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I’ve been thinking lately about fear. There are books already written – and probably a library’s worth on the way – about the way that fear has been used to influence politics. Fear of immigrants is used for political marketing the way fear of failure is used by Gatorade and fear of not-belonging is used by GAP.

Fear is powerful.

In John 10, Jesus tells us he is the gate. He’s setting up a contrast when he says he’s the gate – the ones who are to be feared don’t use a gate; they sneak in by scaling the fence.

The migrant caravan crossing Mexico has captured the attention of the United States. I kept thinking of this when I read these words of Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” There are many among us who believe that these Central American asylum-seekers are bandits at our borders. Those peddling fear have told us they’re coming to take jobs, dollars, to erase our way of life. I got asked the other day what we were going to do about the spread of polio that these immigrants were bringing.

The thief, certainly, deserves our fear. (To be clear, however, the fellow Christian fleeing poverty and violence and seeking safe harbor does not.)

A crisis of public discipleship

This week I read that we are in a particular kind of moment – a crisis of discipleship; a failure of spiritual formation. This was said by Michael Wear, who formerly worked in the U.S. White House and is now part of the leadership of the And Campaign, which is trying to educate Christians with an end in mind: compassionate policies and a healthier political culture. (Uh, sign me up.)

Wear said this about our moment of crisis: “[It’s as though] the only purpose of politics is to achieve security, whatever that means, and power, so that we can continue to be Christian in our personal lives. But God has a claim on more than that. So we need to be thinking as a church about what spiritual formation for public life looks like.” The only purpose of politics is not to achieve security. But try telling us voters that when we have been told to believe that thieves are about to come to steal, kill and destroy.

We are in a crisis. But Fleming Rutledge taught me that “the New Testament Greek word ‘krisis’ refers to a distinction, as between time and eternity or death and life, which calls for judgment and decision.” We are in a crisis, and it’s time for judgment and decision. What kind of people are we committed to being?

Jesus is the gate. He tells us this just after having told us that he is the shepherd. Sheep, according to my girl Barbara Brown Taylor, are not stupid, as we have been long, taught to believe: They’re just not like cows. A cow can be herded from behind – pushed in the right direction by fear of a whip or prod. A sheep must be led from the front – following the voice of its shepherd. They’re not dumb. It’s just that they were made to follow behind the safety of the shepherd, not be pushed ahead by something they fear.

So if Wear is right, and the church’s way out of this “krisis” is to get serious about a spiritual formation that helps us engage in public life, then I think it must take seriously the Jesus who tells us not only that he is the shepherd but also that he is the gate.

From N.T. Wright, I learned something I never would have considered about what Jesus might mean by this. Even today, in many Eastern sheepfolds, a nomadic shepherd often erects a temporary enclosure for the sheep come nightfall: The shepherd finds a cave or fashions a scraped-together fence to hold the sheep in. But he does not build a gate. Instead, the shepherd lies down in the gateway. The shepherd lays down his body – becomes the one most vulnerable – so he will be the first to know if a predator is coming in. He protects the sheep from harm.

But the shepherd also lays down his body so that he will be the means through which the sheep “come in and go out and find pasture.”

There is a spaciousness to this. We are not enclosed, forever, behind a wall. Others are not banned, forever, from coming in. We are made for another kind of life than that fearful one. Our shepherd calls us, lays down his life for us, to experience an abundant life that we cannot buy or earn or demand, that we cannot protect or commodify or restrict.

Perhaps our “krisis” does demand a new commitment to the sort of spiritual formation that reminds us that we were not made to cower in the sheepfold, but we were made – through Christ – to come in and go out, to find pasture, to discover an abundant life made possible by the one who lays down his life for us.

If this is so, whom shall we fear?

Kate Kooyman

Kate Kooyman is a minister in the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Michigan.