Carlos E. Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

April 21, 2013; 4th Sunday of Easter, Year C – Non-Lectionary sermon

Psalm 27; 1 Peter 3:8-17


“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,

                                          but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

1 Peter 3:14b-15


It was a beautiful, beautiful day. As you may recall, it was much the same on September 11, 2001. On Monday, the Boston Marathon crowds — many of them family and friends of runners — were jubilant.  They were craning their necks to see their loved ones come down the final stretch, ready to welcome them with cheers and open arms.

Then, all hell broke loose.  I don’t need to repeat the details — the deaths, the maimings, the terror. You know the story all too well, by now.

I first heard about the bombings from a neighbor, as I was out walking the dog. I rushed home and turned on the TV, got a sense of what was going on, then I picked up the phone and called my brother, Jim.

Jim’s an attorney who works in downtown Boston.  I figured he couldn’t have been far, but I had no idea how close he was. His office window, he told me, overlooks the Boston Marathon finish line.  Jim had not so much heard the bomb blasts as felt them, as the whole building shook.  He was perfectly safe — many stories above street level — but still, the news reports took on a chilling immediacy.

Here we go again, I thought to myself. Terror. A smaller version of  9/11. The peace of our country shattered, its naive innocence massively disrupted by persons unknown. I remember thinking there are parts of the world where this sort of thing hardly seems exceptional at all. Just another bombing.

Chechnya, the homeland of the Tsarnaev brothers, is like that. A place where human life isn’t worth much.

We’re so fortunate, here in this country. We really have no idea.

When those photos of the two bombers emerged, then their names, the righteous rage of a nation came into focus. Thousands of heavily-armed police officers and Federal agents. An entire city locked down.

There were some hate crimes in response. A restaurant cook on his break, standing on a sidewalk in the Bronx, having a cigarette. Four men come up and ask if he’s Arab. Before he can reply that he was born in this country, but his family’s from Bangladesh, they start pounding him with their fists. He ends up lying on the street, semiconscious, his shoulder dislocated.

A Syrian doctor in Boston, wearing her hijab (or headscarf), is approached by a man who slugs her for no reason. He’s screaming out profanity and saying how Muslims like her caused the bombings. This is a doctor, a woman who has come to this country not to hurt, but to heal.

When I hear stories like these, I am ashamed for my country. And I am disappointed, because it means the terrorists have won. They have caused some of us to betray our cherished principles of liberty and justice for all.

At the root of such behavior, of course, is fear. We call them “terrorists” for a reason. Their ultimate goal?  To plant seeds of fear in us, so we may become less than we are.

The Bible has a lot to say about fear. Again and again, Jesus’ word to his disciples is “Be not afraid.”  Easier said than done, when children lie bleeding from shrapnel wounds.

The passage we read today from 1 Peter contains some wise words about fear. First of all, it says, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” So hard to do, especially in times like these.

The passage goes on to say, a few verses later: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

“Do not fear what they fear.” It’s a strangely apt expression when directed at a terrorist.

We’re all going to be wondering for a very long time what was going through the minds the Tsarnaev brothers as they put together the elements of those homemade pressure-cooker bombs, tested them, surrounded the explosives with ball bearings — and how, later, they put them into backpacks and carefully laid them on the ground behind the crowds of people as they watched the race. These two young men had come to this country as refugees. The USA had offered them political asylum and had given them a better life than they ever could have had in Chechnya. It seems to make no rational sense. Why would these two men, each of them promising in his own way, lay their futures aside in favor of mass murder?

No, it makes no rational sense. And that, my friends, is the point. One of the hardest things for most people to wrap their minds around, in situations of serious conflict, is that fear is the motivator of the most vicious assaults one person will make upon another, and fear is not rational.

You can’t reason your way out of fear. Evolution has built fear circuits into our brains that were, in an earlier, more primitive time, crucial for our survival. The brain scientists have identified a little structure within our brains, known as the amygdala, which they believe is the seat of all fears.

