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When fear rules, facts no longer matter

Thursday, 4 August 2016  | Nils von Kalm

People will forget what you said

People will forget what you did

But people will never forget how you made them feel.

- Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s words are mostly used to show how the impact we have on people can touch something deep inside them and bring out their better selves. In the current climate, though, her words convey how the power of fear can take hold of otherwise rational people. When fear takes hold, facts seem inconsequential.

Susan Carland’s recent lament in The Guardian that facts no longer matter in Pauline Hanson’s view of Muslims, and the Washington Post’s highlighting of Donald Trump’s indifference about his repeated lies and xenophobic statements, point to two examples of the overwhelming influence of fear on the human psyche.

Despite repeated clear refutations of innumerable statements made by Hanson and Trump, the former is now an Australian senator, having been voted in by more than 500,000 people, and Trump is tantalisingly close to becoming the most powerful person on the planet.

In the current atmosphere, it seems that everywhere we turn there is fear in the air, mainly about people who are not like us. This is despite the fact that you are as likely to be killed by your own furniture, and more likely to die in a car accident, from drowning in a bathtub or in a building fire, than from a terrorist attack.

The use of fear to persuade the populace is nothing new. We have seen it in elections in Australia over the last 15 years. Political leaders know the power of fear and they know how to exploit it. When people genuinely feel forgotten and betrayed, they will more easily respond to someone who promises to help them, no matter how outrageous that person's statements may be.

Talk is both cheap and enormously influential in a democracy. The recent call from Sonia Kruger for a ban on Muslim immigration, and especially the statements of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, play to and exacerbate the fears of millions of people. They are dangerous and are guaranteed to inflame hatred rather than to curb it. They also provoke similar vitriolic reactions from those who disagree.

Sojourners President Jim Wallis recently commented that how we dialogue with each other is: 

a very important test for the moral health of a nation. The civility of that public discussion and debate should be a central concern; the kinds of people who are denigrated or lifted up is critical. Even how opponents are treated is indicative of both the public and personal character of political leaders.

True leadership brings out our better natures. We are all vulnerable to being persuaded to respond in bitterness and resentment when circumstances allow. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the Gulag Archipelago, exposed the truth about human nature: 

… if only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

We are all culpable when it comes to letting fear rule our hearts. As Susan Carland stated in her Guardian article, the core of bigotry is not rational. More importantly, she points out that disregarding the facts is downright dangerous to those being accused. In the words of Jim Wallis, ‘anger and fear leads to blame and even hatred for those they hold responsible’.

Thankfully in Australia we have had some voices of reason to counter the fires of fear. In response to Sonia Kruger’s call for a ban on Muslims entering Australia, media presenter Waleed Aly suggested the radical notion of sending forgiveness viral instead of outrage. Then we had the equally insightful comments of Matty Johns on MMM radio, who suggested that while he didn’t agree with Sonia Kruger’s comments, she has every right to express them, and suggested we engage in respectful dialogue with people with whom we disagree.

For Christians, this is where the simultaneously simple and difficult command to take the log out of our own eye before we take the speck out of our neighbour's eye holds such relevance to what we see in our world today.

It saddens me that the most reasonable voices that spoke out against the fear-mongering of Sonia Kruger and Pauline Hanson were both celebrity media presenters. Their courage is to be applauded, but where were the voices of Christians? Banning a religious group from entering this country is not Christian, and Christian leaders need to speak out publicly.

True leadership inspires us to greatness, to courage, to sacrifice. These are the characteristics our nation celebrates, and we celebrate them because they are hard, not because they are easy.

Expressing fear is normal and understandable. That is why people like Sonia Kruger and others do indeed have every right to express their fears. It is also easy to let fear overwhelm us and get in the way of rational thought. Jesus said we are to love God with all of our minds. Christian leaders have the responsibility to speak truth to power so that love can overcome fear. Then will the words of Maya Angelou once again resonate in their proper context.

Nils von Kalm is a freelance writer. He works in church and community engagement with Anglican Overseas Aid in Melbourne, and previously spent 14 years with World Vision. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://soulthoughts.com.

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