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In a Fearful World, Has Safety Become Our False God?

By December 16, 2007 No Comments

Are we living in a culture of fear? If we are, what is it doing to our souls? I spend a good deal of time in airports. You can’t go more than a few minutes in one without a robotic voice declaring, “The national security threat level has been raised to… ORANGE.” More ominous are the follow-up announcements encouraging travelers to report anything or anyone “suspicious.”

Then there are the promos for local television news. “You thought you were safe in your own backyard? Forget that! Tune in tonight at 11 when we reveal what happens to people who go… INTO THE BACKYARD!” Or there are the menaceedged voices that ask, “Do you really know what’s in your food (water, air, nose)?”

I recently reread portions of the 2003 State of the Union speech in which the president said, “Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses, and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. … It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”

Yes, we live in the world of the Virginia Tech shooter, terrorism, and various and assorted horrors. But we also live, increasingly, in a culture of fear where fear is a strong motivator for buyers, voters, and parents, as well as for how we think and act in our daily lives.

Perhaps you, too, have noticed how ubiquitous the word “safety” has become among us. Instead of good parenting, we hear about safe parenting. Instead of love, we urge safe sex. We have neighborhood safety zones and safe houses. In all sorts of institutional and community settings, people toss out phrases such as “exposure,” “liability,” and “safety concerns” as trump cards. Safety is of course a legitimate concern, but has it also become the real American idol? That is, has safety become our false god?

A friend of mine has a test for identifying an idol, in the religious sense of the word, and idolatry. “An idol is anything you can’t laugh at,” he says. If there is one place in the world where no jokes are allowed, it is in the security screening lines at the airport. If there is one word today that silences all levity, it is “safety.”

In his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos, 2007), author Scott Bader-Saye says that the things that become ethical virtues and practices in a culture of fear are things such as suspicion, pre-emption (getting them before they get you), and accumulation (you can never have enough). These, Bader-Saye notes, are just about the opposite of the virtues and practices Jesus taught. Virtues and practices such as hospitality to strangers, peacemaking toward our enemies or those different from us, and generosity with our wealth and belongings. Such practices as these, hospitality and generosity, are taught by most faiths as the way our souls grow rather than contract. It is telling that we have come to imagine that such practices are foolish or impossible.

The late columnist Molly Ivins, a Texan and proud of it, delighted in telling the story of two six-year-old boys, John Henry Falk and Boots Cooper, playing Texas Rangers. John Henry’s mother sent the Rangers down to the chicken house to rout out a chicken snake that had been doing some damage there.

The boys mounted their broomstick horses and galloped off. In the chicken house they searched all the nests on the lower shelf but found no snake. Then they got up on tiptoes to look into the nests on the upper shelf. When they did they found themselves looking straight into the eyes of a big ol’ chicken snake. The boys were so scared they both tried to exit the chicken house in great haste at the very same moment, doing considerable damage to themselves and to it as they did.

Watching the commotion, Mrs. Falk couldn’t help but laugh. When the boys finally made it back to the house she said, “Boys, what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake cannot hurt you!” One of the little boys said, “Yes, ma’am, but there’s some things that’ll scare you so bad, you’ll hurt yourself.”

Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Anthony Robinson is a minister in the United Church of Christ and a regular columnist in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This column originally appeared there on 25 May 2007 and is reprinted by permission.