God’s work never stops. Churchwide office staff are still hard at work – from our homes. Hours and lines of communication remain the same.

Fear Not: Living Grace and Truth in a Frightened World, Eric H.F. Law. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2020.


 

[1] Fear Not is useful for Christians confronting gun violence, even though it was not written specifically for that purpose.  This volume is a second edition of Law’s 2007 book, Finding Intimacy in a World of Fear, written in response to 9/11 and the American experience of fear and its manipulations.  Law has written a new preface and final chapter, along with discussion questions following each chapter, but the bulk of the book has not been changed.

 

[2] I wish that Law had done a more thorough revision.  September 11, 2001, was a long time ago in our national cycles of fear.  The color-coded threat scheme no longer resonates, and other references are dated waypoints en route to the goal: how Christian community can make a way through fear.  

 

[3] Law’s chief contribution here is providing tools for ‘mining’ fear’s energy for ministry.  More on those later.  Before he provides the tools, he invites readers to identify their own fear, recognize how fear is used to manipulate, and reject all manipulations that block authentic community.  He identifies four archetypal embodiments of fear – fear-bearers, conquerors, exploiters, and miners – adapting them from Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004).  The fear-miners are the true heroes of Law’s story.  The miners face their fears, dig in to see how fear functions more broadly, and discover needed ministries in the process.  Having faced fear in light of the resurrection, the miners are freed to get to work for the beloved community.

 

[4] The gun violence crisis in America fits right in with Law’s analysis.  It is the child of manipulated fear for personal safety--yet the proliferation of guns makes us less safe.  (There are more guns than people in the US.  More than 100 Americans are killed every day by guns.  Access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide, doubles the risk of death by homicide, and makes it five times more likely that an abusive partner will kill his female victim.  Everytownresearch.org.)  One of Law’s telling questions is “who stands to gain from making us fear the wrong thing and ignore the real fear of imminent danger that we can do something about?” (p.116).  Who gains from the gun crisis?  “Americans bought 2 million guns in March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed the US, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.  It was the second-busiest month ever for gun sales, trailing only January 2013, just after President Barack Obama’s re-election and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” (NY Times, April 20, 2020). Follow the money. Law’s exploration of fear-exploiters and idolatry faithfully describes the theological dilemma of the gun industry and its minions (p. 67ff).  

 

[5] While Law’s analysis is broadly useful, the book’s flaws are frustrating beyond its dated origin story.  Law makes use of Greenspan’s work in asserting his basic theory of fear and how it operates, but his argument is so compressed that he fails to bring the reader along.  Similarly, he asserts interpretations of scripture that serve his thesis but stretch the text’s meaning.  Reflecting on Sinai: “The covenant fostered a gracious community in which [Israel] could face their fear of uncertainties in the wilderness” (p. 66).  Not in my Bible!  And Jesus’ cleansing of the temple becomes a lesson in the market’s manipulation.  “How can we be like Jesus and see through the symbolic substitutes the marketers, the politicians, and the news media offer?” (p.32).  I also found myself longing for a Lutheran anthropology – a deeper appreciation for human brokenness, a more nuanced analysis of the challenge of fear, and a less determined path to results.

 

[6] But Law’s tools for fear-miners are brilliant.  He is an Episcopal priest and founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, which offers training and resources in diversity and sustainability for faith communities. He has engaged fear first-hand as an immigrant from China in his early teens. Law’s description of his own journey is powerful (p. 75ff.).  Combining his experience with professional training, Law knows how groups work and he has developed ways to get polarized people to talk with each other with good results.  Such conversations are the key to Fear Not:  “Forming diverse community across the divides, building relationship among people who are different or even fearful of each other, and engaging them in courageous conversation are the most important things that we can do to foster wellness in this truth-distorting, divisive, fear-upon-fear age,” (p. 118). 

 

[7] To that end, Law issues a challenge to each reader to have a respectful one-on-one conversation with a person of differing political views.  I decided to take up the challenge and use the tools he offers to make it work.   

 

[8] I asked Mike to meet for coffee and talk guns.  Mike and I are friends through our horse community. We’ve ridden, camped, boarded, and obsessed over our horses together for a decade. We already have an honest and warm friendship -- and we couldn’t be more different politically.  Mike is an avid defender of the second amendment.  We have testified on opposite sides of a gun-safety ordinance before our city council.  His truck bears Trump stickers. And I have avoided talking politics and guns, keeping the barn a mostly politics-free zone.  Not Mike.  He has invited me several times over the last two years to sit down and talk over our political differences.  I have always turned him down.  Until now.

 

[9] When I told him about the book and the challenge, he was eager to meet. I shared Law’s “Respectful Communication Guidelines” and we exchanged a couple questions before meeting.  Law’s guidelines were helpful (see pp. 118 – 122 and the appendix).  They set useful boundaries to arrive at greater mutual understanding: it’s not a debate over right and wrong; it’s not an opportunity for conversion or defending an ideology or party.  It is the time to share life experiences that contribute to shaping our beliefs and values. 

 

[10] We were nervous to start with.  But we leaned on the pre-set questions and guidelines and had a profound conversation. Sharing tender personal experiences that shape significant commitments deepened our friendship and respect for one another.  Mike was a gracious conversation partner. I’m not sure how this would have worked with a stranger and I would not have dared to do this apart from Law’s challenge. Mike and I agree that it would not have worked nearly so well without the guidelines. We were careful.  We avoided gun policy specifics. But Mike and I plan to continue the conversation, and maybe invite others to join us. It will not change the gun debate.  I can see us testifying on opposite sides of an ordinance in the future.  This is no quick fix, and no detour around good, hard policy work and focused elections.  But it is a start down a different road whose ending we cannot see.  It does feel like a way to live grace and truth in a frightened world.

 

 

The Rev. Jean Larson is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Until recently, she was the volunteer Faith Outreach Lead in Montana for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (momsdemandaction.org).  She lives in Missoula, MT, with her husband Daniel and her horse Stella.




Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.



            

 

      © October/November 2020
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 20, Issue 6