What are we afraid of?

Last week the peace of our city of Bozeman was disturbed by a man carrying a shotgun and wearing a ski mask, walking back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the only Islamic center in the state of Montana. The masjid (Arabic word for mosque) happens to be across the street from a side entrance to the high school, and a possibly unstable man with a shotgun near a school conjures up too many memories of tragedies. The school was placed on lockdown, and parents across the city received texts. The man complied with police and put his gun in his truck, and the lockdown was lifted, but he continued to stage his one-person protest against the existence of Muslims, marching back and forth for hours. Refusing to give his name to reporters, wearing a mask, carrying a shotgun, parading in front of an empty building—what was he afraid of?

In Whitefish, MT, the peace has been disturbed by anti-Semitic activists. For weeks there have been rumors and threats of an armed rally of neo-Nazis in the small town, one of the few places in the state with an active Jewish community. It is also the home base of a man who is considered the “father of the alt-right.” The internet is the chosen platform of these troublemakers. Their trolling and planting of fake news creates dilemmas for those targeted. Should we respond, and reward their attention-seeking with publicity? Should we ignore them, and let them get away with spewing hate, and potentially inciting violence? The Jewish community made its decision. They hosted a party for the whole community today, the day the rally was supposed to happen. There was matzoh-ball soup for all.

What are we afraid of? Writer Sayantani Dasgupta, a native of India who teaches at the University of Idaho, recalls an incident from her young adulthood in New Delhi. She was headed for her first day of work at her first internship, dressed stylishly but not very appropriately for a stifling June day. Three holy men wearing snakes accosted her and insisted on a “donation” to their goddess. Dozens of people watched as they intimidated her, their snakes undulating near her perspiring face. It was the only money she had, her bus fare to her new job, and they took it, pretending it would bring her a blessing from the goddess. Dasgupta writes, “I have seen such ‘holy men’ operate in other parts of India as well. Their modus operandi is the same. They sell fear.” (2016, Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between, Two Sylvias Press, Kingston, WA, p. 15).

There are too many people selling fear these days, intimidating the weak and bullying the vulnerable. We can live in fear. We can choose to be spectators, hoping to blend into the crowd and escape notice. We can ignore it and hope it will go away. Or we can serve soup, dousing fear with love.

I think Jesus would recommend the soup.

Life is a gift to be received with gratitude, and a task to be pursued with courage. (The Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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