I’ve been watching the unfolding stories about Ebola for months now. Fear of this gruesome disease has gripped many, including both those near to and far from it. When talking about the latest news, a long-time friend quipped, “If I was on that cruise ship with the nurse who had been exposed to Ebola, I’d have her thrown overboard.” I chuckled at first and then realized that this otherwise generous, kind person was shockingly serious. Thomas Duncan’s family has not only lost their home and possessions but also their community. Though no longer in quarantine, they have been ostracized. They have become the objects of fear.
Fear, especially systemic fear, fractures community, because fear and love cannot coexist. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18).
The presence of fear, rather than love, and its deleterious effects on community is as evident in the church, in my estimation, as anywhere else. When pastors are gripped by the fear of being incompetent or weak, their capacities to connect with and understand congregants are diminished. Intent on reducing their own vulnerability, they may miss the beauty of fellowship or neglect to discern the Spirit’s quiet work. When a church council is driven by fear of diminishing numbers and/or dollars, the same is true. By focusing solely on what they lack and frantically attempting to compensate for it, they may fail, on the one hand, to abide in God’s love and, on the other, to discern the changing shape of Christ’s ongoing ministry in their context. When a denomination is consumed by fear of division, it is more likely to experience it. Because the very thing needed to cross barriers is absent, that is, love.
Now one more example . . . when church leaders and members experience a shift away from the dominant paradigm that represents their best understanding of faithfulness and when they respond by attempting to batten down the hatches, dig in their heels, or hold on for dear life, they are motivated by fear, at least in part. When fear of losing autonomy, integrity, faithfulness, belonging, and so forth, goes unchecked and runs rampant, individuals or groups may be targeted as pollutants to be eliminated, not entirely unlike Thomas Duncan’s family or the health care workers potentially exposed to Ebola. And when others in the church fail to hear the longings underneath this behavior, they, too, are likely to respond in ways inconsistent with love.
The love of God casts out fear. We can participate in that love. An unnamed benefactor in Dallas shared his or her home with Thomas Duncan’s family. Here was love driving out fear. Respite, comfort, shelter, safety, and perhaps even healing (spiritual and emotional) followed. My prayer is that God’s love would cast fear out of the church so that we might do likewise.