by Julia Retta
“Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”
— Thomas Aquinas
Terrorist attacks are meant to instill fear in us. From the randomness of the timing to the innocence of the victims, they are designed to foster fear in all its forms: moral panic, collective anxiety, persistent dread. In their aftermath, we are meant to fear public spaces. Airplanes. Train stations. Shopping malls.
Following the terror attacks in Paris last weekend, we felt fear, mostly in the abstract. If you live in Paris or have friends and loved ones who do, then you felt fear in the specific: “Is my friend safe? Why hasn’t my wife come home yet? Is it safe to go out?”
But most of us, watching from a distance, felt only an abstract fear. We know this could happen in the United States. We know that the calculus of terrorism is so cruel and unpredictable—there’s only a 1 in 12,500,000 chance that you will die in a terror attack, but when we imagine if it was our daughter, boyfriend, best friend bathed in blood on the floor of a concert hall, we can’t banish that image or that fear.
Fear rings throughout Gov. Greg Abbott’s letter to the President informing him that Texas will not accept any (more) refugees from Syria in the wake of the Paris attacks. The letter is couched in terms that make it seem a practical, wise, forward-thinking response. But read between the lines: “American compassion could be exploited,” “expose Americans to similar deadly danger,” “concerns are plentiful.” He then cites a grand total of one (1) attack that happened in Garland, Texas (perpetrated not by refugees, but by a homegrown ISIS recruit from Phoenix) and two plots that ended in arrest. Therefore, he ends, “Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees — any one of whom could be connected to terrorism — being resettled in Texas.”
I am not writing this to vilify the governor. I am sure this is a politically expedient move; it may even be one he believes is right.
And he’s right on this: There is no guarantee that out of 10,000 Syrian refugees, none of them will be involved in terrorism. Actually, there is no guarantee that when you go to the grocery store, your favorite restaurant, a shopping mall, a movie theater, no one there will shoot you down. Just like there is no guarantee that you won’t die when you get in your car to drive to these places, take prescription medications, climb up on a ladder to put up Christmas lights (all are dangerous scenarios that are thousands of times more likely to result in your death than a terrorist attack).
But these scenarios don’t have the same power over us that terrorism does. They don’t create the same fear.
I tested myself on this. I often don’t think about dying when I drive, take medicine, or climb a ladder. But I know that I sometimes feel a flicker of worry — at least — at airports. I don’t think I’ve flown on an airplane a single time without briefly entertaining the possibility that my plane will be hijacked.
It’s human, we tell ourselves of this reaction. But when we allow it to become too strong, fear rules us. It overcomes our better instincts and whispers in our ear that the prudent thing is to be safe. Which is certainly true—it is far more prudent but much less Christ-like to be “safe” rather than loving, compassionate, selfless.
A poll from earlier this year (before the Paris attacks) showed 42 percent of Protestants approved of President Obama’s decision to accept more Syrian refugees, while 54 percent disapproved.
“Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” Marilynne Robinson writes. What would it look like to have a truly Christian habit of mind?
To answer that, ask another question: What is it that we fear? Is it specific — do we fear in the specific, for ourselves, our families, or churches? And what exactly are we afraid will happen? Destruction and loss of life? Do we fear becoming communities that live in perpetual dread of an attack that could come at any minute?
But as Christians, what do we truly have to fear from death and bodily harm? Why should the Christian community allow fear — general, collective fear — to dictate our behavior and actions, instead of love, compassion, and courage?
We are never truly safe in this life — none of us, whether we live in Houston, Texas or Beirut, Lebanon or Paris, France. If we as Christians take seriously our professed belief in the resurrection — if we believe Jesus when he tells us, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” — then we are called to live not in fear but in courage.
“What is the courageous response?” asks Trevin Wax of The Gospel Project. “To close the borders for good? To turn away thousands of families and children who, through no fault of their own, have been victimized by war and violence and long for peace?”
Here is courage: Giving shelter and aid to the stranger, even if he looks different than us, prays to a different God, speaks a foreign language. Courage is deciding that compassion is more important than our perception of our own “safety.” Courage is taking the dangerous, unpopular, reckless path toward the Cross — because that’s where Christ leads us.
Julia Retta is a member of Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Houston, TX, and works in local government