FEAR NOT: XENOPHOBIA
Psalm 27:1,14 Matthew 5:43-44 I John 4:18-19
The second in a series of six.
Adam Hamilton and Emanuel Cleaver were having a conversation. I don’t know if either of those names are familiar to you. They are perhaps the two best known United Methodist pastors around, but I realize even the best known United Methodist pastor is not exactly what you might call a household name.
Adam Hamilton is senior pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, our largest United Methodist Church. And Emanuel Cleaver was senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City for 37 years. He is best known for his second jobs while still serving as pastor. He was elected mayor of Kansas City where he served for eight years and then he was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he is still serving.
So these two highly respected faith leaders, one white and one black, were talking. They got on the subject of their early years, growing up in Kansas City. Adam wasn’t sure if he should say this, but he and Emanuel were good friends, so he decided to risk it. He said that when he was young his parents warned him to stay out of the part of town where Emanuel grew up. They told him bad things happen to white people who go there.
Emanuel smiled. He was not the least offended. Since Adam brought it up, he shared his childhood memory. His parents had warned him not to go to the part of town where Adam grew up. They told him bad things happen to black people who go there.
We are continuing today our series on fear. This week our subject is fear of people who are different from us. The technical term for this is xenophobia, which is a combination of two Greek words. You probably recognize “phobia”. It’s a word we use in English for fear. The “xeno” part comes from the Greek word for “strange”. So if you are xenophobic, it means you are afraid of that which is strange or different or unfamiliar. And since no two people are alike, it really means we are afraid of each other.
Last week we saw that the fear detector in our brains is kind of like the smoke detector in our homes. It often goes off even though there is nothing to fear. In fact, practically everything we fear is nothing to be afraid of. And that is certainly true of people who are different from us.
Yip Harburg is best known for writing the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Obviously, a very gifted man. But he lived during an era when xenophobia was running high. In the years following World War II, people in this country became very afraid of communism. It became more than a fear based a legitimate threat to our nation and it became a hysteria. The saying was that there were communists hiding under every rock.
Yip Harburg fell victim to this. He was not a communist. He called himself a socialist. Which is what Bernie Sanders calls himself. But back then if you were a socialist, that was close enough. And so from 1950 to 1962, what should have been his most productive years, Yip Harburg was blacklisted and not allowed to work in film, television, or radio.
There are many such examples in history. Fear of the other almost always results in actions we later regret.
One of the great statements ever made about fear came from Franklin Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address. You know it before I even say it. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
We were mired in the Great Depression. Those who lived through it will tell you it was way worse than the “Great Recession.” Way worse. There was a lot of fear in those days. And fear has a way of feeding on itself. It grows, kind of like a snowball rolling down a hill. That’s what was going on then. And those words spoken by our president helped.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Is that true? No, it’s not true. Fear was a reasonable response to the Great Depression. There are things we should fear. We don’t want to be like those lab rats we mentioned last week who had brain surgery that took away their fear of cats. If you are a rat, fear of cats is a healthy form of xenophobia!
So President Roosevelt was wrong when he said there is nothing to fear. There are things to fear. But he was more right than wrong because the vast majority of our fears are nothing we need to be afraid of.
We mentioned Mark Twain last week. “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Fear itself often is the problem.
But then came December 7, 1941. Franklin Roosevelt was still in the White House. The Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, suddenly there was a new fear in the air. And it didn’t help that the people we feared didn’t look like us.
This time our president didn’t tell us “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This time the xenophobia got the better of him and the better of pretty much the entire nation. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, authorizing the forced relocation and incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent. Not one of our finer moments.
So much of what we later regret relates to this single ugly word, xenophobia.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that made it illegal for black people to ride in a train car with white people. There were cars for whites and there were cars for blacks. They figured that would be better for everyone. And everyone pretty much went along, except for a man named Homer Plessy.
Which train car would you say he should ride in? Well, actually Homer Plessy was 7/8 white and 1/8 black which according to Louisiana law made him a black man.
He rode in a railroad car designated for white people and he was arrested. His case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and in Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896, by a vote of 7-1 it was determined that separate but equal accommodations do not violate the 14th amendment to the constitution.
That ruling stood for 58 years. That ruling made possible this:
It wasn’t until 1954, the year before I was born, that “separate but equal” was finally struck down. And of course on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend we have to acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do.
Race continues to be a source of fear. But xenophobia rears its ugly head in many other ways these days.
There is the fear of Muslims. Even though there are 1.5 billion of them and only a handful engage in terrorism.
There is the fear of gays and lesbians. They are different from the majority of us. And somehow that makes them seem a threat.
There is the fear of Donald Trump. There, I said it. Fear of what he might do, or what he might say. Some of you would say it’s a rational fear. Others of you would say it’s an irrational fear – that it’s those who are afraid that we should fear. But there is a lot of fear, nonetheless. Just for fun, I googled the words “fear Trump”. I got 62 million hits.
