By Kenneth H. Carter
We live in a fearful time. As I write, there have been more than 100,000 documented coronavirus deaths in the United States. The virus is an invisible threat, deadly in its impact. There is much that we do not know about its spread. We have been here now for months, and may yet be here for months more.
Also in this season, we have witnessed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and others. This provokes fear and trauma in a way that I, as a white man, cannot comprehend.
Fear is common. The word appears more than 500 times in the Bible. Fear is where we live — threatened by hurricanes and wildfires, by demonization and detention of immigrants seeking a better life, by mass shootings in synagogues and nightclubs, in shopping malls and concert venues.
Although I am thankful that my life has never been threatened, I do have fears. I have served as president of a global denomination and as a moderator of a global process seeking unity amid difference related to LGBTQ identity and practice. After years of work, I fear for our denominational future. Will we lose a part of what is dear to us? Will some people be disproportionately harmed?
How do we name our fears? And how do we overcome them?
Dr. Susan Murray explores the place of fear in our lives in this COVID-19 season in a moving essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. She describes the change in culture in 2014 when a patient in her small-town hospital was isolated for possible Ebola. Everyone became more anxious and self-protective.
Murray suggests that fear actually behaves like a virus — whether transmitted from person to person or airborne (through old or new media) — and that it generates similar symptoms and behaviors. Once present, it is difficult to remove and easy to share with others.
Indeed, she notes, if we are not prepared to fight fear “as actively and as thoughtfully as we fight any other virus,” it can do terrible harm to the vulnerable, with “far worse consequences when complicated by issues of race, privilege, and language.”
Christian leaders can respond to fear with what New Testament scholar Richard Hays calls “scriptural imagination” (link is external)— a way of seeing the world “through lenses given to us in Scripture.” In this season, the spiritual practice of reading Scripture within a deep tradition can be grounding for us, and can help us be resilient in the face of fear.
The encounter with Scripture can be transformative, Hays says. There is a “hermeneutical circle … between the reading of the text and the reading of the world in which we find ourselves.” A scriptural imagination, he insists, changes the way we see both the world and Scripture.
In the seasons of Advent and Lent, times of waiting, preparation and introspection, we often read from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of the desert and the wilderness; in many ways, we are living there now. A time of social distancing and self-isolation and ever-present threat is a time of desert and wilderness. It is a time of loss, death, grief, betrayal, uncertainty.
Yet within these realities, Isaiah offers a promise: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” And then a commandment: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’” (Isaiah 35:1, 3-4 NRSV).
I believe that this spiritual practice of scriptural imagination is essential in a time when fear spreads like a virus, with similarly destructive effects.
In this terrible season, Christian leaders must manage their own personal fears, their calling to walk alongside others, and the need to situate all of this in the Christian narrative of a God who loves us, who is with us, and who demands justice in this life and the life to come.
It is important that we take personal responsibility. It is imperative that we see ourselves in connection with each other. It is required that we share our resources with those disproportionately harmed. It is essential that we live into our professional callings, whatever those might be, for such a time as this.
All of this is difficult because we cannot gather in large assemblies to praise and lament, or around tables to speak and listen face to face. Leaders can be helpful in naming reality, which includes grief, lament and rage. People are hungry to stay connected, and they seek to ground the process of change in a deeper tradition that is about a pilgrimage from sin to redemption, from fear to perfect love, from cross to resurrection.
Yet it is important also to name our fears. They are real. They are appropriate to this time. And spiritual leaders who know the Scriptures within a deep tradition are not immune to the spread of the virus of fear.
They must simply strive to live and lead in a way that helps others to survive and perhaps even flourish, and then, in time, to heal, repair and rebuild. The narratives of our faith take us more deeply into our human and common experience. They remind us of the depths to which God will search for us, and they draw us from isolation into community.
In this way, faithful exegesis can lead to courage and hope. And along the way, we are reminded of our purpose and connected more profoundly to our callings.
As traumatic as this season has been and is, I have heard more than one pastor say to me, after a conversation about reaching people through online worship or deep spiritual conversation or taking part in a protest, “I don’t know where all of this is going, but I am energized. This is what God called me to do.”
Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. serves as resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church and as resident bishop at Duke Divinity School. He formerly served as president of the Council of Bishops of the UMC and as a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward.
Faith & Leadership at Duke Divinity School, July 7, 2020