If there is anything we Americans hold in common this Christmas, it is fear.
I felt it creeping up my neck four weeks ago when my dad called me on the way to work. “Did you hear about San Bernardino?” I confessed I was behind on the news. “The Islamic State is here.”
That same day my wife stopped in to buy jeans at the Gap. A Muslim man was buying a jacket for his wife who was draped in an all-black hijab, showing only her eyes. My wife felt guilty for saying it, but she said what so many of us feel: “Jeff, I was a afraid.”
As Christmas approaches, the thorns of fear quietly infest American soil.
Yet my wife and I hold something in common with many Muslims today. They too are afraid. Since San Bernardino, many American Muslims have feared a backlash. And should they not be afraid? Donald Trump vows to expel Muslims from America, and has even hinted at creating internment camps. Ted Cruz has threatened to carpet bomb Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria, with little regard for innocent life.
Such indiscriminate fury shows that Pulitzer prize winner author Marilynne Robinson is right: “Contemporary America is full of fear.”
Yet American fear is not just directed toward Islamic jihadists.
I remember the day last year when Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich was forced to resign when news was published about his support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The social media firestorm culminated in a message from OKCupid: “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies.”
I hold a traditional view of marriage. When I read those words, I remember thinking, “Could I, too, be sacked for my views of marriage?” I shut my office door. For the first time in my adult life, I felt fear living in America as a person of faith.
Yet again, I share this fear with many in the LGBT community. Many gays fear revealing their sexuality to co-workers will make them a target for exclusion. It’s even harder to be a transgender teen. Though I may disagree with the practice of gay marriage, I share something in common with many in the gay community: a fear of persecution.
Fear has even seeped into race relations. Ta-Nehisi’s heart-breaking letter to his son laments America’s heritage of violence toward African-Americans. Hopelessness among many blacks flows from Ferguson to Fergus Falls.
Conversely, many police officers in racially diverse neighborhoods fear increasing public criticism, wondering if they, too, are now becoming targets.
The ghost of Jacob Marley is roaming through American cities this Christmas, binding us with the chains of suspicion
But we can do something, right? We can be compassionate and show love. We can be different, right?
Over a month ago, I sent an impassioned plea to my congressman, begging him—for the love of God—to allow more refugees to enter the United States. The next day I received an official email reply: “I voted yes on H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act.” Translation: keep out your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We want safety. We are…afraid.
In the past month, I’ve felt a sense of desperation, perhaps best expressed by the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”
As the fog of fear clouds American life, I’m reminded of a 12th century carol of longing: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Who of us haven’t felt this captivity? Who of us haven’t longed for someone to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and put death’s dark shadows to flight?”
Many Americans will wander into Christmas eve services this year and hear the familiar story of a pregnant Jewish teenager, a nervous father, a baby laying in a feeding trough. And at the center of the story is an angelic announcement: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10).”
Do not be afraid? Great joy? How could shepherds – working class and socially marginalized – embrace such a pronouncement? How could Jews, living under Roman oppression, dance again?
The Christmas story suggests there’s only one to antidote to fear: an unexpected gift.
The only way to cut through the uncertainty and anxiety of fear is to meet your enemy not with plans to defend ourselves, but with a particular sign of generous love.
Can we drive back the cloud of American fear? Yes. But not through higher walls, larger defense budgets, or by “taking back America” from them – whoever they are. The path forward is to move from hostility to hospitality. The path forward is to welcome the stranger into our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces.
Fear in American life is real. But grace drives out fear. Fear is crushed through generosity; it is dissolved through fellowship. Thorns may infest the ground from New York to Los Angeles, but “he comes to make his blessings flow, as far as the curse is found.”
To be a Christian in a time of dread means to direct all our hope toward a baby laying in a manger, of whom John the apostle would lone day write, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Connect with him on Twitter @JeffHaanen.
A version of this essay first appeared on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website.