Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Love and Fear: Lessons Learned from Cantors and Good Samaritans

Many people are afraid of the influx of refugees in Europe, and there are those who feed on and fuel that fear. Not long ago, Fox News showed a video--falsely said to be recent footage of refugees--that depicts Muslims on a train chanting "God is great." The caption reads, "Terrorists Inbound?"

The news network is not here inventing fear, but playing to it. Many people are afraid that the influx of Muslim refugees will also mean an influx of potential new terrorists on European soil. Many argue that the fear is warranted. But for me, the question of whether it is warranted is the wrong question to ask.

Fear is rooted in our instinct for self-protection (and also for protection of those we care about). It inspires action meant to reduce our vulnerability to harm. But in acting out of fear, we often make the world more dangerous.

Fear doesn't change the world for the better, and too often it triggers mutual fear responses in a feedback loop of escalating danger: You are afraid of me, and so you adopt a defensive posture, ready to fight or flee. I see your posture and find it threatening, so I become afraid and adopt a similar posture. Our fear of each other makes us ready to hurt each other, and the more ready we are the more scared we become until our fear has created the very situation it is meant to protect us from: We are an imminent danger to each other.

What is the pathway out of that cycle? The answer is simple but profound: love, love that hopes for the best and works the best even though it puts the agent of love at risk. When I am no threat to you and you reach out to me with vulnerable love, I remain no threat to you. When I am a threat to you and you reach out with vulnerable love, you make yourself vulnerable--but you also create opportunities for transformation. You act in a way that can change the world, or at least your own small corner of it.

In 1991, a Jewish Cantor named Michael Weisser moved to Lincoln, Nebraska with his family. He was soon targeted for harassment by the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, Larry Trapp. Instead of responding with fear, he responded with love.

So what did Weisser do? His Jewish faith taught him that the best way to overcome an enemy was to turn them into a friend. and so Weisser started calling Trapp and leaving messages on his answering machine. Not messages like "Stop harassing me!" or "I'm calling the police." Messages like this: "Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?"

Finally, Trapp answered the phone when Weisser called. Because Weisser knew that Trapp was disabled, he offered to help Trapp with his grocery shopping.

The whole story can be found in Kathryn Watterson's book, Not by the Sword, but here's the end of it: Trapp converted to Judaism. He apologized to those he'd hurt with his hate. When his health deteriorated, he moved into Weisser's home, where a room served as a kind of hospice. Weisser preached at Trapp's funeral.

Today, Weisser is a rabbi in Queens, where he continues to reach out in a spirit of love.

If unconditional love can turn a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan into a Jewish convert, what else can it do? Today I saw a video of a Christian group, Samaritan's Purse, helping with the refugee crisis in Europe. Samaritan's Purse is an international relief organization inspired by Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan to reach out and help people in need. I've pasted the video here. Please take a few minutes to watch it if you haven't already:

Now imagine this: Imagine that every refugee landing in Europe (or elsewhere) is greeted with the kind of compassion on display in this video. Every child, every elderly person, every man and woman who decided the risk of death was preferable to staying where they were. Compassion and care without agendas, without hidden strings. Just humans helping humans in need. Imagine that this compassion doesn't end on the shore, but continues as the refugees make their terrified way in a foreign land. Imagine that it becomes a daily feature of their experience in their place of refuge.

If that happens, how likely is it that they will become agents of terror in their new home? How likely would this be if, instead of a spirit of love, they were greeted in a spirit of suspicion, a spirit of hostility and fear?

As I said above, there are those who ask how justified is the fear that the refugee influx will open Europe's doors to a new generation of terrorists. But I think that is the wrong question--the wrong question for Christians like me, for Jews like Rabbi Weisser, and for all of us regardless of our faith.

The right question, I think, is this one: How can we resist the spirit of fear that perpetuates distrust and hostility and in its place cultivate the spirit of love, the spirit that makes friends out of strangers, even those who (as in the case of Weisser and Trapp) might start out as our enemies?

It is important to be realistic about something: the decision to act in a spirit of love does make us more vulnerable to those intent on harming us. Love means risk. It doesn't mean foolish risk, like hiring a person convicted of child abuse to babysit your child. But it does mean creative risk--the risk that comes with acting out of the hope of building community and connection in a world where people are afraid of one another.

If we live in a spirit of fear, we create and perpetuate and magnify the threats around us, even as we make ourselves less vulnerable to them in the short run. If we live in a spirit of love, we do the opposite. But whatever risks creative love brings, such love is the only path to a better world.


  1. I agree, the hope for the world is love and re-echoing what you said, love that entails risk. As Christians, we need to look to Jesus who totally walked the walk on that (and yes so many others, some who were mentioned here). This is a time when opportunity abounds, to walk that same walk, and adventure into that dangerous love that often shakes us to our core.

  2. Lol, lambs to the slaughter. Let's see if there are any gay pride parades 25 years from now.