What does it mean to stand in love in the face of fear, when just about every month there’s a new example of mass violence in a setting that most of us would consider safe, a setting much like the ones we visit as part of our mundane lives? School, government office, place of worship, business, nightclub, airport, sidewalk, even yoga studio: almost any place you visit is related by type to a site of mass violence.
After each incident, most of the answers to the question “What can we do?” revolve around guns. Some advocate for stronger gun control. Others advocate for more armed security. The arguments and the dynamics never seem to change. While that wrestling match continues, let me take a moment to reflect on what we can do in the moment.
Be alert but not afraid. This is even harder than it sounds. Recently, I was at a worship service when I noticed a man enter who I thought was suspicious. He wasn’t a familiar face. He was wearing a camo shirt and jacket with shorts on the hot May day. He had a big convenience store cup of ice water he brought in. He came in late and walked up to the very front of the church, sitting by himself on the front row in the center. (I’m not sure if this is true across religious traditions, but I notice in most churches, nobody sits in the front row if they can help it.)
Even though I’m a member of Love Not Fear, I spent most of the service debating with myself which of the two I would embrace. Fear probably topped Love for most of the hour.
A part of me – a large part of me – was working through scenarios about how I would react if he pulled out a gun. I was identifying the people closest to him that I thought might intercede, planning to get my family to duck down, figuring out whether I had a route to rush the shooter, or run away, or stay with my family. Run, hide, fight, the training videos say.
The other part of me – the Love part – kept pushing back. Yes, this guy was different, but he didn’t look dangerous. He didn’t do everything in lock-step with the other worshippers, but he clearly was familiar with the liturgy and was engaging with the music and the message. The faith community I belong to aims to be a welcoming and diverse one; shouldn’t we welcome this guy, too?
Ultimately, that Love part was right. The guy was fine; when I left after the service, he was talking with a member of the music group about how much he liked their songs. And I was embarrassed at my reaction.
Both because of the incidents we’ve seen and because of their non-stop coverage, I have changed. The fear that mass violence brings has taught me to expect people who look different to be threats. The expectation is that if we treat people with suspicion, we will better protect ourselves, our families and our communities.
But we can be alert without being afraid. We can move past the cursory judgment that people who are different are people to fear and instead look at each person individually. We can give ourselves a second to play out what could happen in a worst-case scenario, but then move on to the far more likely non-scenario of normalcy. As we look at someone to assess whether they are a threat, we can also look at someone to assess whether they might be just another person like me. We can acknowledge the fear while still choosing to love.