Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That seems to be the refrain these days, particularly in politics. The more you terrify people, the more likely they are to vote, protest, and otherwise engage in political activism.
Well, maybe not. Apparently, hammering people with more and more reasons to live in terror actually tends to demoralize and paralyze us. A little bit of fear goes a very long way. A certain amount does indeed motivate people – like a deadline, for example; that nervous energy can make us highly productive, efficient, and focused. Moreover, Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, argues that we need to listen carefully to our bodies’ fear response, because our society has trained people – particularly women – to suppress gut instincts that otherwise would have saved them from violent situations.
Interestingly, when we understand not only how to recognize warning signs but also how to trust our intuition to identify potential danger, we feel empowered and live with less anxiety and fear the rest of the time. Validating the ‘gift of fear’ makes us less fearful. Nonetheless, there must be something lucrative to the politics of fear, because studies have shown fear is at an all time high in America, particularly the use of fearmongering as a political strategy. It turns out, fear sells, big time, and it is a pretty great way to further ideas of us vs. them and to undermine a sense of community, of the “neighborhood.”
I recently watched the documentary about Mister Rogers and his theology of loving thy neighbor. Fred Rogers not only modeled a radically respectful and affirming way to interact with children of all ages; he also used his show to address issues of racism, feminism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and many other common, ignorance based stereotypes. A lifelong Republican, Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian pastor whose ministry lay in reaching out to children to help them understand that each and every one of them is unique and beloved, exactly as they are.
Naturally, Rogers addressed issues of fear for children, such as in books about When Monsters Seem Real, songs about feelings of fear, and lessons about, for example, turning off the TV if something scary comes on (and waiting, so the children watching could practice). It comes as no surprise that Rogers’ wife Joanne expressed how horrified he would be that our administration has traumatized immigrant children by taking them from their parents and then having the parents deported. The 55% majority Republican support of Trump’s policy only goes to show how far fear can take us. Any of us.
The Hebrew Scriptures frequently talk about a fear of the Divine: the wise and the righteous “fear” the Holy, while those who do not “fear” stumble, sin, and commit grave injustices (e.g., Gen 20:11, Deut 6:13, Prov 9:10). What are we to make of this concept? Is the ancient theology of retributive justice revealing its nature-based roots, such as some see in the violent, seemingly punishing storms of climate change today? Or are these authors perhaps using biblical satire to depict a ‘monster-God,’ in order subversively to critique the fear-based politics of authoritarian rulers of their day?
Another compelling explanation delves into the specific Hebrew word used in these cases, better translated as awe, respect, and understanding of the glory of Holy Wisdom. From a nature-based perspective, I resonate with the idea that an ancient culture, with a theology fully embedded in the Creation, experiences the Creator of such mighty storms and mountains with such deep reverence. But if that’s the real meaning of the Hebrew, why did English translators choose the punitive, retributive translation – fear? Were these (male) biblical scholars immersed in theologies of divine retribution, possibly viewing the Hebrew Bible through the Apocalyptic Judaism of the New Testament period?
Either way, today we have a climate of intense hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, droughts, and wildfires; and though the poorest communities suffer the most, natural disasters fall upon the just and the unjust alike. The argument for Divine Retribution, while supernaturalist, persists because it stems from a reality in which, for whatever reason, actions eventually yield consequences for the whole earthly community.
Would a little more ‘fear of the Holy’ help us out here? We use the expression, to put the ‘fear of God’ into someone. Do we really mean fear of retribution? I admit that there is a little bit of the ‘monster-God’ inside me – and maybe the biblical authors intended us to understand the idea not just as a critique of the powerful, but also as the universal human desire for vengeance. Part of me doesn’t just want healing for the whole Earth; part of me wants the president who implemented such a traumatic policy to feel a punishing pain equal to that he caused. Part of me wants a big monster-God to rain down fire and judgment on the toxic, patriarchal, violent abusiveness I see all around us. I want to curse it with all the witchcraft I can muster.
Maybe that’s the fear part I need most to heal from. Maybe that’s why MLK worked so hard to preach the Beloved Community – because he recognized the seductiveness of vengeance. Maybe I need to rage out my grief, to roar my monster-Goddess into the depths of the earth and sky and sea, so that I can then turn, unburdened, cleansed, renewed, to the healing work of liberation for the whole Creation. Put down your vengefulness, whispers Holy Wisdom; vengeance is mine alone (Rom 12:19). Vengefulness is poison. Let it go. We don’t have to fear ‘them’ – because there is no ‘them.’ There’s just us. All of us. Broken, angry us. Precious, holy us. Maybe we all need each other. Please – won’t you be my neighbor?
 See also J.W. Bolderdijk et al., ‘Values Determine the (in)Effectiveness of Informational Interventions in Promoting Pro-Environmental Behavior,’ in PLoS One 8, 12 (2013).
 Ellen Davis talks of biblical satire (see Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge University Press, 2008; 112-3. David Penchansky talks about the “monster-God” depicted in Genesis, in which ancient Hebrews would have recognized a subversive critique of oppressive leaders of the day (see What Rough Beast? Images of God in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, 5-17).
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.