2 Timothy 1:3–9 (NET)
I am thankful to God, whom I have served with a clear conscience as my ancestors did, when I remember you in my prayers as I do constantly night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I recall your sincere faith that was alive first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am sure is in you.
Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me, a prisoner for his sake, but by God’s power accept your share of suffering for the gospel. He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus.1
Paul is right, “God did not give us a Spirit of fear.” Unfortunately, though our fears do not come from God, we all have them. Many of us share common fears of various creepy crawly things: spiders, snakes, mice, or bats—occasional guests of our homes that are quite unwelcome. Some of our fear comes from the real threat that these pests pose to our well-being—certain spiders and snakes can cause us harm and bats and mice can carry disease. But our fears aren’t normally very discerning. We want to stay away anything that could even potentially pose a threat.
Other fears are less tangible. On the more extreme end, we might be afraid of the doom and gloom that we are sure awaits our world in the future, caused by nuclear war or zombies. We might laugh those off. There’s nothing we can really do about them anyway. But what about the fear of failure, the fear of being alone or insignificant, fear of illness or death, and even just the fear of change? These feelings lurk within us, ready to jump out at any time.
All of our fears combine some element of real threats that our bodies naturally are programmed to avoid and perceived dangers that may not pose any real threat to us. One of the most visible fears today, seen all across our culture, is the fear of violent extremism. We may live in one of the least violent times the world has ever known, but every act of violence in our world is immediately visible to our eyes if we don’t hide from it. We hear of the brutality of criminal gangs like MS-13 or religious extremists like ISIS. With so much coverage of acts of terror, it’s easy to think that we really have something to fear. We see what these people are like, how they are different from us, and we come to fear people who look like them.
Living in a fairly homogenous corner of the world, around people who look like us, talk like us, and share similar values, we’re also more aware of the ways this uniformity is being disrupted. We notice ways that the makeup and representation of our country is changing. The America we have always known, whatever the specifics of that may be, is no longer the only story being told. Some of these changes are due to actual changes in the demographic makeup of our society, while others are simply efforts at better representing the diversity that has always been part of the American experience.
We might understand the fear that drove one commentator’s remarks last week that the “America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” 1We’ve noticed, in many ways, that our country, our world is changing. And we perceive that as a threat. We respond with fear.
This fear isn’t necessarily deliberate. We don’t make conscious decisions to fear people who are different from us.2 We may not have any nefarious intentions in noticing racial or ethnic difference. Even still, this fear lurks within us like a virus.
We all know and reject the extreme and obviously nefarious forms of racial prejudice. We know, from history, of generational slavery in this country on the basis of race, of a racial purity movement in Germany that exterminated Jews and others, and of explicit policies that separated whites and blacks in this country. We are aware of neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements that seem to be resurging in this country. Just last year, we witnessed the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and saw Nazi swastikas alongside Confederate battle flags waved by proud members of the KKK and other white supremacist groups.
We look at that event and clearly see the Spirit of fear at work. We’re quick to call it out for what it is.
Even still, we’re reticent to talk about racism and how we can uncover and respond to racial prejudice, even in the church. The church should be the perfect place to have those hard conversations. The church is the body that reminds us that everyone is created in the image of God. The church is where we hear, in Galatians, of the equality that we all experience under the cross of Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” Paul says. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” The church is where we hear about the kingdom of God, to which all who put on Christ belong. And finally, the church is the place where we hear of the grand vision of the gathering of all God’s people at the end of time, when all of us who call upon Jesus will gather at one table, diverse in background but united in faith.
Why do we all, including myself, get uncomfortable in the church of all places about talking about our fears and prejudices that keep us from reflecting the truth of the Gospel.
Because we’re afraid.
We have a Spirit of fear. And it doesn’t come from God.
The church is supposed to be the place where what lies in darkness is brought into the light, where sin is exposed, confessed, and forgiven. The church is supposed to be the place where we lay ourselves bare before the throne of God and are clothed with a new identity, where all of our diversity and differences become assets rather than stumbling blocks.
What is it, then, that keeps us shackled in fear and all of the ways we express it?
The closest Biblical precedent, as far as I can tell, is Jesus’s exorcism and healing of a man in the region of the Gerasenes in Mark 5. This man was so possessed by an evil spirit that he couldn’t be restrained. Nothing could subdue his self-destructive behavior. But while Jesus was still a ways off from the man, his demon recognized Jesus. With a shriek, the demon cried out “Why are you interfering with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
The demon was afraid of Jesus. It kept this man in bondage because of it’s fear of being exposed and cast out.
