by Duane Hershberger
I used to hear this little jingle during the 1964 presidential election: “In your heart you know he’s right, A-U-H-2-0.” Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson.
Conservatives generally supported Goldwater. He appealed to a murky, inner voice that shouted fears of a nuclear bomb attack, Communism and the new era that began Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, when President Kennedy was assassinated.
Even a little kid felt uneasy. Storms around the world threatened our peace and quiet. They told us the Communists could take over Vietnam. Then they’d take over Laos and Cambodia. On to the Philippines, Japan, India, Africa, Turkey, Europe. They’d leap at us from the east and they’d leap at us from the west and take over America. If we didn’t stop them in Vietnam, they’d soon be in Virginia. School kids girded up their loins for the leaping by crawling under their desks.
Kings and generals peddle fear to get people to fight their wars. Some people buy it. Some voters’ murky, inner fears hummed Goldwater’s little jingle, and he got votes.
Others were skeptical, so they voted for Johnson, and he won the election. But the war grew and grew until 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died to keep the Communists and their leaping ways out of Virginia.
People in our church taught a Christian discipline called nonresistance. We wouldn’t go to war. We wouldn’t sue someone because of a bad debt. If someone hit you, you were supposed to turn the other cheek. The discipline is based on multiple biblical teachings to love your neighbors as yourselves, return good for evil and, “Thou shalt not kill.”
But lots of nonresistant, turn-the-other-cheek, plain Mennonite grownups were sympathetic to Goldwater and later with Nixon and wars on Communism. Kind words were even said about George Wallace, the famous segregationist governor who vowed to keep black people out of the University of Alabama in 1963. Conversations around lunch tables after church were often about the threats of Communists, hippies, the Black Panthers, riots, revolution and unease that something stable was slipping away.
It slipped away. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The Beatles, Kent State, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and Woodstock happened. In 1968, many young people voted no on grownups and war. But politicians toss vast hunks of red meat to people’s murky, inner fears and win elections. Inner fears didn’t go hungry during the 1960s. Young people lost the 1968 election.
Sunday school teachers and major league preachers told us that the opposite of faith is unbelief. But when you think about it, there is no such thing as unbelief. Everyone believes something. Unbelief is just the label for people who don’t believe what you believe. Calling it unbelief makes it sound sinister, and sinister begets fear.
The opposite of faith is fear—fear fed by the murky, inner voice that rings alarms about undocumented immigrants, Muslim terrorists, government takeovers of this and that, gay people, growing influence of minorities and declining churches. You can get otherwise reasonable people to believe boatloads of nonsense if you make them afraid.
A whole passel of religious people lives more by fear than faith. Kings, generals and presidents are slick at grabbing those murky, inner fears, wrapping them up in religious packages, then pushing them to voters like candy to a big-eyed kid with a sweet tooth.
Plain Mennonite people in bonnets and beards eat it up as much as anyone. Adolph Hitler used church language as cover to kill Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and lots of other people whom well-intentioned church people quietly distrusted. His soldiers went to Poland, France and Auschwitz with the words, “Gott Mit Uns” engraved on their belt buckles. That’s German for “God With Us” or “Emmanuel,” as in “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
And we must fight the things we’re afraid of, right? We must fight Communists because they might leap into Virginia. We must fight longhaired, British rock singers who wanna hold your hand because lots of people holding hands might lead to anarchy. We must fight to keep the blacks and whites separated because who knows what would happen if black people went to the university. Someday they might run a bank, and Lord only knows what could happen then. And so on. Feed those fears.
Kings and generals sit in their great houses and tell you war is about a grand cause. Millions of people in their small houses get rah-rahed up for the grand cause and march into battle. For the motherland. For freedom. To turn back evildoers. Kings and generals, with straight faces, will even tell you the grand war cause is peace.
But killing is personal. Its between you and the other guy. You have a gun and the other guy has a gun. He has a grand cause, you have a grand cause. One of you will die for the grand cause, but the killing is personal. Suppose the other guy isn’t a Christian. Kill him and score a run for your grand cause. But you took away every future opportunity for the other guy to receive God’s grace and become a disciple. And if you believe in a hell, you just sent him there permanently. What would you say to God if God asks you why you killed the guy when God was still speaking to him, drawing him into his love, perhaps preparing him for a great work? He did that with the Apostle Paul. Are you smart enough to answer God? Or, suppose the other guy is a Christian. What would you say if God asks you why you killed someone he gave life to and loved enough to die for? Are you smart enough to answer God?
You took way too much time to think about what you might say to God, so the other guy shoots you and you die. You are immediately in God’s eternal presence. The God who looks after the lilies and the sparrows will take care of the things left behind like your family and the grand cause. And the other guy has time left on his clock to repent and become bathed in God’s love. Brutal as it sounds, that’s how it shakes out. I’d hate to be in the other guy’s shoes when God stares him down and asks hard questions about that gunshot, but that’s not my problem anymore. This all goes against the way we usually think, but that’s because our brains have a problem.
