On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt stood in front of an assembled crowd at the U.S. Capitol and took the oath of office to become the 32nd president of the United States. The situation he inherited from outgoing President Herbert Hoover was overwhelming. The economy was still sputtering in the depths of the Great Depression and the stock market crash of 1929. People truly believed the country’s best days were behind it and that the country’s economic despair was the new normal.
There were a lot of reasons for people to have fear. Roosevelt, though, refused to let fear define him.
In his inaugural address, Roosevelt spoke words that would become one of the most quoted lines from his 12-year administration. He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Powerful words to speak in the midst of an economic crisis, yet words that offered an expression of hope during a time of fear.
Fear is one of the natural emotions that we all have within us. It is an emotion that we gravitate towards when things in our lives or world are overwhelming, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar. Fear is an emotion of separation and anxiety that is often expressed during difficult times.
Today, more than 80 years after Roosevelt’s famous words, our world is defined by this expression of fear. There are people who are fearful of different cultures. There are people who are fearful of different political ideologies. There are people who are fearful of different religions. There are people who are fearful of just about anything.
It should not be surprising that fear defines who we are today. Fear is expressed not just when life is overwhelming, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar, but also when we are divided and polarized as a society. When we are divided and distrustful of each other, fear is expressed in how we view those who are different than us or do not share our views. What happens, then, is that our fear prevents us from seeing commonalities and opportunities for sharing hope and building relationships with other people. Fear gives fuel to our differences and distrust of one another.
Fear is just not a part of our society. It has also become a response to our faith in God by many who claim to follow God’s love. Though Jesus teaches us not to fear, followers of Christ today are just as likely as the larger society and world to be fearful. Instead of engaging the world with the hope of Christ, we often engage the world through the lens of how society teaches us to respond. As society teaches us to fear that which is overwhelming, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar, so have many Christians responded to the world with a fear-based perspective.
For instance, our response to the changing culture that has grown less accepting of the church or has often been to be fearful of the culture and to focus more on the needs of those in the church. We have become reluctant to engage those who need to hear the message of Christ’s love, because they “do not look like us” or “we do not know them.” Recently, as well, our response to the various issues in the world (regardless of the issue) has been to focus more on the fear-based response, such as to close ourselves off from others, than the Christ-like response of sharing love.
This is not how we are called to live as followers of Christ. We are not called to live in fear, but to express a hope that flows from Christ and is expressed in Christ’s love. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, to treat others as we would want to be treated, and to welcome people who come to us with needs. Through each of these expressions, we are at our best when we seeks to live not like the world, and its expressions of fear, but to live through the hope of Christ and to claim Jesus’ hope and love that welcomes and embraces all people.
Roosevelt knew that living in fear would not allow the nation to thrive. Living with fear will not let us be the people, the church, God calls us to be. The only way we can be the church is to turn away from our fear and to embrace the hope and love of Christ in all things and all situations.
Let our hope, and not our fear, be how people know us and our witness of Christ.