Some have called the amygdala “the lizard brain,” because it seems to be such a primitive structure, one of the few the human brain has in common with animal brains of a much lower order. Imagine an animal in the wild — say, an antelope standing at the edge of a watering hole. Everything is fine, there by the watering hole, until the antelope glimpses a lion slowly moving in its direction. This image sets off a fear reaction in the antelope’s brain, that leads it to do one of two things: fight or flee. The far more common response, for antelopes, is to flee. The antelope’s brain decides, in a split second, that this is what it needs to do. That thought is instantly transformed, by the animal’s nervous system and muscles, into a burst of speed. Because running is, of all things, what the antelope does best, chances are it will outrun the lion.

Buried deep inside our larger, more rational brains, the amygdala (or lizard brain) is still present. It’s programmed and ready to save our lives by getting us out of the way of danger. But you can’t reason with it. That’s the point. Reasoning would slow it down. Run first, ask questions later, is the amygdala’s typical response.

Under other circumstances, the amygdala’s response is not flight, but fight. In the case of certain adversaries, the animal will stand its ground.

I see that in action while walking our dog, Maisie. As we’re making our way around the block, sometimes it happens that we encounter someone else walking their dog. Unless I anticipate that situation and specifically tell her to leave the other dog alone, Maisie’s reaction will often be to growl and bark and strain against the leash. She looks pretty fierce in that moment. You could well imagine she’s about to go for the other dog’s throat, were it not for the leash.  Sometimes she’ll respond that way even though I’ve already told her, “Leave it.”

I can well imagine the battle that’s going on inside that dog-brain of hers. On the one hand, there’s the command of her master to cease and desist. To the extent that dogs reason, this is her rational brain at work. Yet, on the other, there’s that automatic response that’s a carry-over from her species’ primitive heritage. Somewhere way back in evolution, dogs learned that a swift and loud barking response contributed to their survival, driving off their adversaries. And so that behavior became hard-wired into their brains.

Brain scientists have learned that the amygdala has a multitude of neural connections to the cerebral cortex, that part of the brain where reasoning takes place. That means it can send alarms out in times of danger, to which the rest of the brain responds. The same is not true, though, in the opposite direction. There are far fewer connections between the cerebral cortex and the amygdala. The result is that it’s hard for us to reason our way out of fear. The philosopher Edmund Burke expresses this reality when he writes, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Burke knew nothing of brain chemistry, but he’d observed, from practical experience, how hard it can be to talk fear down until the rational part of the brain can engage.

A great many of the most intractable political debates are driven by fear. Like the debate about gun control. Something like 90% of the American people want some form of background checks for gun purchasers. Yet, the NRA counters with the argument that the government has a secret plan to confiscate all guns, and that background checks are but the first step on that slippery slope. This scenario is a fearsome prospect, and because of that fear, the amygdala is engaged. Any rational observation that government confiscation of guns is highly unlikely holds little sway. Fear trumps reason, and wins the day.

Another argument that opponents of gun control frequently bring up is that guns are needed for self-defense. The examples they typically bring up are stories of some sort of dangerous robber or rapist breaking into a home, who was stopped by a homeowner with a gun. Now, that’s a fearsome thought, no doubt about it. It does happen, on occasion. What the NRA people will never tell you, though, is that the vast majority of shootings are not by homeowners protecting home and family from strangers, but rather are by gun owners getting angry and shooting people they know and, often, love.

Or, they’re accidental shootings, like that horribly tragic case of that four-year-old shooting that six-year-old in Toms River. What happens in our brains is that the fearsome thought of the home invader shuts out any rational calculus of just how likely it is that such a thing will happen. What was a loaded gun doing in a home where a four-year-old could get hold of it, anyway? I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t a case of somebody just forgetting to unload the gun after a hunting trip, but that someone in that household deliberately kept the gun loaded out of fear that some terrifying stranger could burst through the door at any time — despite the fact that such a scenario is highly unlikely. Again, fear trumps reason, with tragic results.

