There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear. I John 4.18
Fear is a powerful short-term motivator. It appeals to our most basic instincts, and it triggers the most reflexual parts of our humanity. Fear speaks to our fight and flight response, and it stimulates what developmental psychologists call the “reptilian” part of our brain stem. Fear actually inhibits the “thinking” part of our brains. It most often operates at a subconscious level, altering pulse rates, pupil dilations, and sweat glands, even as it often seeks to find conscious justification for its unconscious impulses. Fear yells, “You’re in danger! There is no time for thinking, only reflex!” It’s fight or flight. Predator or prey. Hunt or be hunted. Kill or be killed.
In these ways, fear grips our humanity. We can’t look away from it because we worry our life is at stake in responding to it. It feels like neglecting one’s fear places one’s life in jeopardy. Thus, we harbor and nurse our fear, taking tender care of it
And yet, this verse from 1 John says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Honestly, that’s not what I expect the verse to say. I expect the verse to say, “Perfect love casts out hatred” or “Perfect love casts out ignorance” or “Perfect love casts out prejudice.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “Perfect love casts out FEAR.” The Bible understands love and fear as opposites.
The more I think of it, however, it does make sense to me. It’s so very difficult to love someone of whom you’re afraid.
In the last few years, fear has produced a new (and yet, not-so-new) political strategy in this country. Given the demographic changes and cultural shifts around us, some politicians have harnessed the fear that is latent in all change. Thus, they often hearken back to some point in the past as the glory days, when all was right and well with the world. Conversely, they paint an ominous and bleak future for their constituents, one that must be feared and resisted. Be afraid of the immigrant. Be afraid of the Black Lives Matter movement. Be afraid of the LGBTQ “agenda.” Be afraid of religious pluralism. Be afraid of “nasty women.” Be afraid of anyone who is “other”…be very afraid. This fear animates our reptilian brains and drags us in. Over the course of time, it actually rewires the neural groves in our brains so that we live our entire lives in fight or flight mode, with our vision focused on the nearest threat.
What exists at the national level eventually trickles down to the state level, with state politicians attempting to harness the same fear for the same political ends. In short, it works. The 2021 Arkansas State Legislature is a case in point, with a politics springing from the same whirlwind of fear.
A bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee (SB3) seeks to enable Hate Crime Legislation in Arkansas. Currently, Arkansas is one of only three states with no Hate Crime laws on the books. This legislation would seek to protect our most vulnerable citizens by adding a potential 20% increase of maximum sentencing on any crime which can be proven to be a Hate Crime. In short, this legislation would confront the ever-increasing rise of Hate Crimes in our country, and it would express an aspiration for Arkansas to be a hate free zone. Despite these good reasons for its passing, this bill is struggling to even make it out of committee, though it has bipartisan support. The question remains, if one is opposed to Hate Crimes Legislation, what is it exactly that one is for?
Currently, “Stand Your Ground” legislation is before the same Senate Judiciary Committee. This controversial legislation has plagued many other states. In short, Stand Your Ground laws enable armed people to commit deadly violence rather than flee it. Arkansas already allows self-defense under the law, but that defense is a last resort, not simply an easy one. This legislation is troubling to say the least, and there is a long trail of evidence from other states that suggests this legislation does not lead to peace and wholeness. Rather, it has proven to increase violent crime, disproportionately impact people of color, and give deadly permission to citizens steeped in fear. Those living with the most fear are precisely those who will see others as perceived threats. Those who exercise their reptilian brains are those most likely to strike!
Thirdly, HB 1218 and HB 1231 seek to censor public schools from teaching anything about race, religion, class, gender, or political affiliation. The misguided rationale behind this legislation is that discussing these matters leads to disunity and conflict. However, the reverse is actually true. While these conversations are often uncomfortable, not talking about these issues is precisely what perpetuates them. Recounting the whole of US history for our children, including the seminal and irrefutable role of racism, does not open a wound, but is the first step towards healing it. Light is a disinfectant. Teaching children about our ever-diversifying and pluralistic world doesn’t hinder their development, but it prepares them to be citizens who can navigate the complexities of our day and seek liberty and justice for all. This legislation isn’t just impossible to enforce, it is misguided, wrongheaded, and propagandistic.
While the branches of these three pieces of legislation might appear different and distinct, the root of them is precisely the same. FEAR.
Fear of the other is behind both the rise in Hate Crimes and our refusal to acknowledge them. Fear of the other whispers to us of our need to “armor up,” a reptilian impulse to be sure. Fear of the other says, “Don’t discuss differences; just pretend they don’t exist. Keep the peace; just don’t make peace.”
But there is a better way. In fact, it’s the best way. It’s the way of love. It sees the neighbor and seeks to protect the neighbor, especially when that neighbor is vulnerable. It encounters the neighbor as a friend, not a threat. It doesn’t “Stand Your Ground” with a gun in hand; it cultivates the soil of hospitality and peace. It doesn’t run from difficult conversations of equity and inclusion; it seeks those conversations. Love really does lead to life in very real and tangible ways. Fear paves the way for death in very real and tangible ways.
This is why perfect love casts out fear. This is one opportunity for us to do the same, especially those of us who claim to follow the One who is perfect Love.