Terror. Fear. Sorrow. Anger. Hatred. These are only a few of the emotions that can pass through our minds when we encounter a violent and tragic event like those that have taken place recently. Whether it is the horror in San Bernardino this past week, or the attacks in Paris and Beruit, as well as the blown-up Russian plane a few weeks ago, or some of the other mass shootings or terrorist acts that have occurred in recent years, our world as we know it is drastically changing.
Of course, violence and danger and death have always been around. In far too many places in the world, this danger is a constant threat and even a daily occurrence. Yet now it seems to have come much closer to home! Especially since 9/11, the danger of terrorism and extreme violent radicalism is our new American reality. If we add to such terrorism the homegrown crazy behaviour of broken people in a society that grows in moral ambivalence, a society which bombards us daily with extreme violence on television and in video games, and then allows us easy access to all kinds of guns, the danger around us seems to increase exponentially.
So what is our reaction to this changing new reality? Well, for some, our first and biggest reaction is fear: fear of what we see on television; fear of the unknown; fear of what could happen; fear of an unseen enemy; fear that grows into a suspicion of any stranger; fear of those who seem different than ourselves, whether in religion, colour, ethnicity, or otherwise. There is the fear of the possibility of violence, and the fear of death itself. There are so many things that can frighten us. If we let our own imaginations go, this fear only grows, and it even changes us. It distorts our original beauty, and the way we see others.
What often follows fear is anger, even an irrational and dangerous anger and hatred, anger and hatred towards others, especially towards anyone who may possibly threaten us. Such anger can even be turned on anyone who simply appears like the enemy, and it is so easy to add more and more people to this frightening list. We then create evil caricatures out of countless people. We don’t try to engage with strangers or to get to know them as fellow human beings. Instead, we are prey to the much easier temptation to create tall walls, whether imaginary or real, all around ourselves. We push out anything or anyone that seems a danger to us. We become an isolated island, not interacting with the world, but simply rejecting and despising the other.
Such fear can lead to anger, which can lead to hatred, which can lead to more violence. It’s a vicious cycle, and a cycle that we should stack up against the teachings of our Christian faith, and especially against the example of our Lord Jesus Christ and his saints. Our Lord lived during very violent and dangerous times. The prospect of evil was pervasive. The saints of all ages also faced times of terror and horror. Yet, how did they respond? What did they do?
During such moments as these, we must look to God and find direction from Him. During moments of fear and uncertainty, we must not allow fear to control our lives, but turn to Him and allow the peace and security of Christ to reign in our lives!
Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Christ knew something of this fearful hatred. Yet he tells his followers, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). “In Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, has conquered the darkness of the world, and through His victory offers deep, inner peace to His followers. He is the antidote to overcoming any and all fear. When we abide in His peace, and allow His peace to reign in our hearts and lives, then ultimately we have nothing to fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We can face fearful circumstances and real temptations of anxiety with His “peace that passes all understanding.” “Do not be worried or anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
St. Paul, who faced terrible persecution and many moments of fear, learned to say, “If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or violence? Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor … anything shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–39).
So when we are tempted to fear, remember to “cast all your anxieties on the Lord, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7) – and don’t allow fear to control our lives! So we look to God to free us from the emotion of fear. Another emotion to consider alongside our Christian faith is the hatred that takes root from fear. Hatred towards others, towards those who seem to threaten us, springs from the darkness of the evil one. This is why one of the most radical teachings of Christ was precisely, “Love your enemy.” Radical love for the other, not hatred of those of whom we are afraid, is Christ’s call to action. This may seem ridiculous in light of the evil we see in our world every day. It will surely seem naïve and even stupid.
Yet, Jesus understood the brokenness of humanity, and realized that the way one can heal and transform such brokenness can only be through love, through divine agape. Of course, such divine love is not based on emotional feelings, but on our will. ‑rough such love we are called to reach out to the enemy, and to try to overcome their hatred with God’s loving care. This doesn’t mean that our society will blindly allow a vicious enemy to do as they please. It does mean, however, that we won’t imitate the hatred of our enemy, and we won’t adopt their vision of the world as black and white. We will see beyond any labels to the human person. We will treat others, especially others who may look like the enemy with their colour of skin, or their religion, or their country of origin, as our neighbour, with love and understanding and compassion.
To love is surely risky. To love our enemy may seem naïve and even dangerous. It may seem much easier to build walls of separation between us and those we deem different from ourselves. Yet our faith reminds us that walls of separation are not according to what Christ taught us. We are called to take the risk, and to love even our enemies. In the midst of that risk, we know that God is with us. By shining the light of Christ’s love on others, we understand that change can occur through His power. Christ’s love can shine in the midst of the darkest evil, and can even change the hearts of darkened souls. So we never fear, and we never despair.
The light of Christ shines brightly in the darkness of the world! Yes, we have what seems to be a new reality in our society and world: radicalism, extremism, terrorism, homegrown brokenness, and violence. The new, dark reality will tempt us to fear and to hate. Yet Jesus Christ calls us to something much greater and much harder. He calls us to dwell in His peace. Let no fear become greater than His peace which dwells within us. From this place of peace, let us love the other, including our enemy.
Fr. Luke A. Veronis