Here’s another example. Claire and I used to know a couple — highly intelligent, even scholarly people — who had made it a family policy that they would never fly together on the same airplane. If they both had to go somewhere, they would take separate flights. The reason? If the plane should happen to crash, their children would not be orphaned.

Now, that may sound like a very caring, thoughtful thing to do, until you consider that this couple never applied the same reasoning to the two of them driving in a car together. You probably know that any of us are far more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. Their children were actually more at risk of becoming orphans every time the two of them got into a car together — which they did frequently — than would have been the case with them flying on the same plane. Yet, something about the dreadful prospect of a couple hundred helpless people dying instantly in a plane crash — which does happen, every once in a while — seemed more fearful than the more likely prospect of the two of them being in a fatal car accident. Once again, fear trumps reason.

Most of you probably know the story of Anne Frank, the Dutch girl whose Jewish family hid out from the Nazis for a number of years, before they were captured and sent to concentration camps, where they died. What not so many people know is that, in 1941, before they went into hiding, Anne Frank’s father, Otto, tried energetically to get permission for the family to emigrate to the United States.

It wasn’t so easy, though, because our government had clamped down on immigration from countries under Nazi rule because of fear of what was called a “fifth column” of saboteurs or spies coming into the country who would then cause damage or loss of life. Only the well-connected could get visas to emigrate — only those who could make themselves known to the American authorities and could demonstrate that they had something to offer to the country.

It so happened that Otto Frank did know some influential people in America. Specifically, he had an old college friend, Nathan Straus, Jr., son of the co-owner of the Macy’s department stores. Straus was director of the Federal Housing Authority and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s.  Frank wrote to him, and in a recently-discovered letter said this: “Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”

At that time, a $5,000 deposit was needed to obtain a visa — a huge sum of money, more than many houses typically cost. “You are the only person I know that I can ask,” wrote Otto Frank. “Would it be possible for you to give a deposit in my favor?”

All these efforts came to naught. The Franks failed to obtain their U.S. visa. They stayed in the Netherlands and eventually joined the millions the Nazis murdered in the death camps.

Indirectly, it was fear that condemned the Frank family to their fate. Our government, fearing German espionage, had set the immigration bar so high that few applicants could meet the requirements. Every time the Frank family would meet one requirement, it seemed, another new one would rise up in its place. We Americans knew about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and so many other groups, even if we didn’t know the full extent of “The Final Solution.” But fear of Nazi agents led us to allow only a trickle of immigrants to cross our borders.  It was not our finest hour. Sometimes, fear trumps not only reason, but also compassion.

So, if fear is such a deeply-programmed survival mechanism, then how do we overcome it? It’s fine for 1 Peter to say, “Do not fear what they fear,” but how do we accomplish that? How do we triumph over the primitive lizard brain and do what is right?

The answer 1 Peter gives appears later in the verse: “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” Christ is Lord! That’s more than a theological statement. It’s a declaration of personal trust. It’s the outcome of a living relationship.

What does a parent do, when a child is struggling with fear? When children come into their parents’ room and say, “I can’t sleep, there’s a monster under my bed,” parents can try to reason with their children. They can take them back into their bedroom, shine a flashlight under the bed, tell them there’s no such thing as monsters.

That may work. Or then again, it may not. Because this is fear, and is not entirely rational. Such fears are highly resistant to reasoning.

The thing most likely to make a difference is for the parents to say to their children, “Come into our bed, just for this night. It’s safe here. You’re surrounded by love. And when the sun rises and the daylight pushes back all the shadows, you’ll see there was nothing to fear.”

We have the same sort of relationship with our God. When troubling fears rise up, fears not entirely susceptible to reason, the best thing to do is to commit them to a loving God — and to Jesus Christ, the one mediator between ourselves and God. That same Jesus has gone to the cross, has triumphed over death and has been raised to new life. I think he can take care of a few stubborn fears for us — don’t you?


Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.