There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning. This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism. On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways. And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book. Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy. Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith. The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be. Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.
As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet. The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions. It was, upon retrospect, odd. Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian. There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear. This was not a religion of love thy neighbor. No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower. This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity. Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison. In the land of plenty we tremble.
The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd. There’s fear in these billboards. Fear that another religion may take over. Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal. This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms. In this country we have more than enough. Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have. They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard. And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.