But even if ye should suffer for righteousness’ sake, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear, neither be troubled (1 Peter 3:14).
When he suggested that it is ultimately better to be feared than to be loved, Niccolo Machiavelli accurately observed the realities of the political and social realms of this world (The Prince 17). In 21st century America we would like to imagine that our discourse and processes are fair and equitable, privileging reasoned and persuasive arguments, and lead to acceptable outcomes. In reality it has proven all too tempting to turn to fear-based arguments, emphasizing differences and seeking to alienate people from each other in the name of money, power, and ratings.
Unfortunately, fear mongering has proven very effective throughout American society. Across the spectrum people seek to find reasons to consider those with whom they disagree as The Other, no longer worthy of due consideration and respect. In culture it is becoming sadly fashionable to accuse those with whom “we” disagree as bigoted, intolerant, and unreasonable; in such a view it is best to marginalize and thus oppress “them” until they learn to agree with “us.” “Tolerance” is hailed as a virtue until it comes to tolerating those deemed “intolerant.” All such alienation is motivated by fear. In politics lip service is given to reasons why a given candidate or platform should be elected; instead, most energy is expended on casting aspersions on the ideology and integrity of the candidates and/or platforms of the “other side.” Many end up voting less for a candidate and more in fear of the other candidate. Over time this has taken a significant toll on the American populace: each side has become more hardened against the other, and strict lines of demarcation are often made between the “blue tribe” and the “red tribe.” Members of each tribe are completely convinced that the success of the other tribe will lead to the imminent end of America and everything for which it has stood.
In worldly terms all of this is entirely understandable and even expected; people will do whatever it takes to obtain money, power, and standing. Yet, as Christians, we must be very careful about our participation in the political and social discourse and how we treat one another and those who are without.
The revelation of God in Christ according to the New Testament is quite clear about whether the Christian should live in fear of The Other. Jesus encouraged His followers to not fear the one who can kill the body, but revere the one who can kill both body and soul (Matthew 10:28). John declared that perfect love casts out fear, and that there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18). Both Jesus and John were acutely aware of sociopolitical forces conspiring to oppress and persecute those who put their trust in God’s ways; both of them, in fact, would suffer far greater indignity and persecution from the hands of political authorities than we Christians today will likely experience (Acts 4:25-28, Revelation 1:9). Peter wrote to Christians presently experiencing real persecution, suffering despite having done good things for others, and told them they were blessed, and should not fear what caused their opponents to fear, but to sanctify Christ in their hearts as holy (1 Peter 3:14-15). In Revelation John saw the beast’s power reckoned as supreme on the earth, and great tribulation and persecution against the saints; nevertheless, the saints are not to be afraid, but to remain firm and steadfast, not loving their lives even to death in order to overcome the beast (Revelation 13:1-10, 14:1-13, 15:1-2).
Of what should Christians today be afraid? Should we be afraid if our faith is seen as antiquated and primitive, worthy of derision and insult? The faith was derided as atheism and superstition by the Romans, and early Christians remained firm and loved their enemies anyway. Should we be afraid if our opponents leverage the civil authority to harass us, persecute us, and deprive us of rights? The opponents of Christianity in its first few centuries did the same, and deprived many Christians of liberty, property, and even their lives, and early Christians remained firm in the faith and loved their enemies anyway.
Christians do well to awake from slumber and recognize the true enemy of all people, the spiritual forces over this present darkness, and how those forces use fear to alienate and divide people from each other (Ephesians 6:12). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, barbarian nor Scythian, and thus neither Democrat nor Republican nor Libertarian, for we are to be one man in Christ (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). We may have strong disagreements with fellow Christians about social or political issues, but should such things mean we should set each other at naught in Christ, contrary to Romans 14:1-23 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13? And what has become of our witness to the world? If we are afraid of and despise members of the opposite tribe, have we not just alienated ourselves from a significant proportion of our neighbors no matter whether we live in a “blue” state or a “red” state?
These forces of alienation and separation are not of God but of the Evil One. Perfect love casts out fear. We can maintain strong confidence in the Gospel of Christ, stand firm in it, and confess it as the means by which God will provide salvation (Romans 1:16, Ephesians 6:10-18), and yet resist condemning and demonizing those with opposing views. God seeks to have His eternal purpose in Christ manifest in His church (Ephesians 3:10-11); may we serve as a unifying witness of love and hope in a world scarred by fear and division, and work to transcend the dividing powers over this present darkness!
Ethan R. Longhenry