What If the Problem Is in Our Hearts?

fearoftheothercoverI’m reprinting here a review of the profound and timely little book by William Willimon, “Fear of the Other”. I had the privilege of reviewing this book for the Englewood Review of Books, and the review is reprinted here as it appeared in ERB. I think every person of faith should read this book. In this foggy time of fear and uncertainty, Willimon calls us back to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

The long months of the presidential campaign have given people of faith plenty of self-righteous high horses from which to rail at those who would stir up the juices of our all too common human fear of the other.

Reminds me of that delicious story in Luke’s gospel of a Pharisee named Simon who throws a dinner party and invites Jesus (Luke 7). When a woman with a reputation crashes the party, Simon takes the occasion for some self-righteous harrumphing about Jesus’ rusty skills as a prophet. Jesus doesn’t even know who it is who is wetting his’ feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair, Simon says to himself. In a brief and masterfully told parable, Jesus turns the tables on that highly religious man, exposing Simon’s self-righteousness and need for forgiveness.

While it’s quite easy — and satisfying in a self-righteous kind of way — to point at those who stoke our fear of Muslims and Mexicans, and anyone else who is different, what if the problem is not them, but us. What if the problem is that we are so naturally inclined to a fear of the stranger, even we people of faith who claim to love our neighbors. What if we unwittingly operate from a position of fear over against the one who is not like us, the one who for any of a number of reasons is outside our tribe? What if the problem is not out there, but in our own hearts?

That’s the point from which Bishop William Willimon begins in his masterful little book, Fear of the Other. In the introduction he draws the reader in, particularly the reader who takes their faith seriously, that serious Christian who decries the fear-mongering rhetoric of our public discourse. Willimon won’t let us stay in our comfortable place of pointing our fingers at the public figures. We are the Other; we are the ones who have been separated from God by our own sin and brokenness; we are the Other with respect to God. And God has come to us in Christ. The command to welcome is rooted in that very basic salvific event at the heart of the Christian faith, the crashing of the divine into our lives by way of incarnation. And just like the welcome that we received in Christ was costly, so we are commanded to welcome regardless of the cost. Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we have received hospitality at the cross of Christ.

Willimon doesn’t try to explain away or deny the reality of fear. We are hardwired for fear. It’s part of who we are as humans. And with good reason. In the ancient days when human interaction with predators was a part of daily life, a quick flight or fight response was the difference between living to tell about it or not. But that’s not how most of us live. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to fixate on what we perceive as a danger and misplace that fear towards those who are different. When we allow ourselves either to misplace our fear, to fear excessively, or to be dominated by the avoidance of evil rather than the pursuit of the good, then we no longer are responding faithfully to the brokenness of the world around us. The faithful response is to recognize how we have been changed in the relational and redemptive transaction with a God who has come to us in Christ. All the signifiers that serve to divide us and engender suspicion and fear of the other: class, gender, tribe, race, and history are being reframed and reinterpreted by this single qualifier: we are the baptized.

In the national climate of ramped up fear of the Other, Willimon argues that the church is particularly needed. The church is how God gets what God wants out of us and for getting what God needs for the sake of the world. The gospel of Jesus that saves us does not allow us to turn in on ourselves, but thrusts us toward the Other. Especially in an age of increasing diversity, the church has to answer the challenge of whether we will follow the expanding boundaries of God’s kingdom or not. When it comes to the church’s response, Willimon gets practical, offering a long list of concrete suggestions and challenges for how the local congregation might embody the welcome and hospitality of the Gospel.

I love this book. I want every member of my congregation to read this book. I want this book within reach every time I sit down to write a sermon. It’s not only timely in the sense of a clear response to the fear that has consumed our public discourse, but it’s timeless in the sense that it offers solid biblical and theological reflection for that symptom of our human brokenness that lies pretty close to the heart of things. In his inimitable style, Willimon not only offers profound theological insights and a crystal clear call to living as a Christian in a broken world, but he does so with abundant stories, blending his his keen gift for storytelling with an engaging sense of humor that brings a chuckle as well as a challenge.

I only have one bone to pick, and it’s not with the author, but with the publisher. This is a tiny book in comparison to nearly everything else on your desk; it’s 90 pages and the cover is the size of a 5×7 photograph. It almost feels more like a pamphlet than a book, the kind of pamphlet that, literally, I want to put in the hands of every member of my congregation. But at $15 a copy, I won’t be doing that. I don’t know the exigencies of book publishing and I’m sure it’s more complicated than I can imagine, but how I wish there were a less expensive way to get this in the hands of my people.

As I said, that’s a small criticism. Go buy the book. Take the two hours that it will take you to read it. And then spend the rest of your life attempting to put it into practice.


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