by Ken Sehested
6 April 2016
“I shall wrassle me up a future or die trying.”
—Zora Neale Hurston, African-American novelist and folklorist
(and daughter of a Baptist preacher)
Dustin Johnson is currently at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Talking about his talent, both physical and mental, one of his colleagues commented in an ESPN interview, “He’s fearless. It’s like he doesn’t really care if he wins or loses.”
Obviously, that’s hyperbole. I’m sure Johnson does in fact enjoy winning. But the comment underscores something very important: Maybe Johnson’s greatest asset is not allowing the fear of losing to dominate his play.
A similar quality of fearlessness is the driver of spiritual formation. It doesn’t literally mean we’re never afraid. Fear—as in caution, of assessing circumstances with eyes wide open—is an instructive capacity. But we humans have a marked tendency to give fear the Number 1 ranking in our repertoire of motivating factors.
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In my own mind, one of the historical narratives that line up in the shadow of Holy Week’s preface to Easter is the story of the colonial Puritan state church’s opinion of their ana/baptist neighbors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The dissenters were considered “incendiaries of the Commonwealth, and the infectors of persons in matters of religion,” particularly when it came to denying “the ordinances of magistracy, and the lawfulness of making war.”
Rabble-rousers have always and everywhere been a threat to those assuming their governing order reflects Heaven’s blueprint. As the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
These days, given the national pride we take in the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you would think that no one in their right mind would have opposed the Civil Rights Movement. How easily we forget that for years he was surveilled (mostly illegally) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which considered him “the most dangerous Negro in the country”), the National Security Agency, and the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command.
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“When asked about the need to complete an overwhelming task, Rabbi Tarfon replied:
‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’”
—Mishnah, Pirkei Avot
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This past week we marked the fiftieth anniversary of King’s watershed speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break the Silence,” where he offered a full-throated objection to the Vietnam War and traced the corrupt triangle of “racism, materialism, and militarism.” His Nobel Peace Prize reputation took a beating. Liberal funding sources dried up. More than a few of his own advisors begged him not to deliver this speech. And mainstream media shushed him.
•The New York Times, formerly a supporter, ran an editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” chiding him for linking foreign policy (the US war in Vietnam) with domestic policy.
•The Washington Post said “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
•Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
•Reader’s Digest warned it might provoke an “insurrection.”
•Even the NAACP, our nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, issued a public statement decrying King’s linkage of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Almost never, in our countless King Holiday recitations, do we hear his judgment about "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government."
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Honoring courage past is forever easier than (and often a substitute for) practicing it presently.
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It has been rightly said that courage is fear that has said its prayers. Disciplined training in faith must not repress fear, which should always have a voice in the heart’s counsel table. But fear shouldn’t be allowed to run the meeting.
The King James rendition of Paul’s letter to his young associate reads, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The “sound mind” is elsewhere rendered as self-control, discipline, wise discretion.
There's a difference between being a "fool for Christ" and a garden-variety damn fool. The Gospel is and will always be "foolish" in the eyes of a compromised world; but not all foolishness is Gospel. The work of discernment is never relaxed, bringing reason to work, within the prayerful community of faith, in conversation with Scripture and its interpreted tradition.
As Jesus instructed the crowd gathered to hear him, “do not fear those who can kill the body (Luke 12:4)—but steer clear of the one who can also snatch the soul as well. In this text, the implied synonym for “soul” is “fearlessness.” The fearful state itself is Gehenna (“hell”).
Fear is to faith what darkness does when the light comes on.
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“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
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“I’m not fearing any man” Dr. King shouted in his final speech, on the eve of his assassination. I can think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week than listening to King’s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis.* It was an eerily prescient occasion, not unlike Jesus' foresight, in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying while Peter, James and John slept, finally awakening his friends to say "my betrayer is at hand" (Matthew 21:36-46).
Growing in faith involves bridling fear. The freedom to live fearlessly comes as a result of the conviction that nothing—not even death—can take away anything essential. When Scripture speaks of God’s comfort, the emphasis is not on a pacified emotional condition but on the wellspring of an activated, daring, redemptive presence in a world of threat.
Indeed, fearing God is the very leverage that allows believers to live fearlessly within all other relations. Such is the prowess of Resurrection’s promise.
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"Ain't No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down)"
—"Brother" Claude Ely, performed by Johnny Cash
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*Here are three options for listening to “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”:
•Complete speech (43:14 audio)
• Excerpts (22:14) of the speech along with photos, video clips and commentary from some of his colleagues.
•Brief excerpt of the speech’s key lines. (2:37 video)