By Carol Barton
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Luke 2:10
We are living in a time of fear—yet throughout the Bible, God tells us “Do not be afraid.” Last summer and fall, in the build up to mid-term elections in the US, political groups and the media worked to whip up a frenzy of fear about the threat that black and brown people pose to “our” national security. This played out in the Ebola frenzy, playing on racist images of the “dark continent” of Africa and leading to fear of plane travel in the US and two Sudanese school boys being beaten by peers in New York City. This played out in the media coverage of Islamic militants in North Africa, fanning fears of terrorism. And this played out in media coverage of women and children refugees from Central America seeking asylum from violence in their home countries. Families were portrayed by some politicians as diseased, and were held under a law that justified their detention without bail because women with children pose a “national security threat.” We witnessed some residents of Murietta, Calif., mobilize to turn away a busload of children seeking solace and refuge. The media campaign worked—many, many people who are seeing demographic changes and experiencing economic hardship responded with fear of the “other.”
It is projected that by 2043, the U.S. will be a majority non-white nation. Many studies and articles have been generated about this monumental shift in U.S. demographics, welcoming the fact that it will change voting patterns, attitudes, and representation. However, a change in numbers does not necessarily mean a change in power relations. We need only remember the Jim Crow south in the U.S. or South African apartheid to know that a white minority can wield enormous influence and power over majority communities of color. Whether power becomes more equitably shared depends on us. The impending demographic shift is being used to whip up fear among white people in coded language of race and ethnicity. This fear is also being linked to attacks on government’s role in addressing social needs and priorities. Government investment in United Methodist concerns around healthcare, housing, jobs, climate, pollution, childcare, and other issues is being constrained through the fears that others, not “us,” might benefit from government programs—yet, ultimately, we all are hurt. The fears are contributing to anti-immigrant sentiment and laws; over-policing and mass incarceration of black and brown people; proliferation of guns and “stand your ground” laws that have justified the killing of young black men; and escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment and policing. In our churches, the fears are often reflected in the ongoing segregation of congregations and hesitancy to embrace other racial and ethnic communities.
The Gospel calls on us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Recognizing that ALL are created in God’s image, we don’t get to decide who is our neighbor and who is not. A sign in my office, gift from a friend, says “God bless the whole world—NO Exceptions!”
United Methodist Women members and United Methodist congregations are already modeling this love and welcome:
- Sandra Burnett, former UMW conference president in the Memphis conference, was getting ready to lead a UMW mission study on living in a multi-cultural society several years ago when she realized that she had no friends of other races or cultures. She joined a local interracial women’s group because she saw the need to extend herself and broaden her experience. She has been a part of that group ever since. The group, which had been formed to build relationships across races after the Rodney King beating, welcomes women of different faith traditions. They organize an annual event for school children, “Calling All Colors,” which offers opportunities to hear perspectives from diverse races and faiths. A couple of years ago some people in their community put up a confederate flag near the highway. Someone defaced a temple. The work of education and relationship-building of this group provided a context for understanding and responding.
- Last August, United Methodists joined with other people of faith in Murietta, Calif. to say that refugee children are children of God, and are welcome to our country and our community. At the same time, United Methodists across the country responded with material and financial support, legal assistance, and caring.
- Through the Rapid Response network, United Methodists are becoming immigrant “Welcoming Congregations,” seeking ways to offer welcome, community, and solidarity with immigrants while congregations are also involved in Justice for Our Neighbors, offering hospitality and legal assistance to immigrants.
As a resurrection people, we are not guided by fear, but by love. We are not driven by insecurity and scarcity, but by God’s abundance. Fear will drive our communities and our nation to an ugly place. God’s abundant love drives out fear and transforms us and our relationships. Our future and that of our local congregations and the global United Methodist Church depends on our continuing to move forward in love, embracing those who are different and driving out fear. When we do this, we are blessed and we ourselves are transformed. “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you Good News!”
Carol Barton is the executive for community action for United Methodist Women.