Sixty years ago Franklin Roosevelt offered his vision of the Four Freedoms, including the freedom from fear. Roosevelt addressed what was then a largely Christian nation.
These days, our rapidly de-Christianizing nation is discovering that a culture of death is also a culture of fear. From massacres in high schools, colleges, military installations and malls to jitters about the next 9/11, we live in a world that is slowly being smothered with fear.
One connotation of “the world” in the biblical sense of the term is: the place where Satan gets his way, where fear seeps into everything, where some jerk commits an outrage to get his name on TV. Where a whole culture is forced, willy-nilly, to create a world where every minor activity is endlessly policed in order to create the illusion of safety, even as we fret endlessly over where the next outrage will strike.
Hell promises liberation through rebellion against God and delivers a world in permanent lockdown because rebellion against God produces snipers and bombers who aren’t constrained by bourgeois morals such as “You shall not kill.”
And a lot of people, including many Catholics, believe this. If there’s anything we’ve heard since 9/11, it is: “Be afraid! Be very afraid! Only fear can keep you safe!” That’s why there’s all the endless chatter about just how much prisoner abuse you can get away with before it’s legally, technically, you know, torture. That explains all the endless fantasizing about ticking time bombs, World War III, nukes in Manhattan and sundry horrors lurking in the wings.
When we aren’t in church, where people are supposed to say things like “trust God,” we talk and act as though it is folly to do so. We talk as though trusting God is for milksops, bed wetters and moralists who don’t have the brutal willingness to do the dirty work it takes to fight the “real world” on its terms. We talk as though we have to trust in our own strength — the strength to do whatever it takes in order to survive in a purely Darwinian world.
Meanwhile, the Church recalls the prayer of Zechariah in Luke 1: This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
Free to worship him without fear? To really be free from fear? That is the oath we are sworn by our God, an oath he apparently means to fulfill in this world.
How can the Church believe such Pollyanna rubbish? Doesn’t she know that 9/11 “changed everything”?
No. She doesn’t. Because that slogan is the real rubbish. The fact is: The world has always been a dangerous place, good people have always gotten it in the neck, and freedom, love, compassion and the vulnerability that go with them have always been a risk in a world of ruthless and evil men. Our faith begins with a man tortured and murdered for reasons of state security. It begins in a world that needs the promise from God that we shall worship him without fear, because the Jews could tell you all about living in a world where their worship of God was fraught with terrors from Pharaoh to Antiochus Epiphanes — so could the Holy Family, on the lam from Herod.
We do not worship God without fear because we have been handed a world rendered safe since the coming of Christ. We worship him without fear because the worst thing that could ever happen in the entire universe — the murder of God — has already happened.
And that resulted in a resurrection so powerful that this fallen world cannot contain it: a resurrection that will one day be consummated in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Mark Shea now blogs at