Here’s the problem. Start with the Apostle Paul, a self-proclaimed terrorist who killed Christians because he was afraid they’d spoil the Jewish religion and way of life. Suppose an overzealous disciple picked up a rock and thunked him on the head the day before he set out for Damascus and met Jesus? The disciple goes home, happy that he eliminated an evil-doing, terrorist threat. The grand cause scored a run.
But thank God Paul lived long enough to tell us in his Romans letter that the key to faithful living is to change our thinking with a big attitude adjustment. Paul calls it a mind transformation. “Be transformed by renewing your mind,” Paul wrote some years after he wasn’t thunked. A mind with the inner, murky fear is the old way of living.
Thinking with a transformed, faith-focused mind is the new way of living. Think about what we would’ve missed with an ill-timed thunking of the Apostle Paul the next time you hear someone rant about killing off all the evildoers.
Fearful people almost bask in the threats. “Did you hear about the Muslim who … ?” “Did you hear about the Mexican gang in Los Angeles that … ?” “Did you hear about the kid who tried to pray in school … ?” “Did you hear … ?” And so on. And so on. Fearful people build walls and wage war.
Faithful people build schools, communities and roads, even in their enemy’s motherland. Faithful people build medical clinics for someone who speaks another language. Faithful people show hospitality to an adversary. Faithful people pick up a sword and beat it into a plowshare. Faithful people give a soft answer to turn away wrath. Faithful people do good to their enemies and, in so doing, heap coals of fire on their enemies’ heads. Paul said that, too. Faithful people act like they have eternal life and don’t need to squeeze every last beat out of their heart muscle. Faithful people even speak out like prophets when their brothers and sisters pay too much attention to those murky, inner fears.
Instead of trying to persuade other people to start believing in Jesus, we Christians should start believing Jesus. Jesus said to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it’s hard. When it’s easy, you can do good all by yourself. But when it’s hard, you need faith. When it’s hard, you can do unto others as you would have them do to you only when you follow the North Star of a faith that calls you to a higher, better place of goodness. Pay attention to that murky, inner-fear voice and you just hit back and thunk over and over. And what do you say to God then?
Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus said, “Don’t worry about food and clothes because your Father will take care of you.” Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of the one who can kill your body; be afraid of the one who tries to take your soul.” Politicians push fear of Communism or terrorism to trade your soul for a vote to keep them in power. Even in church pews, the boatloads of fear nonsense goes on. Bless us with better BS detectors, dear God.
Most world religions have peace, consideration for others and respect for our brothers and sisters as their core belief. Look at the core beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. Peace, consideration for others and respect for our brothers and sisters is right at the center. Their core beliefs are about giving your time, talents and treasure to make this world a better place. Jesus was quoting well-known sayings from other religions when he said the words “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Each of those religions also has its fringe of fear-minded people and the monuments they leave that soil their faith heritage. Those monuments include the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the New York Twin Towers, the Oklahoma City Federal Building, Oscar Romero’s tombstone, the Mumbai hotel and on and on.
Christians have peace, consideration for others and respect for our brothers and sisters as core beliefs. In fact, we have not only the belief, but the unique, living example of the Word from God, a child from heaven who grew up as one of us. Jesus was guided by the North Star of heaven’s truth about profound love. When he was challenged on it, he stood rooted on that North Star path. People who listened to their murky, inner fears instead of looking up to the North Star of their salvation pounded nails in his hands and hung him on a cross. But that wasn’t the story’s end. Fear’s triumph lasted three days. Faith and resurrection own every other day of history.
If any religion has an antidote—the steroids, hormones, hydrotherapy, ear plugs or whatever—to quiet the murky, inner-fear voice, it’s Christianity. You’d think we’d sit in our churches, look at the pictures of Christ healing the sick, Christ leading the lost sheep, Christ on the cross and Christ rising from the tomb and be the most courageous people in the world.
You’d think we’d sing such songs as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, a Bulwark Never Failing” and “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “How Firm a Foundation” and “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost and now am found, was blind but now I see” and believe these profound truths and live joyful, courageous lives.
This is us. Love prevails. Because of the resurrection we lift all our time, talents and treasure to the cross. We joyfully give our bodies and lives completely to the cause of bringing God’s kingdom to earth. Christ is alive. Even death won’t stop the North Star of God’s love and light from shining its bright shine. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. We are those courageous people only when God transforms our minds.
Forgive us, dear Lord, for “Gott Mitt Uns.” Forgive us the wars we fight. Forgive us for paying attention to that murky, inner-fear voice. Lift our eyes today and guide us, like the Wise Men of old to the place where Jesus lives.
Duane Hershberger works with Habitat for Humanity and has helped pastor several Franconia Conference congregations. He worships at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia.