That we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is a paraphrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Few phrases are more apt in the current political atmosphere. The fear now, I believe, is of listening to one another. We are afraid to risk believing that “the other side” sincerely believes what it says it believes.
Within the span of a week this January of 2017, two marches were scheduled, the March for Women and the March for Life.The March for Women is new, a response to deep concerns about how the Trump administration will handle women’s rights as well as the rights of LGBTQ, Hispanic, African-American, and Islamic people. The turnout was reportedly quite large, with some estimating half a million in Washington and two million worldwide. Many of my relatives participated in or posted their support of the march. The media coverage was widespread and intense.
The March for Life began in 1974 as a protest against the legalization of abortion through Roe v. Wade, in the hopes of overturning its abortion-on-demand effects. It is scheduled for January 27th. It has steadily grown in participation, with numbers marching in Washington reportedly topping 650,000 in the 2016 march. There are parallel marches worldwide. In contrast to the March for Women, media coverage will be scant, if past years are any indication. Not only scant, but skewed. My son attended several years ago in D.C. Although the pro-life marchers clearly outnumbered pro-choicers by at least a hundred to one, CNN’s very brief coverage stated that, although there was no official head count, there might have been more pro-lifers than pro-choicers.
So where does “fear” come in? A recent article, https://qz.com/890798/womens-march-abortion/ reported that New Wave Feminists, a self-declared pro-life feminist group, wanted to be part of the March for Women. At first, they were included as partners of the march – until strong protests from other feminists led to them being dropped within days. Current comments on the article uniformly proclaim pro-abortion feminists’ shock and even nausea that any outside the “pro-woman = pro-abortion and pro-contraceptive” orthodoxy could be allowed to be at the table. As a National Review article http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444050/snl-susan-b-anthony-early-feminists-opposed-abortion details, by this logic Susan B. Anthony and most early feminists would have also been excluded from the march.
While the Left celebrates tolerance and diversity, I see in many on both the Left and the Right – and in orthodox Christians, myself included, who refuse to be categorized as either- a real fear of listening. Imagine the following: Planned Parenthood and New Wave Feminists (or even more, National Right to Life) sit down, each group saying, “Ok, what is it that you believe, and why?” Each side does some reflective listening. “So, in your view, much of women’s oppression in the past has come from a lack for reproductive freedom. And you can’t truly have human dignity without the ability to choose.” “So, in your view, because more than half of those killed by abortion are women, and some women are coerced into abortion, to be consistently pro-woman and pro-women’s-autonomy is to be pro-life.” Then a discussion would follow. Neither side would likely change its views – but they would at least understand the other’s views.
Take any other groups that rarely dialogue: pro-Trump and pro-Hillary; Christian and Muslim; for and against gun control; those on either side of the immigration question. We fear each other. We fear the unknown – who is the other. We demonize and dehumanize. And out of fear, we build walls. We live in our separate bubbles, our boxes, to the point where we not only don’t, we can’t think outside the box. At one gathering years ago, the speaker said, “I’m assuming that no one at this table voted for Bush?”, along the lines of “because no thinking person could.” As he glanced at my wife and me, he realized his assumption was wrong and changed the subject.
Gene, the protagonist in the classic coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace, reflects about his heroic friend, “Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.” He goes on to muse that Phineas would have done miserably in combat. He would have crossed the battle lines, shaken hands, and chatted with the enemy. He saw no enemies – as with Will Rogers, there were no strangers, just friends he hadn’t met.
The chasm is so deep between Phineas and the current political climate. We lack the courage to believe that truth will prevail. We don’t see that freedom of speech is the only way to go, that opposing views make for healthy discussion. Instead, we have “hate speech”: your views are so wrong, I cannot even allow you to express them. Some people are so willfully ignorant, I don’t owe them even basic human respect. What you say so offends me, I will pass laws forbidding you to say it.
I was amazed by the outbreak of fear at Trump’s election, I confess. I realized how little traffic I have with those outside of my Omaha Catholic bubble. There are, of course, (call me a cynic) the school children who’ll use any excuse to get out of school, including being fear-stricken by Trump’s election. But apparently, LGBTQ people, immigrants, African-Americans, and others truly see Trump’s election as the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Honestly, my gut reaction was, “Come on!! Cut the drama and get a grip!” But I have to begin by giving the benefit of the doubt. The appropriate – nay, the Christian response – would be – “I’m having a hard time understanding how afraid you are. Tell me about it.”
The core difficulty with so many of the couples I counsel is, “He/she won’t listen. He/she doesn’t get where I’m coming from.” Why don’t we listen? Perhaps it’s the fear that the other’s perspective will poison or distort mine. Perhaps it’s the fear that listening to a radically different perspective means mine won’t be heard or taken seriously. Yet listening potentially builds bridges, while arguing, name-calling, and discounting the other does not. Love builds bridges. Fear builds walls. And the U.S. is fast becoming a world of walls.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself. “Perfect love casts out all fear – therefore, love is not yet make perfect in one who is afraid” (1 Jn 4:18). I cannot love you and fear you at the same time. I cannot love you and refuse to listen at the same time. I cannot love you and refuse your right to speak. Let us speak the truth in love, yes. But listen as well.