So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
-Matthew 10:26-31 (NIV)
Used to be that when I met someone new and mentioned that I lived in Chicago, I’d get comments about Michael Jordan, or the Sears Tower, or how perennially bad the Cubs were, or deep-dish pizza. People used to talk about experiences they’ve had here, or the cold winters, or the wind. Lately, though, I get a different reaction.
These days, when I tell someone that I’m a Chicagoan, I get the look. It’s pity, concern, and fear all rolled into one.
The difference, of course, is that the media these days portrays Chicago as a terrifying place to live.
To hear some media outlets tell it — or even some movie directors or US Presidents — when you cross into the city limits, someone starts shooting at you. Chicago is described as out of control. People who don’t live here imagine gangs flashing signs on Michigan Avenue or crowding into our trains or buses, or Giordano’s for a slice of deep-dish. Some columnists from towns with their own serious crime problems write opinion pieces advocating sending in the Marines. (Interestingly, few of those pointing out the worst in my city care to note that things have gotten more serious since the city’s ban on handguns was declared un-Constitutional. Huh.)
No wonder people start looking for bullet holes when they find out where I make my home.
Let me make three minor points, and then my main one.
First minor point: Chicago has had a rough couple of years with violent crime. Close to 800 homicides happened in the city last year — up nearly 40 percent from 2015. That’s not good. No one thinks it is.
Second minor point: When you take our population into account, the number looks less terrible. In 2016, Chicago had not quite 28 murders per 100,000 people. St. Louis, in comparison, had over 59. Baltimore, more than 51. Detroit and New Orleans, right around 45. In Cleveland, Newark, and Memphis, over 30 people per 100,000 were murdered in 2016. The town where I grew up, Chattanooga, Tennessee? They had 23 murders per 100,000 in 2015.
Third minor point: in Chicago last year, 32 percent of the murders that occurred happened in 5 police districts that contain 8 percent of the city’s population. This is particularly interesting because it highlights the real problem in Chicago and many other cities: not keeping the majority of the population safe, but figuring out why a tiny fraction of the population is so much more likely than the rest to die violently.
Or, more likely, figuring out how to do something about it.
Which leads to my main point: acting out of fear is easy and stupid.
It’s easy and stupid to send in the Marines. It looks like decisive action, but it doesn’t address the real problems. It’s easy and stupid to lock your doors and hide in your house, skittish at every noise. It preserves the illusion of safety without allowing you to be part of the solution.
It’s easy and stupid to stereotype races and ethnicities as thugs and killers. It’s unfair and unjust and it strips away the humanity of large swaths of people who live and work and care for their families just like you do, and who have the same dreams and hopes as you have. It’s easy and stupid to locate the problem with immigrants.
And it’s easy and stupid to write the problem off as someone else’s.
Wherever you live, there are things you could be afraid of. But, if you are, they will drive you to gated communities, locked doors, exclusive schools, homogenous churches. It drives some to gangs and terrorists who promise them power when they feel weak. When you’re afraid, you’ll barricade yourself behind political rhetoric, legislative quick-fixes that allow you to ignore real problems, and racial, ethnic, and economic discrimination. You’ll line up behind any demagogue who promises to quell your fears. You’ll do or approve things out of fear that you'd never think of doing or approving in your saner moments.
Fear, in short, will keep you from being like Jesus. He told us, after all, not to be afraid of those who won’t listen to us, who hate us, who arrest us, who betray us, or even who kill us. Fear is an understandable feeling. It can even protect us in times of imminent danger. But as a philosophy of life, it’s stupid and shallow and faithless. It turns us into the little roly-poly bugs I used to play with as a kid: it makes us hide under rocks and roll up into a tight little ball any time our lives are disturbed in the slightest.
The world we live in is beset with real problems, and as followers of Jesus we have some things to do and say that can make a real difference in solving those problems. He taught that the kingdom of God is crashing into the world and overturning the tyrants and powers that take and oppress and terrorize. He taught that the laws of God’s kingdom are love and grace. He teaches us how to live as citizens and ambassadors of that kingdom in our broken world. Our neighborhoods and cities need to hear that message and see us live it out. But if we live in fear, the only ones who hear and see are other believers, and we invariably turn that message toward our own self-interest.
But we don’t need to live in fear, because the One Who took the worst that unreasoning fear and anger could do to him and conquered it is the One we follow. In the garden, he faced up to his own fear and found a path through it in prayer and in the faithfulness of his Father.
So will we, if we face up to our own fears in the same way he did: by saying to God, “your will be done.”
May that be our prayer in the face of fear: “your will be done.” May our fears, whatever they are, be replaced by our faith in the power of God — the power that raised Jesus from the dead, and the power that continues to free those who live in terror of death’s power. And may it lead us out into our world as his agents, carrying with us the love and peace and service that conquer fear.
May it be so in my city, and in yours.