A lot of texts are on my mind, but here are two: The first is a text that is coming from my white Christian friends from various quarters: “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or alternatively, “Christians have nothing to be afraid of.” That counsel seems to be contextualized in the immediate political context of the national life of the United States.
The second is 2 Timothy 1:3-14. I note the following about the 2 Timothy text:
It does not gloss over the author’s suffering, or the potential suffering of the audience. Actual suffering is mentioned in v. 8 and 12.
The suffering is linked directly to the author’s witness to the gospel – i.e., the good news of Jesus Christ, i.e. the message announced in Luke 4:18-19 by Jesus as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In both texts, the activity of “the Spirit of the Lord” or the spirit given by God, or the “Holy Spirit,” is identified as instrumental in sustaining the proclamation of this message.
In 2 Timothy, that spirit is explicitly identified as “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” rather than a “spirit of cowardice.”
The 2 Timothy text places the author’s confidence in a future expectation, beyond death.
Here’s my take on this: I agree with my white Christian friends that “Christians have nothing to be afraid of” in an ultimate way. I really do believe that God “has our backs,” so to speak. But I don’t have illusions about what that means for our concrete daily experience or our legitimate expectations in this life. The textual evidence of 2 Timothy 1:8 & 12 is abstract – just a reference to “suffering.” There’s plenty of other textual evidence that makes the nature of the suffering we might expect more concrete. Judah goes into exile. Jesus dies on the cross. Stephen is stoned to death. Paul outlines his litany of hardships in 2 Corinthians 11:21-29, concluding with the line “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” That is, he takes personally and feels the sufferings and oppressions of others, as well as his own direct sufferings – which he has, in part, because he is in the places and doing the activities that put him in solidarity with others who are suffering.
Closer to home, unless we are trying to forget everything we learned in high school – and perhaps we are – we have plenty of examples of people’s historic suffering, both from personal violence in the United States (e.g., the last recorded lynching in the state of Indiana occurred in 1930 in Marion) and from legalized institutional action (e.g., the internment camps in my home state of California). I feel it ought not to be necessary to create a catalog of those instances, though perhaps it is.
My point: if “Christians have nothing to fear” is a statement about the immediate future, about Christians being able to have a sense of security that their persons, the persons of their friends and neighbors, and the persons of “the least” with whom they are called to be in solidarity will remain free from harm, that they will not experience harassment, or assault, or anger, or bigotry, or violence, then I am pretty sure it is a lie. We white Christians ought not to be telling it to ourselves, and we definitely ought not to be telling it to our co-religionists who are not white, or any of our neighbors. We are supposed to tell the truth.
“Christians have nothing to fear” is only true if it is a statement about our ultimate confidence that, when we keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loved us, pursue solidarity with those who are supposed to be hearing from us the good news of Jesus Christ, namely the least, and when we (predictably) find ourselves suffering in that cause, we know the suffering is not the last word. Only under those conditions is “Christians have nothing to fear” not a lie.
There may be another sort of fear awaiting us in these texts, though: the fear that we will not speak or act in accordance with that gospel articulated in Luke 4:18-19. One thing we know about that gospel: its proclamation led Jesus to the cross, and that wasn’t because the authorities in his socio-political context were so open to cooperation with his vision. I have spent a lifetime working at being a nice person who doesn’t make the people around her angry or uncomfortable. What I’m afraid of is that by carrying on in that way at this time I will effectively betray the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m pretty sure of this: A Christianity that refuses to share the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the least is a tool of the powers that imposed those sufferings on Christ in the first place – a tool of the powers that put Christ on the cross.
A pretty important ethical principle seems to be: don’t support those powers.
(Those words are a lot braver than I am, but then again, we have not been given a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline – i.e., saying “no” to what we are supposed to say “no” to, even when it would feel better to say … something else.)
The pressing practical question, yet to be answered, and probably with many answers, is: what precisely does it mean, here and now, for a white Christian individually, and for a group of white Christians collectively, say, a congregation, not to support those powers?
That reminds me of another text. (Philippians 2:12)