Like this man, we live in fear. We’re unable to fully come into the presence of Jesus because of the fear inside of us. We’re afraid that if we talk about racism and work to dismantle it, we’ll be found out. We’ll be labeled: racist.
If there’s any label we, as white Americans, fear, it’s being labeled as a racist. That fear keeps us from acknowledging the struggles of our brothers and sisters of color. Instead of allowing Jesus to exorcise this Spirit of fear from us, we deceive ourselves by pretending we are free of sin, especially the sin of racism.
As a result, we avoid uncomfortable conversations with people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re unable to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters because we won’t accept correction, won’t confess our sins.
That’s why we need this fifth area of focus as United Methodists in Western PA and as members of this community of faith. Because we need to do better. We need to allow the perfect love of God to cast out our fear.
We need to do our part to have these difficult conversations and work to dismantle the power of racism. We need to name the demon in our midst and cast it out whenever we encounter it.
How does racism and white privilege hide in more insidious forms in the local church? Rev. Eric Park, now District Superintendent of the Butler District, shared these thoughts at Annual Conference:
I have heard some suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to cloud the issue and further an agenda. My personal experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.
When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.
As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race or gender might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial or gender identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white and decidedly male.
When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric and into the hard but beautiful work of transformation—the kind of transformation that Jesus Christ makes possible.
Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify the the things that are before us. I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.
Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence or a bland indifference whenever I am confronted with the sin of racism, either in my own heart, or in someone else’s. May it be so.
Racism is a manifestation of the Spirit of fear. Thanks be to God that we’re in the right place for it to be cast out. Thanks be to God that our Holy Scriptures teach us about the work of the Spirit of God that casts out all fear.
2 Timothy reminds us, God did not give us a Spirit of fear, but rather “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
A Spirit of Power might initially seem to be part of the problem. Racism is, after all, the disastrous combination of prejudice and power. It was the disproportionate power of white landowners that kept the American institution of slavery intact for so long. It was disproportionate power that enabled whites to separate blacks into separate and unequal institutions through Jim Crow laws. It is power that keeps black pastors out of predominately white churches.
But the power of God’s Spirit is different. The power of the Gospel is shown through weakness and humility. The power of God is the power of the resurrection over death and the power of forgiveness of sins. All of this is God’s work that is already done. The power of God is the power to cast out our fear, the power that makes reconciliation possible.
The Spirit of power cripples the power of the Spirit of fear.
Next, God gives us the Spirit of love. As 1 John 4:18 reminds us, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The Spirit of love connects us in the family of God, it reminds us that when the power of our sin is broken by the power of the cross, the door to reconciliation is open. Love doesn’t remove our differences. It doesn’t tell us to be “color-blind” to the different features of our created bodies or the differences in our experiences. Instead, love drives us to listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters. Because of our love, we listen to the differences in the ways our black sisters and brothers have experienced the world.
In 1968, a tumultuous year for race relations in the United States, the United Methodist Church tapped into this Spirit of love through one of the first nationwide call-in radio shows, called “Night Call.” 3The show had first been on the air a few years before to discuss a wide range of issues, but in 1968 they put the format to use with host Del Shields, exploring the complex intersection of race and American life. They strained the US telecom network of the time as callers from all over the United States, white and black, listened and shared their stories. That’s the Spirit of love at work, driving out fear.
Finally, our response to the Spirit of fear is a Spirit of self-discipline. This is where our response comes into play. Because of the power of God’s Spirit which opens the door for reconciliation and having heard the stories of our brothers and sisters who are affected by racism, we are able to come to God in a Spirit of self-discipline. This starts with the confession of sins, which we will participate in as our response to the word. The power of the cross means that when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive them.
But self-discipline goes farther. It means that we will continually use the means of grace to confront the sin of racism. It means participating in acts of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, participating in Bible studies, acts of service, and praying for the dismantling of racism.
This fall, I plan to lead us on Wednesday nights through a study called “Vital Conversations,” which helps us to continue to have these difficult, but important conversations. I hope that all who are able to participate will do so.
Truly, God has not given us a Spirit of fear. But we do have a Spirit of fear. Let us accept from God the power of the cross, the love of our neighbor, and the self-discipline to confront racism. Paul tells us in verse 8, “do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord.” Let us no longer be ashamed of the Gospel truth that casts out our fear. May our fears flee as the light of Christ inhabits our hearts. Amen.
2 For more on the link between fear and racism, see http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2010/04/when-social-fear-disappears-so-does-racism.