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Fear, Force and Faith

Between the Lincoln Memorial and the White House is a statue of Christopher Columbus.  It is a grand image, inspiring, but perverse for the lie it perpetuates.  His horse rears.  His breastplate makes him look muscular and Roman.  He is bringing European sensibilities to the sub-human savages of the New World.  Of course, it’s all grandiose posturing, ego writ larger than life, as if that’s good.  We still celebrate Columbus with a holiday even though we know how cruel he was.  He waged invasion and subjugation, imposing fear and force, demanding they accede to his faith.  Unfortunately, his tactics were repeated in various forms throughout the American story, from the Indians to the Iraqis.  The “Shock and Awe” we inflicted on the Iraqi people was backed by many Americans as some sort of generous rescue and blessed salvation.  We were responding to our own fear by forcing our sanctimonious faith on them too.

Fear, force, and faith reside in humans.  We’re built of it and subject to its tossing us to and fro.  It isn’t new to us or limited to us; it’s the human condition.  Our own American beginnings tried to reorient our fear, force, and faith, but laudable though our beginnings mostly were, we keep falling prey to the tricks played on us by those who wield those woes well. The American faith is in people, us, not some king or pope.  It overcame the fear and force imposed by such rulers to declare we can live free and responsibly.  Though some of this came to us via the Enlightenment in Europe, much of it came from the Native Americans themselves.

Ben Franklin was Pennsylvania’s Indian agent.  He admired the Iroquois and the Algonquin democratic assumptions and practices.  Like Elohim God in Genesis One, the Hurons believed in universal liberty and equality, declaring each person, male or female, was sovereign.  They were shocked and dismayed at the economic and spiritual poverty of the Europeans, complaining they pushed women into prostitution and men into military service, both usurpations of what they would naturally otherwise do.  The Hurons ruled by consensus, as did the rest of the Algonquin nation.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, only one in twenty could vote in England, and in Scotland, only 3000 people were so-empowered.  No Catholics were allowed.  The humanistic and democratic aspects of our new nation were taken from our own natives and Enlightenment ideas more than from Old World models.  But this was far from being a done deal.  More blood was shed between rebels and loyalists in the Revolutionary War than between rebels and English soldiers.  And even then, despite what the Declaration of Independence declared what we should do, the Constitution decreed what we could do.  That was largely crafted for wealthy white men to gain and keep power and money, not bring women, slaves, and others into the democratic process.  Slavery, imposed by force, maintained by fear, was blessed by a faith in our superiority and spiritual destiny.

Though some would have us return to the supposed Christian Nation of the founders, none of them were orthodox Christians.  Washington was more Roman than Christian, opting out of communion services.  When some Christian clergy wanted Washington to oust John Murray for being a Universalist, he instead upgraded him in rank.  Jefferson was derided by Christian clergy for being too deist.  Theirs was a budding faith in us as sovereign humans able to decide our own governing decisions.  Noble in intent, it only gradually widened participation, slowly including negroes and women, but often taking fear, force, and faith as givens in overpowering and subjugating others.

The decimation of the Indians and the vast herds of buffalo, the wars with Spain and Mexico, the taking of Cuba and the Philippines, the two world wars, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan all were pumped up with pride and piety while inflicting fear via force.  When some objected, as during Vietnam, they were derided as traitors rather than respected for their brave voice of conscience.  There is something in the human spirit that may succumb to fear but finally stands up to it.  We don’t like being told what to believe.  We don’t like imposing our mighty force on unfortunate innocents.  Our faith is in something nobler than flag-flapping for invasions and exploitations.  We see the inherent worth and dignity in all peoples, even those we’re told to demonize.

People’s propensity to turn fear into faith-sanctioned force is easily elicited.  This dismays and wears on us.  Fear is easy to rouse.  Force is easy to wield.  Faith is easy to feign.  Overcoming these in and around us is more difficult.  We resist joining the fear, force, and faith game, but grow defensive and weary.  We think, “I have to be like this and it will never change.”  Cynicism is easy; hope is difficult.

Witness the recent desperate tactics of Tea Party loudmouths.  Each tried to top the other in riling our reactions.  Frequent warnings that they were so angry they were going to turn to “second amendment” solutions in forcing their views competed to outdo each other.  The opponent of Gabby Gifford bragged he would welcome those who agreed with him to shoot M-16’s with him.  Sarah Palin’s people put crosshairs on the candidates they disliked.  Shootings in churches for no good reason drew only momentary attention.  Self-righteous irate indignation and mean bully pushiness became a modus operandi, the sport of spite.   Curious how judgmental sanctimoniousness and domination methods often go together.  Each strengthens the other.  Fear motivates voters more than any intelligent ad; so fear is what they use.

Fear is more ancient than humanity even.  Birds spend more time watching out for predators than they do eating.  Our primitive brain mechanisms put “wary” and “flee” deep in our reactions.  Even our more evolved brains are subject to fear.  Deep in our evolutionarily older mid-brain is the amygdala, a sort of brain of its own, remembering especially fear.  All impulses go first to the amygdala to be evaluated.  Far more neurons go out from Reaction Central to our higher thinking brain than go back to it.  Fear is easily remembered and roused.  It takes quite a bit of pre-frontal calming to reprogram that fear.  Meditation can fix a riled up amygdala, but it takes persistence, a supportive community, and an overall worldview to really live higher than fear.

That’s a lot to ask for in today’s America.  There are a lot of stimuli to fear.  The economy has been flat for three decades.  Half of the millions of jobs recently lost had earned $17 to $31 an hour, while three quarters of the fewer jobs created are in the $9 to $15 range.  Productivity has steadily improved, but the reward for it hasn’t gone to the workers who made it work so well.  Incessant anti-government rhetoric has the rich and the international corporations all extracting vast monies from our society while blatantly draining it and stingily returning as little as possible.  Millions of families are suffering the systematic foreclosures that ruin their credit and take their houses.  Scarcity leads to stress which leads to strife.  Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Thus shaken, we are also inundated with hundreds of things to fear every day.  The nightly news gathers up scary events and then uses them to sell medicines.  Our movies and TV make violence the entertaining way to solve conflicts.  Hate radio and certain news shows regularly ridicule liberals or anyone who wants a kinder, fairer society.  In the Tea Party and on the blogosphere, spite has become sport.  Fear, hate, and self-righteousness rile and ruin us regularly.

Rabbi Michael Lerner complains that hate talk radio has mobilized legitimate anger in illegitimate ways.  We need to understand why even privileged people are hurting.  Whether on welfare or wealthy, we’re widely afraid and easily angry.  We need to validate their anger, directing it away from the mistaken targets of hate radio and towards “the ethos of selfishness and materialism that systematically frustrates our meaning-needs and our desire for genuine recognition and love.” (POM, 177)

Whether it’s rats in a cage, babies in an orphanage, or families in a bind, keeping stress alive while removing ways to solve it contributes to an ongoing sense of frustrated failure.  We then learn to feel helpless and that leads to depression, despair, and disease.

If we turn on each other, it gets worse.  If we turn to each other, there is hope.

In Robert Ornstein’s and David Sobel’s “The Healing Brain – How the Brain Keeps us Healthy,” they show how our brain literally shrinks or grows according to whether we are in stable, interesting and supportive relationships or not.  Alienation, powerlessness, and uncertainty lead to stress diseases.  Strong commitments to self, work, family, and world, a sense of control, and the ability to see change as challenge rather than threat all keep us healthier.  It isn’t just that we have incredibly able brains that keep us healthy, we aid this by our beliefs.  Name and explanation go a long way to orienting us in an often chaotic world.

When it comes to meaning, thinkers as disparate as Rabbi Lerner and evangelical Christian minister Jim Wallis both want us to go beyond the old “left” and “right” categories and dichotomies.  When it comes to God’s politics, Wallis says, “the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it.”  Episcopal priest Randall Balmer, in his “God in the White House,” complains in matters of faith, Americans eat the pabulum of pious superiority.  Sentimental self-righteousness substitutes for sensibility.  The problem isn’t in our congressional representatives, it’s in who and what they’re representing.  We’re hooked on the cheap grace of substituting being saved for being smart, ethical, and communal.  The fundamental meanness of believing there are the chosen and the damned infects our economic relations, our justice system, and our foreign policy.  By pushing fear, force, and cheap faith, we lose hope and means to a peaceable kingdom.

