Fear and Power
In recent reflections, I’ve observed our fear of death is the engine that drives much of our sin. This interaction between sin and death draws us deeper into a downward spiral that results in slavery. But, how do our anxieties move us to sin?
To begin with, I want to make a point I was eager to make this past Sunday when I began presenting some of this material at 8&H. The Bible never denies or belittles the intrinsic scariness of our world. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I don’t think we can escape the experience of anxiety or fear — although we might be able to experience it less frequently as we grow. I think when Scripture says, “Do not be afraid,” it doesn’t belittle or dismiss the circumstances — i.e. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” — so much as it informs how we react to them.
For my money, this is where one of the most fundamental differences between the kingdoms of God and the world comes into play. We will discuss how and why the kingdom of God is different in due course, but for that discussion to take on its full weight, I need to begin by describing how we normally respond to the anxieties presented by death.
When we face the scariness of our world, we want to know why things are the way they are. We seek an explanation for our anxiety, and this is where things tend to get all twisted up.
In the Old Testament, we are introduced to the satan. This Hebrew term is literally rendered the accuser. It is the accuser who comes before God and suggests Job only serves because he has been blessed. It is the accuser who stands before God’s throne making accusations about Joshua (the high priest). Even though the term isn’t used, we have traditionally seen the accuser as the serpent, making accusations against God to Eve, suggesting he kept the forbidden fruit from humankind because he didn’t want them to be like him. At his very core, this is what the satan does. His business is accusation.
The Hebrew term is carried over into the New Testament and used in much the same way. A key text is Revelation 12:10. After the satan had been defeated and thrown down to the earth, John records this:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before God …”
The accuser, who accuses our brethren day and night, has been defeated. Interestingly, the Greek word here for accusation is kategoreo. This is where we get our word categorize. The fundamental move of the satan is to categorize — to build walls, separating humankind into camps of us and them.
It is the blame game, pure and simple.
That is, when we are in the grips fear and begin looking for its source, the primary move of the accuser is to point the finger — they are to blame; take care of them and you’ve taken care of your problem.
To be sure, they typically aren’t innocent. Perhaps in the final tally they didn’t do what you’re saying they did, which is often the case, but they aren’t innocent. That’s one of the things that makes this whole business of accusation so hard to shake. In the midst of fear, we point the finger, and it’s not especially shocking that we find someone who is broken and marred by sin. This is what the accuser does. He turns them into a problem that has to be fixed in order to deal with our anxiety, and in the rush to take care of business we forget we are part of the problem too.
Moving on, anxiety gives way to accusation, which leads to what Greg Boyd calls “power over.” Riffing off of Randy Harris and James Bryan Smith, my shorthand for this whole process of anxiety, accusation, and power over is “the story of fear and power.”
Our weary and worn response to anxiety is to overpower the perceived source of said anxiety. Out shout. Out spend. Out vote. Out bomb. And as we seek to conquer those who frighten us, they become anxious, and thus seek to defeat us. Rinse. Repeat.
If you pay attention, this is absolutely everywhere. Cain’s anxiety over the rejection of his sacrifice was projected onto Abel and ended with his murder. Abraham was afraid someone would murder him and take his wife, so they concocted a program of deception. Pharaoh was anxious that the Hebrews had grown so powerful they might side with Egypt’s enemies and defeat them, so he instituted systemic policies of dehumanization, slavery, and then, genocide. Israel found themselves in the wilderness and were anxious for their survival, so they conspired to overthrow Moses and return to Egypt. The religious establishment feared the loss of everything that made them important at the hands of Jesus and his teaching, so they tried and convicted him. Pilate, afraid of another riot, which would’ve meant his head, played along and crucified the Christ.
Nor is fear and power just the stuff of biblical stories, relegated to a time long past. Consider:
It’s an election year, and our entire political system runs on this vindictive, spiteful, and destructive cycle of fear, accusation, and power. “If you don’t vote our man or woman into office, everything is going to fall apart! We have to spend whatever it takes, put in however many hours it takes, and get more votes (read: power) than them.”
You see it in our foreign policy — and the foreign policy of every other nation, for what that’s worth. The marketing industry only exists in its current form because of fear and power, creating perceived needs and suggesting we use our spending power to allow their product to ease our anxieties. Homeowner’s associations are rooted in fear and power. Helicopter parenting is manifestly fear and power. The internet is fueled by fear and power. I mean, if it weren’t for the story of fear and power, there would be nothing but kitten memes on Facebook, but I suspect that even a brief perusal of most news feeds reveals a darker, more anxious situation.
Again, I am not suggesting there is nothing to be afraid of. There is. Our world is broken and scary things happen. I am writing this a few days before Halloween — when we dress our kids up as monsters, telling them there are no such things, knowing full well there are. Our world can be a frightening place. Anxiety is understandable.
The slavery of the fear of death begins when our anxiety gives way to accusation and our accusation prompts us to dehumanize, control, and commit violence against people made in God’s image. People who, for all their differences, are just like us — both in the fact that they are loved by God, and in the fact that we all share in the world’s brokenness.
And again, we do this.
All. The. Time.
It’s how the world works. Fear met with power, and it’s precisely this cycle I think Jesus breaks us from and calls us to denounce in anxious times like an election year, or a financial downturn, or a time of war. With that, I think we are almost ready to turn the corner and talk about what Jesus brings to the table.