Here’s where I am on President Trump. It’s no different from where I was on President Obama. I may disagree with him. But I won’t be afraid of him. The words of the Psalm 27 are good words, whoever our president might be.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall
I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom
shall I be afraid?
So what do we do with this fear called xenophobia? We’re going to be closing each week with some practical things I hope will help.
1) When it comes to fear of the other, it is a fear that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so the first thing we can do is simply reach that conclusion. This doesn’t make sense. So we think things through, we assess the threat, if any, and we stop fearing what we have no reason to fear.
I have a vivid memory from childhood. On my walk to kindergarten I would sometimes come upon a man named Clyde Puckett. He was kind of a mountain man. He didn’t drive a car. He rode a horse. He didn’t shave. He had a long, scraggly beard. The sight of him approaching would terrify me. So I didn’t want to walk to kindergarten any more.
My dad knew Clyde Puckett. He knew he was a kind and gentle man. He told me that. He told me there was no reason for me to be afraid. I was afraid just because he looked scary to me. He looked “strange”, which is the root meaning of xenophobia.
My dad could have driven me to school. He would have gladly done that. But I think he knew that it was a good time for his son to face his fears. So he told me the next time I saw Clyde Puckett riding on his horse, don’t run away. Walk right up to him with a big smile on my face and say, “Hi!”
I remember that conversation with my dad very distinctly. I honestly don’t remember if I took his advice. But it was good advice.
2) There is a spiritual way to face our fears. We saw last week how King David would write and sing songs to God when he was afraid. Like Psalm 27. Let’s read the first and last verses of that great Psalm together.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall
I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom
shall I be afraid? . . . Wait for the Lord; be strong and
let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
So here is what David is saying. I know I have enemies who would love to kill me, but I also know that God is walking by my side. So why should I be afraid? God is my stronghold. God is my fortress. God will either deliver me from my enemies or God will deliver me from this life on earth and I will live forever in heaven. Either way, I win.
That’s more true for us than it even was for David. As Christians we know that death has been conquered and that means we don’t have to be afraid. So we read in Romans, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” And the answer is, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even death!”
There are so many wonderful scriptures like these, written especially for us at those moments when we are most afraid. But for those words to be more than just words, so we don’t just see them with our eyes and hear them with our ears, so they can enter our hearts, there is a simple technique you may find helpful. It’s called “lectio divina”. That just means “divine reading.”
Instead of reading those verses from Psalm 27 in ten seconds, you take ten minutes. Here’s the process. You begin with the prayer, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then you read the scripture silently, listening for what it is saying to you. You pray again, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” This time you read the passage out loud, attentive to things you may have missed the first time.
You keep doing this, until the scripture becomes personalized. There is something here – a word or a phrase – that is just for you. You might want to underline it, or take notes. You take time to ponder what God is saying to you.
Finally, you take the words of the scripture and make them into a prayer. It might sound something like this:
Lord, you are my light and my salvation. How can I be afraid? Please help me not be afraid! Help me remember that you are my stronghold. You are my fortress. Help me to wait on you, O Lord. To remember that you are by my side. Make me strong. Give me courage. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Try it. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK. But I think you will find that this simple, ancient way to read scripture will help the words move from you head to your heart. Your heart will feel calm and you will realize that you are no longer afraid.
3) Jesus taught us a very specific way to work through our fear of the other. He said, love your enemy. You can’t love someone you don’t know, so first you get to know your enemy. You say “hi” to that scary Clyde Puckett and you find out he’s not so scary after all. I thought he was my enemy. He’s not.
Most people we fear are not our enemies. So Jesus said, love your neighbor. You can’t do that unless you get to know your neighbor. Even though they don’t look like you or act like you or believe like you. But you get to know them anyway, you step outside your comfort zone, and you discover the goodness in their heart that you wouldn’t otherwise know is there.
Here’s the thing: Once you know them, once you love them, you will find it almost impossible to be afraid of them.
Which brings us finally to that wonderful verse in I John. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (4:18).
Adam Hamilton and Emanuel Cleaver discovered in that conversation that they had been taught as children to be afraid of each other. But they didn’t need to be afraid of each other.
Adam Hamilton had also been taught as a child to be afraid to the Russians. They were going to bomb us. They wanted us all dead. So he went through those drills in which everyone in his class would huddle under their desks.
Years later he traveled to Russia. He met Russian people and got to know them. He discovered they were good people. And he learned something about them he had never imagined.
When they were young, they were taught to be afraid of the Americans. We were going to bomb them. We wanted them all dead. And so in grade school, they had the very same drills in which they would all huddle under their desks.
We don’t need to be afraid of each other. We need to love each other. For “perfect love drives out fear.”
Lord God, you know that we are fearful by nature. You know how naturally we become afraid of those who are not like us. Even those who are like us in every way, except they don’t see the world as we do. They have strongly held opinions that are not the same as our strongly held opinions. Help us, O God, to not give into fear, to not give into hate. Help us to love those who are not like us. And since no one is like us, I guess that must mean to love everyone. As you do. In Jesus, Amen.