The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Do Not Be Afraid
Reading the o-so-familiar Christmas narrative in Luke, it seems obvious that the Angels of God receive standardized training for their visits among the humans. Every appearance of the winged messengers begins with the same phrase: "Do not be afraid."
It is tempting to belittle that saying, to write it off as a generic anxiety reduction strategy employed by the angels when they frighten the pants [the robes?] off of terrified people. We should not dismiss the message lightly, though.
"Do not be afraid" may be one of the most profound instructions that we can receive in these days. Indeed, heeding that message may be a precondition for understanding any of the words about "good news" that the angels bring.
In so many ways, we as a people are deeply afraid. The daily news of endless wars make us all worry if there are any real prospects for peace. Fundamentalism populates our world with those who are willing to impose their beliefs, whether through bombings or absolutist politics. People of means seek to cope with fear by living in gated communities, installing alarms on homes and cars, and avoiding contact with those they do not trust. For those on the financial edge, fear is triggered by unemployment and uncertain jobs, unaffordable health insurance, and rising utility prices.
Depending on your news source, you may be hammered by fearful reports of budget deficits, guns on the street (either too many, or not enough), decaying social values, or predictions of apocalyptic ecological collapse.
Fear is all around us -- often cultivated by those who profit from our anxiety. Fear is deep within us. It is not just to Mary and the shepherds that the message applies: Do not be afraid.
Fear is an emotion -- a legitimate reaction to danger and threat. Being afraid is a way of life. Being afraid lets the emotion of fear shape our self-understanding and our behaviors.
The biblical voice -- from Genesis to Revelation -- turns us from that way of life. It says "Do not be afraid." Do not live your life in response to fear.
Being afraid makes us strive for control. It makes us focus defensively on ourselves. It makes us define others as enemies. It makes us more willing to inflict great costs on those we see as "other", so that we can be safe.
The divine voices tell us, over and over again, do not be afraid. Let go of your deep-seated fear-fullness. Do not worry too much about what will happen to you.
The message of the angels does not call us to be passive or complacent. It does not suggest that we should be oblivious to the dangers and risks around us. Rather, we are to let go of fear, so that we can live fully and faithfully in the midst of very real difficulties.
Do not be afraid -- don't cling so tightly to your own interests, your own needs, your own life, that you are unable to do the will of God. Act as one filled with faith, not fear.
Mary is told "Do not be afraid" just before she is told that she will become a social outcast for her pregnancy. Not being afraid is a precondition for her act of acceptance.
In Luke, Jesus tells his followers: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is [God's] good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms."
"Do not be afraid" is not a stress reduction strategy, a deep-breathing exercise to reduce momentary anxiety. "Do not be afraid" is a call to life-long obedience and service.
Johann Christoph Arnold wrote:
Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death. And so it comes down to this: the only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to live life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death. This sounds grandiose, but it is really very simple. It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves, instead of for others. It means choosing generosity over greed. It also means living humbly, rather than seeking influence and power. Finally, it means being ready to die again and again - to ourselves, and to every self-serving opinion or agenda.
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"Do not be afraid" is a deep message of faith and spirituality. Those words lift Christmas out of sentimentality and triteness. But what does all this have to do with eco-justice?
The fear-full quest for status and security is a major factor in the rapid depletion of the Earth's resources. Fear and insecurity drive the wealthy and powerful -- individuals and nations alike -- to consolidate their holdings and to accumulate more, widening the obscene gap between rich and poor. Fear blinds us to the misery of the oppressed, and the plight of the endangered. Fear leads us to be more concerned with our own immediate comfort, convenience and freedom than we are with the prospects for future generations.
Fear and self-interest are everywhere at the United Nations negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen this week. Nations clinging to prosperity and independence are ready to block the dramatic policies that we need to maintain God's creation. There is a difference between the nations which cry out for their absolute survival -- the island nations of Tuvalu and the Maldives, for example -- and those whose fearfulness makes them unwilling to relinquish their claims on progress and affluence.
Eco-justice seeks the well-being of all humanity on a thriving, sustainable Earth. Fear moves us away from eco-justice. Fear increases conflict, destines many to suffering and death, and depletes the Earth.
Be not afraid. The words of the angels, the words of Jesus are hard, and yet they are also the words that lead us to salvation -- both spiritually and pragmatically, both individually and culturally.
So be it. Amen.
Do Not Be Afraid is an update of a similar Notes from 12/17/2004.
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