Of Faith and Fear

The other night, on my way to meet a friend for dinner, a report came on the car radio about the terrorist threat against the New York City subway system.

Looking at the New York skyline as I drove, I gulped as I wondered how real a threat this was. As I flipped radio stations to hear Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s press conference, I grew more and more afraid. Even though I was in relative safety (at least as far as I could tell), the thought that innocent people—people on their way home or to work, heading to the Rangers game— could be hurt or killed, and how their deaths would ripple through their families' lives forever and make all of us, once again, feel less secure — those thoughts all made me feel afraid.

Suddenly, my desire to watch the latest baseball playoff game was replaced by wanting as much news as possible. Arriving at the bar, I was happy that the one television had the news on, and I could learn the latest on threat assessments, increased security, and so on.

My friend, also, like me, a priest, arrived a few minutes later, and we were both trying to talk and watch the television at the same time. It was about a half hour later when he posed a question to me that another priest had posed to him: Which of Jesus' commandments do Christians break the most?

I was stumped. Rather than foolishly attempt to answer, I simply admitted that I did not know.

The answer? "To be not afraid."

I couldn’t believe how simple, yet how true, that was. In slightly different variations, one of the most popular sentiments Jesus expresses to his followers throughout the four Gospels is to not be afraid. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh says the same to his people as well: to not be afraid. Yet, thousands of years later, it seems that all around— Christian, Jew, Muslim, believer or nonbeliever —people are filled with fear.

We’re afraid of terrorism. We’re afraid about what’s happening in Iraq. We’re afraid about the economy (especially with gas prices so high). We’re afraid another natural disaster is going to kill and destroy people and their lives. The latest addition is bird flu, something about which we seem to know little, but it appears of which we should be afraid, very afraid.

It’s no wonder people seem overwhelmed, depressed, apathetic. It’s no wonder politicians' approval ratings are down. We are a nation in fear, and if all of those things were taken care of tomorrow, they’d be replaced by other things that would frighten us.

So what do we do? What is sad is that people have so many extreme responses. Some have been saying that these events are signalling the end of the world or are the manifestations of God’s judgment or wrath. As a Catholic priest, this truly disturbs me. It nurses the culture of fear. It brings about more fear for some people of faith. Even more sadly, it makes others reject God outright.

For me, as a Christian, I try to follow Jesus’ example. In his time on earth, he faced many things he feared, but in the midst of those fears, he always turned to God and trusted that God was with him. From that trust, he was able to face whatever fears he encountered. That didn’t prevent or stop the painful, awful, evil things that happened to him, but it did provide him with the strength and internal peace not to be conquered by the emotion of fear.

As my friend and I talked about this over dinner that evening, we began to experience somewhat of that same effect. We talked about terrorism, we talked about the subway threat (which now is being described as a hoax). As two men of faith, we were able to remind each other that ultimately, we can trust God is present to us, and that no matter what happened, because of his presence, we could face whatever challenge ultimately would come our way.

At that, I asked the waitress, "Would you mind putting the Braves-Astros game on that television?"

Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May, 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.

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