Courage to Be: Revisited

I miss living in the home of the brave; we Americans have become a fearful people. The news media on both sides of the political spectrum floods us with sensational scary stories so they can grow an audience to view ads for medicines. Politicians play to fears to win votes. It seems that a significant number of Americans are especially frightened by potential terrorist attacks and by people who don’t look, talk or believe like one of their particular tribe.

Without doubt, we live with many threatening events and issues. Lightning-fast change overwhelms us. Yet, change was built into creation on day one and there have always been threatening events and issues. We baby boomers were teens waiting for nuclear missiles to launch from Cuba. Of course, we need to be vigilant about terrorism, but that does not mean we should see a suicide bomber in every unusually-dressed person at the airport. Crime is a reality — but so are compassion and neighborliness when we seize an opportunity to develop new relationships rather than retreat into suspicion.

During the early 1950’s Sen. Joe McCarthy was on his Communist witch hunt, and the Cold War fear of Russian H-bombs dominated much of the public’s attention. Into that setting, the theologian Paul Tillich wrote his classic book “The Courage to Be.” Tillich recognizes the fears and anxieties that come with being human and offers courage as the best way to deal with those fears. I believe we live in similar times, and that we need to choose courage as the way we meet threats both real and imagined.

 

The courage that Tillich offers is not the courage of first responders or brave soldiers in battle. It is not the heroism of a bystander who rushes to save a life in an accident or a natural disaster. Tillich’s courage is that of viewing a fearful life situation, recognizing that one is scared, but then moving into the situation despite the threat. The courageous are not without fear, but they refuse to let fear rule their life.

Crippling fears may be as immediate as social embarrassment or as unimpressive as traveling to a distant land where language and customs are different. Friends from two different states who participated in a pilgrimage to Spain described very similar questions as they prepared in their home towns: “Aren’t you afraid?” I recently returned from a week-long retreat at a ranch in Wyoming; my level of anxiety grew the closer I came to the event. Had either my friends or I let fear control our decisions, we would have stayed comfortably at home and would have missed an experience to be remembered for a lifetime.

Making a case for courage to travel is hardly earth-shattering. Much more important is to make a case for courage in two of the most important and most controversial aspects of our lives — culture and faith.

Culture is our everyday, taken for granted, comfort zone. It is the values and ways of thinking and being that we have inherited from our families, our friends, our churches, our community. Culture is tradition. Our culture is powerfully influenced by the institutions that provide stability and by history that offers us models for what makes us either good or bad citizens. As rapid change and information overload have stressed our national culture, we have increasingly retreated into smaller, more tribe-like groupings to find our security and comfort.

It takes courage to believe that cultural change is not an attack. It takes courage to consider the stranger crowding us at the stadium as just another friendly fan rather than a threat. It takes courage to trust that our Constitution and our political institutions are strong enough to weather the storms of partisan meanness and gridlock. It takes courage to believe that diversity makes America great by making our culture stronger and more resilient, rather than making it weaker. 

Those of us who actively participate in religious life use the term faith frequently and easily. In the Bible, the best known stories of great faith are also stories of great courage. In the Old Testament, Abraham left his home country to follow God; Moses and the Israelites escaped Egypt; Joshua led the Israelites into battle against bigger and stronger enemies. Faith called these and other great leaders into an unknown future. Faithfulness required of them a great courage. In the New Testament, the stories of Jesus, of those he healed, and of those who followed him during and after his earthly ministry, are filled with courageous faith.

In our day, it still takes courage to be people of faith. A fearful faith cannot ask questions, is frightened by new ideas and cannot consider that expressions of faith other than “old time religion” might be of God. A faith based in courage seeks to grow deeper; one based in fear clings too fiercely to the security of unquestioned traditions. Courageous faith allows one to keep an open heart and an open mind, and tries to distinguish God’s commands from the traditions of culture or the dictates of political beliefs. Sadly, history is not kind in reviewing how well Christian people have been able to make those distinctions.

It is no small matter to call for courage in the face of fear. It is, however, a far better response than avoidance, withdrawal, and retreat into a fortress mentality. If we act in courage, we have the opportunity to write a new chapter in the history of our country and of our religious faith.

The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.

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