We inherit a more demanding and rewarding tradition.  Our efforts can feel lonely and futile, but in the long-run, they are the saving grace of our personal and collective condition.  The brave honesty and peaceful resolve of Jesus, Ghandi, and King remind us that martyrdom does not kill the idea.  I am not for martyrdom.  We should live honestly and well and not expect or accept trouble for it.  This doesn’t just apply to social movements.  We need to overcome our own inner fears and those that others try to lay on us.  We don’t have to be heroes.  We don’t have to be victims.  We don’t have to be victimizers.  We can rise above the fear, force, and faith of the old ways to remember and revitalize the bravery and trust of daring to fulfill a new faith – in ourselves, each other, and the forces of nature.  It is in these that any sort of godliness will come through.  Just imagine what sort of a society we would have if the old Christian values of forgiveness, compassion, and care were more prevalent than a society assumed to be best built by “all being against all.”  Our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions often incarnated a heavenly love in an earthly way.

But not easily and always.  Unitarianism of the 19th century was elitist.  The upper class owned and occupied the pews.  Lawyers and bankers were twenty times more likely to attend the Unitarian church than the Episcopal even.  Most of the Harvard faculty and student body were Unitarian.  Attempts to include workers and farmers, or to speak towards political systems that would be fairer to them, were mostly absent.  The Universalists meanwhile were more representative of average Americans.  Farmers and teachers built inclusive congregations that spoke towards visions of an earthly version of universal salvation.  Today, our standing has lessened, our numbers remain flat, but our aspirations are towards more inclusivity and economic and ecological justice.  But we’re the oddballs in the American religious spectrum, a long way from the “flawed but faithful” diversions that occupy the American religious mind.

The mythic, theological, and value ideas we adopt matter very much in our private and social lives.  While we can’t do much here to alter the course of politics or the media ocean we share, we can understand the caustic and dysfunctional aspects of those ideas.  They abound, but they need not get us.  The fear, force, and fallen faith that often prevail need not be our way in our political, social, and private lives.  We have a history and a vision of a higher, holier, more whole life.  This new vision is in many ways similar to the ancient Christianity that sought to turn the other cheek, take in the stranger, care for the widow, and elevate humanity to the glory we were meant to be.

Meanwhile, a systematic dismantling of our government and society is driving us all by and to fear, force, and phony faith.  Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist said, “We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals – and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.”  The sure-fire tactics of attacking with defensiveness or malice rouses up bitter partisanship and round we go, caught in the cycles of revenge.  Our biology is easily bound up.  Politically, popularly, and personally, we need to live into a faith that doesn’t succumb to fear or force.  It takes real maturity and steady skill to avoid the mid-brain morass of pain and fear, and live from a higher brain sense of mutual care, patriotism, ingenuity, and humor.

My sermon from last month on Pronoia and positive psychology reminded us of the wisdom of a caring community helping each other to live up to their best rather than chasing each other with our worst.  It is unwise to accept the “fallen” view of humanity that leads to our putting up with presumptuous rulers and all the suffering they leave in their wake.  We need to deliberately move towards all the pleasures and goodness we can discover and manifest in our lives.  We need this nationally, but lacking leadership in this direction, we have to create it in our private lives and little circles.

One such place is here at fellowship.  In a highly mobile society wracked by economic disaster and goaded by a violence-ridded media sporting mean-minded loud mouths, we need a haven for intelligent, heart-full community.  From ancient religious wisdom to modern brain psychology we have consistent advice: be whole and holy together.  This means the problems of the world will show up here in difficult people or situations.  OK, we’ll deal with that.  These are opportunities for learning, healing, and growth.  An embarrassing episode, a troubled person, a tragic loss, an unseemly outburst – all these are ours to meet and master.  But more than dealing with trouble, we need to practice positivity.  Being with each other in song, meaning, and joy is so much more wonderful and rewarding than struggling independently with fear, force, and phony faith.

Our faith is in our human selves born of a vast cosmos for meanings we discover and devise as we go.  Our faith is in our religious tradition that calls on our best rather than chides us for our worst.  Our faith is that the old daunting tricks of fear and force will not prevail and will instead be transmuted into love and trust.  Like it or not, we are all one.  Living in that one as ones fully alive with and for each other will unveil all we need to be good Americans and earthlings.  We’re all Christopher Columbus finding and founding a new world.  We don’t need a phony breastplate or glorious statue; we need each other, as fearless, respectful, ingenious, and actualized as can be.  May this fellowship always be an agent of this new faith.

Reverend Brad Carrier

For the UU’s of Grants Pass

© April 10, 2011

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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