There’s a word for everything, especially for what we’re afraid of. For some that fear can be paralyzing, controlling everything that person does, who they are, and how they view the world. In my younger and more vulnerable years I developed a short-lived, yet undiagnosed fear of escalators (escalaphobia.) I never had a problem going up an escalator, only down. (I guess that means my condition would be more aptly named downescalaphobia?) Fortunately for me, it only lasted a few months, though I have no idea what brought it on or what ended it. Perhaps I saw something on television, or maybe I’ve repressed some tragic slip and fall that caused me to view going down an escalator as decent into certain death. I really can’t be sure, but I do remember that it felt terrifying.
Fear is powerful, and it affects everyone differently. You might get headaches, a rapid heart rate, or shortness of breath. Or all three. It can be physically and mentally debilitating. I remember experiencing that kind of fear. The sweaty palms and the lurch in my chest whenever I approached the black rubber railing. And the teeth, the jagged edge on each step, caused me a great deal of anxiety. For my 7 or 8-year-old self, I had good reason for my fear, because I knew (I knew!) that each trip down an escalator was a risk; one more motorized step towards certain doom.
This kind of irrational fear is not limited to the individual, but can become infectious in a communal, or corporate, environment. For some it is obvious. The Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kansas, has developed a cottage industry out of their homophobia, sending members all over the country to spread a very un-Jesus-like message. It is unfortunate, this sort of position, but what drives it is fear. Horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft knew a thing or two about fear. He wrote that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If that is the case, there are only two explanations for WBC’s fear. Or so goes my theory.
Option one is that they insulated themselves from the world, choosing to never interact with anyone whose beliefs are not congruent with their own. (And when you combine that with complete ignorance of the concept of grace, you have a tragic, legalistic combination, that has not only sullied the world’s view of the Church in America, but has been incredibly hurtful to millions of people.) The second option, and this is what I’m banking on, is that at some point in his life, Fred Phelps was kidnapped and forced to listen to nothing but Queen’s Body Language for hours on end. It’s a working theory, and I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong.
It’s easy to point at Fred Phelps and his ilk and say that they, who are an obvious extreme case of fear in action, are an embarrassment to the Church, but ultimately they don’t matter. Well, they do matter. Some people look at what the WBC is doing and find their bias is confirmed by someone with “authority,” and they use that as an excuse to perpetuate hate and ignorance in the name of Christ. The point is, we feed off of each other. Our sustenance can be encouragement and love, or it could be fear and ignorance, and fear, as the good Yoda said, leads to anger, hate, suffering, etc.
I wonder what fears, what hidden fears, lurk within the collective four walls of the Church. I say lurk, because fears aren’t always as overt as an obnoxious sign, but it is there just the same. Maybe those fears exist amongst those who hold to a more conservative theology, causing them to shy away from social action, lest they be accused of perpetuating the Social Gospel, or Liberation Theology. Maybe it is the fear of these names (onomatophobia,) that keeps us from showing the love of Jesus Christ in practical ways, something that does not require the challenge of official doctrine (heresyphobia,) regardless of one’s leanings.
It’s destructive, being anchored to an idea as silly as fear. It ties our hands and keeps us in our well-lit box. It keeps us locked into to old technology and structure (cenophobia,) and paralyzes our evangelical and practical efforts (Enosiophobia.) But this is not how it is supposed to be. The church, in every sense of the word, is called to be bold in its outward expression of love, grace, and mercy. We are to fear not: neither death, nor disease; pain or embarrassment. When we are called to a Christ who, as Bonhoeffer said, “bids [us] come and die,” how could we wallow in something as insignificant as fear?
Yet, sadly, sometimes, we do. And it is that fear that, while it might not be the rudder that guides us through the waters of our mission, it is certainly the leg hanging over the side of the boat, keeping us from maintaining an effective, straight course.