward the unknown. An unknown group of people or community can create this emotion in us.

Fear creates an internal warning system in each person to keep the individual from doing things that might injure that person. Related to fear is disgust, an emotion that keeps us from doing things that will harm us either physically, mentally, or socially.

I am very familiar with the fear of what might happen when venturing into new spaces. I have walked with many Transgender sisters making their early steps authentically into the world who were terrified of this unknown world they were entering.  In many cases, some of that fear was understandable as I saw and felt the fear and disgust of those interacting with a Transgender group for the first time.

And yet, I have seen this same fear of the other everywhere now. I remember sensing this fear in some people as I flew home from California in March in the middle of the shutdown process happening in this country.  We see this same fear and disgust when we go to the grocery store, where those just a few months ago who were our neighbors are now potential pathogens that might kill us. You can see it in other’s body language, their eyes, and in the effective walls put in place to keep them safe.

Given all the news hype, it is no surprise about everyone’s fear. This fear others most of our community and creates even higher walls with those outside of our local community.

From the beginning of the shutdown, I have been concerned about how our community would come back together afterward. My concerns have not decreased in the least over the last two months.

I have been in many meetings recently in many directions where effectively fear of the others set the tone of the meeting. Will we continue to go about “othering” everyone outside of our household or family group? How do we move from shutting down everything around us to remain safe to community where we at least do not fear the people near us? And if we are intentional and successful in these steps, how might we extend these lessons to break down barriers and fear that divided us before everything shut down?

Disgust enables us to avoid things in the world that might cause us harm, and that includes harm from outside viruses. Fear is closely related in providing warnings to these dangers. We want a clean and safe space to operate, a space free of any threat to our lives.

And yet, these directions can go too far. The fear driving the need for a clean space, a need to be disease free and sterile brings about some of the worst in humanity.

Many dictators and tyrants make a priority of having a clean space around them.  Some of the first actions of the Nazis in 1930s Germany were to create high standards of cleanliness, only then to proceed by “cleansing” the population.

When we look at either the Hebrew (Old) Testament or the New Testament, the most common phrase (80+ occurrences) said when God or an angel encounters humanity is “Fear not”.  A few notable examples include:

Isaiah 41:10: “So fear not, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 43:1 “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Fear not, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Lamentations 3:57 “You came near when I called on you; you said, Fear not!”

Mark 5:36 “Jesus told him, Fear not; have faith.”

Mark 6:50 “He (Jesus) spoke to them and said, Take courage! It is I. Fear not.

Luke 12:32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Revelation 1:17 “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: Fear not. I am the First and the Last.”

“Fear not” was spoken to great leaders and to shepherds, to prophets and to a peasant woman. Everyone needs to hear these words, both in ancient times and now.

This phrase does not mean to completely ignore fear or healthy disgust, as a healthy level keeps an individual from danger. It does not imply to take unnecessary risks or ignore reasonable precautions, and yet, fear and disgust can easily run away into being paralyzed by fear as well as run away into disgust in othering ones neighbors.

My favorite Psalm, Psalm 27, speaks of confidently pushing back crippling fear:

The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.

Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.

This Psalm speaks to our real-world experience, to a world where enemies and foes of overwhelming strength break out against us, including viruses and implication of disease. The writer of this Psalm is confident that God knows knowing their destiny is in the hands of a loving God; and that frees them to move forward. Scripture often shows individuals acting in spite of overwhelming fear (e.g. Psalm 23:4[1], Deut 31:6[2]).

These verses strengthen the courage for those stepping out into difficult situations. A transgender individual taking their first public steps, shopping for authentic clothes, coming out to friends, or living full-time in public understands that these fears might gain strength hearing these words and knowing that God is with them.

Jesus connected with the lepers and even touched them. Most individuals in Jewish society saw these diseased people with such disgust and fear that lepers had to keep their distance from mainstream society. Lepers were required to loudly announce their presence if they were coming close to those in mainstream society. And yet, Jesus came to them, and saw their humanity, even though there was a perceived risk to his humanity.

Jesus tells of the story of a Samaritan that would be revered by those who followed him for centuries to come. This Samaritan, a strained but related member of the Jewish community, cared for the beaten individual on the side of the road. He easily enough could have othered the person on the ground, as the two other Jewish religious individuals othered that beaten man.

And yet he broke through the disgust of the other, broke through the fear of what could happen, and helped that individual. Today, the word Samaritan is recognized worldwide leading to this example of one stepping out in spite of their fear of the other in all its forms, pushing against the disgust reaction of health and societal dangers.

The followers of Jesus remembered that they followed one who radically cared for others, and likewise they would care for those in their community. Early Christians in Greco-Roman society were known for radically helping those who were sick. During major illnesses and plagues in the Roman Empire, if you were sick, your family would often push you out of the household, primarily out of fear of getting the illness.

The natural disgust response is to remove the potentially dangerous elements to avoid getting sick yourself. Even the doctors would leave in these cases, such as the Roman physician Galen leaving the city of Rome during the lethal Antonine Plague starting in 165 CE until the disease ran its course.

And yet, followers of Jesus during these times remembered they followed one who moved past these fear and disgust responses and saw the humanity of these others. These followers took care of the sick, even though they were not family or had any responsibility of any kind, some of them getting sick in the process.

These early followers developed techniques to improve their safety in their service, and through these efforts we see the seeds for concepts of modern hospitals open to all in the community. These early followers pushed past their fear and disgust knowing that their life had meaning both on earth and in heaven. And the wider Roman world took note of this community, and some even started to embrace it.

We come from such a powerful tradition, pushing back the fear and disgust of the other to love and serve them, a tradition of which we need to be reminded during these uncertain days.

What keeps you in fear? It is a question I often must ask myself. For those of Christian faith, we know God walks with us and we know our life is secure in God’s hands.

Who are we othering? Our neighbor in the grocery store trying to take care of their family? The individual who has a different political perspective and a different take on how society should proceed in these uncertain times?

Jesus speaks that we are to build community from all nations – and all means all. That includes the very people you want to other.

In these uncertain times, do not fear and do not look in disgust on those around you. And together, we will all come through these uncertain times far better together in community, being an example to the world of what could be.

Verse Citations
[1] Psalm 23:4:“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”
[2] Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”