What frightens a people serves as a reliable guide to their idolatries.
~ Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths
About half a dozen years ago, I spent a few weeks holding cardboard signs outside of the commuter-hub of downtown Toronto–Union Station. All of the suburban business people would take the bus or, more usually, the train into the core of downtown and head from there to work in office buildings, banks, skyscrapers, and the Toronto Stock Exchange. It’s an interesting contrast — by day the streets are filled with suits, and the buildings full of some of the most over-paid people in Canada; by night the streets are littered with homeless people sleeping on grates, and the buildings are full of some of the most under-paid people in Canada (the overnight cleaning staff). The very rich and the very poor occupy the same space… yet rarely do they genuinely encounter one another. Odd, perhaps, but not accidental.
Anyway, for about two weeks, I would stand outside of Union Station during the commuter rush, and hold up a cardboard sign containing a single question. ‘What do you hope for?’ or ‘Are you free?’ or ‘What are you sure of?’ that sort of thing. I also held up a few statements. Specifically: ‘Stop trying so hard!’ and ‘Don’t be so afraid!’
It was a wonderful experience — some people poured out their lives to me, others brought me gifts (coffee, food, poetry), others heckled me, and still others tried to give me money (and were usually offended when I refused it; so I started writing ‘No money, please’ on my signs). I would hear strangers talking to one another in the crowd about the signs; others told me that they went home and discussed the questions at dinner with their families. In fact, of the various things I have done in my life, this ranks amongst my favourites (and, it should be noted, it is fairly easy to replicate in any major city around the world, should anybody else want to give this a shot!).
It was also interesting to note the different reactions I got to different questions. Some questions were certainly more popular than others (‘Are you free?’ being the one that actually got the most vocal positive and negative reactions), some statement were universally well received (‘Stop trying so hard!’ was much appreciated… after all, I did hold it up on a Friday) but ‘Don’t be so afraid!’ appeared to be the sign that people liked (or perhaps understood?) the least.
The topic of fear is one of the themes that has always been dominant in my life. This is so for at least three reasons. First of all, my own life was totally dominated by fear, up until about the age of 17. I reckon that this was due to a combination of the environment in the home in which I was raised and my own personality. Regardless, I was terrified of pretty much everything. I could barely speak in the presence of strangers, and I frequently cried because I was scared (hell, I remember bawling my eyes out when I got dropped off for Sunday school, which is basically the most harmless environment out there!).
As I went through my teenage years, I became increasingly aware of the hold that fear had on my life, and I began to take deliberate action to overcome it. I would go for walks in the woods at night, I would spend time in sketchy neighbourhoods downtown and I would spend time with people, and in social circles, that I found intimidating. Needless to say, I was scared out of my mind while doing these things… but I chose to keep doing them. Gradually, as I have noted elsewhere, my experiences of these people and places began to change. Gradually, I began to learn that the Spririt that haunts these people and places is the Spirit of God. Gradually my time with these people and places became a time of worship and, to my surprise, renewal.
So, yes, sometimes I still do get afraid by events I encounter (although this has grown less and less over the years), but fear no longer determines how I act or respond to that which I encounter (for example, I was initially afraid to hold up signs outside of Union Station, but that fear rapidly faded). This, by the way, is why I always find it somewhat amusing when people say that it ‘takes a special kind of person’ to do what I do — because I never was that person. If I have become something of that ‘special kind of person’ it is only because I have been converted and transformed in the process of this journey. The same goes for any of us. It is only after we commit to these things that we become that which is required (of course, that people persist to think and talk about ‘special kinds of people’, simply reveals how we use this line as an out for ourselves).
Which leads me to the second reason why fear is a frequent theme in my thinking. Gradually, as I encounter popular and Christian resistance to journeying in relationships of mutual love with the marginalised, I am increasingly aware that it is fear which motivates this resistance. Cut through all the arguments and the rationalisations (‘I’m not that special kind of person’ or ‘I’d just be enabling an addict if I give her money’ or whatever) and what you will find is a fear of engaging that which is Other than one’s self — and that which is, therefore, perceived as threatening.
The irony is that the threat perceived is often greatly over-inflated or illusory. ‘Dangerous’ neighbourhoods and people are never as dangerous as we imagine, and ‘safe’ neighbourhoods and people, are never as safe as we imagine. I learned this lesson well while working at a camp for rich Christian kids. I have known many young men and women who have suffered terrible physical and sexual abuses in the ghetto… but I have known nearly as many young men and women who have suffered the same terrible physical and sexual abuses in suburban Christian families. That this is usually forgotten in discourse related to ‘what should be done’ with pockets of urban poverty, simply demonstrates the ways in which fears are created and manipulated for the financial gain of the powers that be.
By the way, as we will see, financial gain is an important factor in all of this. I say that fear is a major obstacle to our journey with the marginalised, but the second great obstacle is greed. Should we overcome these two things, then we will be well on our way as disciples of Jesus.
Therefore, try as I might to encourage Christians to journey into deeper intimacy with the poor and the abandoned, I find that generally well-intentioned people are too dominated by fear to be able to respond with much more than a donation to a local charity (which, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but is a far cry from both what is needed and what Christ calls us to do).
Thirdly, a couple years back, I read a passage in one of N. T. Wright’s sermons, which mentioned that the command ‘Do not be afraid!’ or ‘Fear not!’ is thesingle most repeated command in the bible. This suggests to me that I’m not alone in thinking that fear is one of the great obstacles to discipleship (i.e. God and God’s messengers might think the same).
Now, it is in light of these things that I read the quote from Vinoth Ramachandra, which I used at the opening of this (rambling) post. This provides another interesting angle on things. In my own thoughts I had considered fear to be evidence of a lack of faith in God (i.e. we say that we have faith in God but, when push comes to shove, we do everything we can to avoid situations that require us to actually, and tangibly, rely on God) but Ramachandra carries this thought through to its conclusion: if our faith is not in God, it is in somebody or something else, and when somebody or something else replaces God, this is called idolatry.
Who then, I asked myself, are we worshipping when we are too afraid to love and help our neighbours in need? Perhaps it is the money we work so hard to gain. Perhaps it is the families for whom we work so hard. Perhaps it is simply the final out-working of the individualism that our society forces upon us; that is to say, perhaps our fear of Others is simply a manifestation of self-worship, and the ultimate expression of our primordial desire to ‘become like gods’. Perhaps.
However, there is more to this. As I mentioned above, our fear is often something created, manipulated, or exacerbated by other forces. In particular, our fears are driven by the ethos that is maintained by the power brokers of late capitalism. Perhaps, therefore, the influence of fear over our lives is simply a sign that we have allowed these power brokers to become as gods before us (which really shouldn’t be too surprising as many of the world’s cultures — from Egypt, to Babylon, to Rome — have treated the rulers as deities). In this regard, we must recall that who or what we worship isn’t so much determined by what we say, as by what we do. After all, who was it that said, ‘These people come near me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’?
Still, I would be curious to hear what others might think. If fear is a guide to idolatry, what do our contemporary fears betray about who or what we worship?