“Witness”

What do you fear? What are the consequences of letting fear rule your life?  What might happen if you stopped giving fear this power?

Fear is always with us.  Fear of dark, fear of heights, fear of the loud the potties found in public restrooms. Fear of growing old. meeting new people, eating unfamiliar foods, driving on ice. Fear of shots, bad dreams, not being able to pay the bills. Fear of pain, death, and dementia. Fear of bullies, thunderstorms, failure, loneliness, speaking in front of crowds.

Fear is always with us.  It is a protective human response wired into our bodies. In childhood, facing and moving through fears is an essential part of our developmental process. Fear is normal, but when it rules over us, determining our choices and our actions, it becomes debilitating and destructive.

The author of the Gospel of John vividly depicts the fear of the disciples. On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, they hid. They locked the doors and shuttered the windows. They closed themselves off from the world. As darkness fell and they huddled together, every footstep, every voice, ringing out in the empty street must have startled them. Were the authorities coming to break down the door, to carry them off to the same horrible death?

Execution on a cross was a common Roman practice; it was the routine way the empire destroyed popular movements they viewed as dangerous to their power. Crucifixion was designed to silence leaders and to demoralize and disperse followers.  It was, like all violence, rooted in fear. And the fear of the Roman rulers begat fear on the part of the religious leaders. The temple authorities believed that cooperation with state terrorism was the only safe option for themselves and the people.

Early on that Easter morning, Mary Magdelene had come back from the tomb at a full run, shouting about seeing Jesus. But the disciples, in their traumatized state, didn’t hear her, didn’t believe her, couldn’t digest the meaning of her words. Fear imprisoned them. Fear silenced them. Fear dulled their senses and killed their imagination. Fear convinced them that all they had hoped for and worked for with Jesus was truly finished.

This week, after the announcement that there will be no indictment in the Jamar Clark case, I have felt troubled and unsettled. Studying the County Attorney’s statement, watching the videos, reading articles and commentaries and Facebook posts, I realize that “we” in this city, will never arrive at a shared understanding of what happened that night. How can we even speak to one another when one person’s plain truth are someone else’s obvious lies? Is it even possible to name, and probe, and disarm the fear that imprisons us all?

Whatever we say, we are sure to offend someone, cause someone pain. But what are the consequences, for me, for you, for our community, of remaining fearfully silent, and silently uninvolved? What is the price the world pays when the church, locks the doors and shudders the windows? What harm is done when we use our power to fuel an illusion of safety in a cruel and dangerous world?

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. I could quote every page today; I’ll go with page 14.   Coates writes this to his African American teenage son:

“…I am afraid.  I feel the fear most when you leave me.  But I was afraid long before you, and in this, I am unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.  I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ‘round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.”

Fear seems to be a common denominator in the lived experience of racism for people of all social locations. White supremacy, says Coates, is an inadequate term to describe a society birthed and sustained through the destruction of the black body. White supremacy insists that it is people of color we must fear, projecting the violence of an oppressive system onto the victim of that same violence.

A statement from “Neighborhoods Organizing For Change” about the Clark case, makes this very argument, saying:

 “The officers’ accounts of the interaction with Clark, as quoted by Freeman… are full of dog-whistle [that is, coded] language: that he had a “thousand yard stare,” that he was “fidgeting,”  criminalizing the fact that his hands were in his pockets as reasons to use force against him…”

“it is remarkable that although this entire interaction happened with Ringgenberg sitting on top of Jamar Clark, the officers’ “de-escalation response was to shoot him in the head.”

“Fidgeting, having one’s hands in one’s pockets, and staring off into space are not criminal offenses. These are the reasons the officers gave for escalating so violently and immediately upon encountering Jamar Clark. This is the same language used to criminalize young black men in everything from low-level arrests to fatal police shootings all over the country.”

Resurrection is the power of God to free us all from the rule of fear. Resurrection happens when God’s spirit of life bursts through the locked doors and shuttered windows, breaks down our coded language and shatters our complacent silences. “Peace be with you” Jesus said to the disciples. moving gently from one to the next, showing them his hands and his side. They recognized him, because the wounds of fear were deep and harsh on his body. They recognized him because these same injuries, now healed, revealed a resilient beauty and a compassionate strength.

The author of Acts, in contrast to John, portrays the disciples as bold witnesses who defied orders to remain silent about Jesus. Now, I am sure that even as the disciples shouted their message on every street corner, they remained afraid.  But they didn’t let that fear win. From the perspective of the temple authorities, the disciples’ speaking out endangered everyone.

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name” they say “yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

To quiet the disciples, they threatened them and threw them in jail. But Jesus’ followers only grew stronger and more vocal.

“The God of our ancestors” they proclaimed, “raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”

They refused to shut up  about outrage and pain of crucifixion.  They refused to shut up about the power of God, revealed in resurrection,  the power to break through and to disarm our violence rooted in fear. “Peace be with you.” Jesus said to the disciples, “As God has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Resurrection happens when God’s holy breath of peace empowers us each to go out into the world that killed Jesus, and to boldly bear witness to his death and to his life. The peace of God is not passive, not oblivious to the real terrors of the world. God’s peace is active and passionate resistance to every pain and injustice that diminishes life. The gift of the resurrected Christ is shalom, the integration of our fears and scars into our wholeness.

What do you fear? What are the consequences of letting fear rule your life? What might happen if you stopped giving fear this power?  Amen.