Support the Café

Search our Site

Letter to the Editor: On Fear

Letter to the Editor: On Fear

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


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
JC Fisher

Good God, this thread is depressing. In most of the responses directly to the article, I see so little of Christ (ethics modeled on Christ) here. Kyrie eleison!

Matt 25:43 “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in”

Anand Gnanadesikan

Amen! I’ve been thinking about Matthew 25 all day…

Mark Mason

The Baptismal Covenant was evoked early on in the thread. That is a part of it was, the last part. What was counted as rightousness in the Aqedah? The Baptismal Covenant has all those “Will you’s” in it. We have simply been trying to reconcile the meaning of the “Will you’s” with Christ-like obediance.

Paul Goings

Perhaps it’s the case that those who are opposed to welcoming refugees have decided that those refugees are not fully human and deserving of having their lives protected, if there’s any cost to their safety, security, comfort, etc., as so many in the west have done with respect to children still in the womb? What’s good for the goose…

David Allen

You really don’t want to go there with that logic! I believe that it’s many of the very same folks & their leaders who rant in the streets outside women’s health clinics, who also are currently ranting about closing borders to the refugees.

Harry M. Merryman

I’d like to discuss this further, but this is not the place. Send me an email if you’re interested.

David Allen

Harry, I don’t think that I am violating the “mission” of The Lead. I don’t view candid commentary or critique of someone’s poor logic to be a personal attack on their person or their character. No more than labeling someone’s argument a certain fallacy of logic to be. Or calling out a commenter’s continual childish behavior.

You appear to want The Lead to be staid and stodgy, like sherry in the parlor with the rector. I want to participate in more of a pub conversation that has some give and take. I think the other volunteer editors do as well, especially the few of us who regularly participate in the conversations.

Harry M. Merryman

Thanks for this ingenuous response and for clearing this up for me. I see now that you were just trying to avoid a tangent. Obviously, it was “inane” of me to assume that you would wish to adhere to the Cafe’s stated mission.

David Allen

I didn’t agree with you Harry. I edited my comment as a means to move on from the off-topic tangent. To no avail because you persist.

Harry M. Merryman

“You get what you get. But you don’t get to dictate what it is that you get. It would be nice that you would take what you got and be happy.”

The point is that nobody else here has the ability to unsay something they have posted, as if it hadn’t been said. You do. When called on it, the difficulty in your post just disappears. In the course of normal interaction, if I say something I later regret, I can’t just unsay it. I have to explicitly acknowledge my behavior and its effect. The beauty of this is that this explicit acknowledgement, however painful it may be, works to strengthen mutual trust and honest dialog.

BTW, if you review what I posted, I have not “dictat[ed]” anything. I have stated a preference. You state that it is your preference that I would be happy with how you have handled this. For the reasons stated above, I am hoping you might reconsider your preference.

JC Fisher

“by defining some human beings as outside the protection of law, liberals have undermined the case for protecting the vulnerable”

Argh! I don’t want to respond to this entirely off-topic thread, but I cannot remain silent.

The burden of proof here is that by defining fetuses as human beings, anti-choicers have empowered EVERY concern trollish excuse for doing nothing for actual human beings who are vulnerable.

Syrians fleeing Assad or ISIS already know what it is to have a State try to control their bodies. I want to spare American women the same, OK? [Or else *I* will be fleeing to Canada or wherever!]

Anand Gnanadesikan

Actually I would go there.

The argument is simply that by defining some human beings as outside the protection of law, liberals have undermined the case for protecting the vulnerable. This is the Catholic “seamless web of life” argument, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-asylum.

Which doesn’t make the Republican temper tantrum over Syrian refugees any less horrifying or un-Christian. It just means that liberals can be equally inconsistent when it comes to their own self-definition.

Prof Christopher Seitz

My comment pertained to:

“You get what you get. But you don’t get to dictate what it is that you get. It would be nice that you would take what you got and be happy.”

David Allen

This is Jon’s story. He is the one that the moderating software alerts to your comments here today Christopher.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Mr Merryman–your comment describes what many of us regularly experience.

If this comment appears, it will be surprising.

David Allen

You get what you get. But you don’t get to dictate what it is that you get. It would be nice that you would take what you got and be happy.

Harry M. Merryman


Thank you for editing out the word “inane” which originally appeared before the word “logic” in your post (above). I assume that you agreed with my point about respectful dialog? If so, I would have appreciated a post that stated as much. None of us should expect that everyone here–even moderators–will not occasionally get carried away and say things that one later regrets. The difference is that, unlike moderators, the rest of us can’t edit our posts after the fact, as if they hadn’t appeared in the first place.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Thank you, Mr Merryman.

Harry M. Merryman

“I strongly believe that most of us who support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body also support allowing Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.”

I have not seen any data indicating a correlation between these views. While I am pro-choice and also support relief for Syrian refugees, I have some pro-choice friends who do not support US asylum for Syrian refugees.

Beyond that, I found the labeling of another’s views as “inane” at odds with the Cafe’s ” . . . mission of fostering respectful dialog . . .”

David Allen

I strongly believe that most of us who support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body also support allowing Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.

The folks who don’t support the right of a woman to choose what happens to her own body are also the folks I see opposing allowing Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.

