Politics of Fear

By December 14, 2017 4 Comments

by Kate Kooyman

We’re doing a little craft after dinner during Advent — I read parts of the story of Jesus’s birth, and then my kids work on painting a rock with a different character from the story each night. They’re making a little rock nativity scene of their own.

Gabriel was the first one. We read from Luke, and then while they were painting, I tried to be nonchalant as I asked them questions about the story. (If you met my kids, you’d know the best way to kill their interest in something is to act like you want them to be interested in it.)

I asked them about why they think Gabriel told Mary, “Do not be afraid.” They were stumped. Probably because they were drawing some pretty friendly looking angels on their rocks.

“What would you do if you saw an angel?” I asked. “Be so excited!” said my oldest. “Punch him in the leg,” said my youngest.

Fear brings out our worst, it seems. Fear is an enemy to faith, a spiritual battle to be overcome.

I’m going to say something that’s going to piss some people off now.

I learned recently that brain imaging studies show the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in people who lean conservative politically than it is in liberals. At Yale, an experiment was conducted that asked people to imagine themselves with a super power: they were invulnerable to harm. Completely safe. Then they were asked about their views on social issues like immigration. Turns out, feeling safe made them far more open to social change, like welcoming immigration policies.

This felt like a spiritual truth to me. Feeling safe makes us more open to “the other,” fear makes us dehumanize them. Following our calling, “do not fear,” has real-life consequences in a dangerous world.

We live in a country that talks about the poor, the immigrant, the refugee using language of contagion — they’re an epidemic, they’re leeches, they’re like a virus that spreads. This is the logic behind Iowa Rep. Steve King’s recent tweet suggesting that diversity is our weakness, posted with a photo of migrants in Europe in a makeshift tent community (like invaders seeking to destroy their host).

Steve King is a white supremacist, and he is largely supported by Christians. Christians who are fearful are less likely to be open to learning truths, like the fact that immigrants are a net boon for the economy and are less likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S.

This is a spiritual issue, because we who follow Jesus have a calling: do not be afraid. We have a mandate to deal with our fear. The coming of the kingdom of God, the revealing of the Good News, requires us to be made new. “I am not my own…” and, “Our world belongs to God,” and “Hide me in the shelter of your wings.”

It also requires that we see, name, and honor the image of God in one another. The stranger in our midst is nothing less than divine, if we are to take seriously our theology of creation and Jesus’s words in Matthew 25.

That Yale study was, in my opinion, a clarion call to the church. Being fearful has real consequences. It votes for the guys who pass the policies which have shut down refugee resettlement. (I’d admit, I feel like all I ever write about on this blog is immigration, but perhaps that is because this tragedy — we effectively no longer resettle refugees in this country — has unfolded without fanfare or outcry, and it will fundamentally shape who our churches and communities can become. Also people will suffer and people will die. And the church is complicit. If I’m going to be a broken record, it’ll be for that.)

Our fear problem has become our political problem, which has become our faithfulness problem. We can no longer claim that political opinions are unrelated to our spiritual lives.

Mary needed to deal with her fear, that God could dwell within her and among us. And we must do the same.


Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Helen Phillips says:

    As my niece Edie recently wrote in a blog post, “Safe is a lie.”
    We cannot lock, gate or secure ourselves in any way that ultimately guarantees our safety. If bad people want to do us harm they will find a way in.
    As Christian people we should be reaching out to others and reaching up to God who is our only source of security. It is in building bridges and community, with a firm belief God loves each one that we have any chance at all.

  • Don Klop says:

    I’m reminded that when Jesus says about the church, “…the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” Matt. 16:18, some people see a picture of the church huddled together surrounded by those gates about which Christ now promises will not advance against us. Others see those gates surrounding people and places in need of rescue, redemption and healing and as the church advances to those people and places those gates of Hades will not be able to resist or overcome our advance. Neither of these pictures are safe. I like the second one better and I’m glad for the promise. Thanks Kate for keeping us moving toward the people in need.

  • Hi Kate. I know many Conservatives who approach immigration from a very thoughtful, Scriptural, and non-fearful way. What would you say toward such common-sense motivations? By generalizing “the other” (in this case, your Conservative brothers & sisters), are you yourself being motivated by fear?

  • kate says:

    Dan, what are these conservatives asking for, policy-wise?

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