“Who Do You Say I Am?” – On Fear

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“Who do you say I am?”

Matt. 16:15, New International Version

This is the theme verse to this series on hermeneutics: the interpretation of scripture. Whether directly or indirectly, our individual and communal hermeneutics answer the above question. Who do we say Jesus is, in our words and actions?

Continuing our engagement with Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, this week we are addressing the question: How does fear influence the development of our hermeneutics?

Fear is a motivating factor in human behavior, and we adjust our behaviors and practices in order to avoid that which we fear. For instance, I am afraid of the dark, so I have a pretty night light in my room that projects the moon and stars onto my ceiling and walls in different colors.

There. I said it.

The night light reduces the amount of darkness in my bedroom, which, for some unknown reason–unknown to me, at least–allows me to fall asleep in what I believe to be a safe environment.

While many people experience fear, Thurman connects it specifically to the experiences of the disinherited and the oppressed. People who are powerless to defend themselves against violence, especially violence that is approved or sanctioned by authority figures, understandably live in a state of heightened fear, or at least vigilance.

Thurman asks in each chapter, almost as a reminder to the reader,

Is there any help to be found for the disinherited in the religion of Jesus?

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 47.

What does Jesus–what does Christianity–mean to the individual or community who is fearful of violence and authority? Not because they are criminals, not because they have done anything wrong, but because by virtue of who they are, they know that they will not be protected by the system (Thurman, 45).

Actually, what does Christianity mean to the family of Breonna Taylor?

There are many cases in which unarmed African-Americans were killed by police officers and did not receive justice. Breonna Taylor’s is one of those cases. In Louisville, Kentucky, during an alleged drug raid by plainclothes police officers late at night more than one hundred days ago, Breonna was shot in her sleep. She bled out until she died. Breonna was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), an essential worker, and despite the lifesaving work she was doing for others, she had no one to protect her. Since her death, several protesters have been arrested, but the police officers who killed her–Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, Brett Hankison, and Joshua Jaynes–have not been arrested or charged in her murder.

Breonna Taylor’s murder came at a time when the country was–finally–collectively reeling with rage because the camera footage of the murder of George Floyd brought to light what many African-Americans have known for a long time: that a police officer can feel confident and brazen enough to kill a person of African descent in public without consequence.

Is there any help to be found for people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the way American Christianity is currently set up?

It is important that I distinguish between my use of the term “Christianity” and my use of the term “Jesus,” because it would be inaccurate to, as Thurman does, describe Christianity as “the religion of Jesus”. Christianity is the product of several centuries of interpretations of scripture; councils and summits at which a select group of individuals met to determine which books of the Bible were legitimate and which were not; creeds and confessions of faith that come out of specific historical and cultural milieus.

Even today, Christianity means different things to different Christians. I once had an acquaintance in seminary who would take care to distinguish the “true Christians” from everyone else who called themselves Christians. Her definition was more than just a simple interpretation of the Gospel; it applied to the boundary between progressive and conservative Christians. In her eyes, progressive Christianity as we see it today is a false version of Christianity, while a more conservative version that holds to biblical values is the “truth”, except, of course, those who don’t believe in female preachers, despite that clearly being a “biblical value.”

Because of this, I would prefer to ask what Christianity has to offer to the oppressed. If I phrase it that way, it is much easier to see its shortcomings, whereas “the religion of Jesus” evokes an ideal image, a WWJD “What Would Jesus Do” utopia.

Thurman writes:

There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.

Thurman, 39.

When an individual knows that no matter where they go or what they do, they will not be protected from any potential or imminent danger, fear must haunt them at every turn. Cloaked in a shroud of fear, they develop a hermeneutic in which Jesus is a protector, someone who is purely good, someone whom they can trust.

Thurman recounts a discussion he had with his mother when she took him outside their home to see Halley’s Comet. When he asked his mother what would happen if the comet fell to earth, she answered him,

Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.

Thurman, 57.

Thurman’s mother’s hermeneutic is based on a deep faith in the goodness of God. 

People like Thurman, Taylor, Floyd, and all people who are part of disenfranchised and disinherited communities must rely on Christianity as representative of a God and a Savior who cares for them. Who do they say Jesus is? A God and a Savior who is ever present in times of trouble. One who counsels them not to be fearful, but to take courage, trusting that God will always be with them (Joshua 1:9).

People who are fearful need to know that they have a Savior who is not only present and protective, but who is also opposed to the threats that they face. Fortunately, the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible are replete with examples in which God expresses disdain, even disgust, for injustice and the victimization of people who are unable to defend themselves. 

If the Psalms are the questions, I believe the prophetic writings are the answers. In the Psalms, David, Asaph, and others cry out to God about God’s apparent invisibility and disregard for the plight of God’s people:

Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.

Psalm 10:1-2, New International Version

Yet, God would answer:

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31, New International Version

This is only one example of many, but I believe that as long as we know that God is with us, and that God renews our strength so that we may persist through not just spiritual trials, but also the difficulties and injustices of life, we need not fear. Thurman writes that as long as we understand that we are children of God, we can carry ourselves without fear, but with confidence in our identity (54).

I hope that we are able to work through our own fears by trusting in God’s presence and goodness. I hope that we are able to reclaim and be assured of our dignity as children of God regardless of how we may be represented by the authorities.

I haven’t done this in a while, but, true to my nature, I suddenly have a song to share:

“Stand In Your Love” by Josh Baldwin

BONUS:

“No Longer Slaves” by Jonathan and Melissa Helser

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