The theory that you are presenting is that we who support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body have no regard for human life. And that our lack of regard for human life has now transferred over to the conservatives who, in the case of the Syrian refugees, have no regard for human life?

Paul Goings

I see that argument by assertion is still very much in vogue. How is my comment inane? The analogy is chillingly apt.

Really it’s simple logic. People decide whether other people are actually people. It’s done all of time in the west. Sometimes babies are babies, sometimes they’re fetuses; although no one I know has ever been to a “fetus shower.” It’s a question of chosen perspective. The same thing applies to the refugees. Sure, they’re people, but they’re not “people people.” Why? Because I say so. What other justification is needed?

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Christopher Johnson

I believe that it’s many of the very same folks & their leaders who rant in the streets outside women’s health clinics, who also are currently ranting about closing borders to the refugees.

And you know that how, David?

John Chilton

In a move that puts the heated U.S. debate over taking in Syrian refugees in perspective, French President Francois Hollande declared on Wednesday that his country would accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over next two years. He announced this at a gathering of mayors from French cities, where he received a standing ovation.

Cynthia Katsarelis

As Christians, we are, of course, obligated to show hospitality to foreigners and refugees; refugees like Jesus. Period. Nevermind that Bush policy in Iraq created Daesh, and that might make us somewhat responsible… If we are going to follow Christ, we have to take them in.

It boggles the mind why we fear Syrians fleeing terror, while accepting 30,000 gun deaths per year in this country.

Mark Mason

No need to speculate on the effects on the economy as we will know them well enough before very long. I know that I am also guilty of throwing around the word WE in regards to the Baptismal Covenant. We are obliged as Christians to open our resources to others in need. As far as I know, the Vatican alone has its own border and economy. WE offer THEM access to whose schools, borders, health care, etc.? Does any subgroup, regardless of size, have the same right to do so? I pay taxes that support my local school district but that doesn’t give me the right to invite whomever I please to attend our schools. How does my being Christian allow me to do so?

Mark Mason

It also boggles the mind how we can watch a holocaust go on before our eyes and think our Christian duty is limited to those survivors lucky enough to flee! When a man is on his knees about to be executed in the most horrendous fashion because of his belief in Christ, our Christian duty is to help his family IF, and only IF, they can get out of their country of origin. It boggles the mind that we must also take the family of the man with his knife dug into the Christian’s throat because we don’t want to be impartial. If they do get here we will borrow money from the Chinese to pay the cost of our Christian Charity and pass that debt on to our children’s children. If that guy in the ditch can just crawl on over here where we won’t have to get our hands bloody and we can pay the innkeeper with an IOU, our morals are in full force!

Cynthia Katsarelis

Mark, I was just reading about the costs of refugees. They get three months of assistance to find housing and jobs to be self sufficient. 90 percent of them succeed in being self sufficient tax payers in three months. The final 10 percent likely come along, but I didn’t see the data for them.

So hopefully this actual data will set aside your fears that accepting refugees will cost your children or is an IOU from China.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Chris, this bit about “taking the family of the man killing the Christian” just sounds like fear. And the bit about the 2 percent just sounds like valuing some lives over others. Everyone leaving Syria, Christian or Muslim, is leaving because the dangerous journey is less dangerous than staying where they are. We are humanity in this together and as Christians we are obligated to take them in without asking their religion. I would say this is true of Americans as well, but on this I’m going to go with the Baptismal Covenant and Matthew 25:43 (thank you JCF).

Chris Harwood

Cynthia, I think the statement should have been that we’re taking the family of the man killing the Christian because we want to be impartial. The US is trying to be impartial, so if only 2% of the Syrian refugees are Christian, only 2% of the approvals are Christian. That Christians or other minorities are dying in higher numbers doesn’t affect the refugee system and many think the hunted should be allowed in more than Muslims.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Why do you think that the refugees will be basket cases needing charity in perpetuity, rather than people who work and contribute to the economy?

You are setting up a very false scenario with the IOU from China. Look at Germany, they are counting on the education and skills that many have. Similarly, we aren’t talking about accepting only Christians, so I’m not quite getting that part.

Are there larger moral issues here? Yes, of course. US meddling in the Middle East has led to a lot of misery, including the creation of Daesh. And perhaps there is a problem that we’ll only help the ones who are clever enough to get out, and have the physical stamina. But we can’t exactly be in sync with the Baptismal Covenant if we refuse to help some people on the grounds that we can’t help all people.

Leslie Marshall

Will Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, accept those fleeing Syria? They have the space, the provisions, similar language, religion, culture, and very importantly –proximity. (for swift repatriation when deemed safe.)

David Allen

It boggles my mind that when you could show that you truly do follow Jesus, as you so often post here, that you instead post something such as this.

Julia Retta

Hi Leslie,
Over 3 million refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq (for proximity purposes, although these countries are overloaded with refugees and can’t sustain these numbers). Furthermore, suggesting that they have similar religion/culture to countries like Saudi, UAE, Qatar overlooks the incredible diversity of Syria. Refugees who are Shia Muslims, Christian, Druze, or even some Sunni Muslims would not be very at home in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, for example. Furthermore, most of the countries that you named have pretty terrible human rights records.

John Chilton

I don’t think the good Samaritan asked that question. By the way, Jordan is doing well more than its share of accepting refugees.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café