In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he said, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” These are mighty high and powerful words to begin a pastoral column in a church newsletter. Luckily, and happily, for most of my life, these famous words which are usually recited in a paraphrased form, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” appeared to be a relic from a past time of serious troubles.
But as many perceive the world as growing gloomier, it is good to remind myself of how I may let fear prevent me from making a positive statement. Harvey Milk, the great civil rights activist, encouraged gay people to overcome their fears and to “come out.” His strategy worked. Once people learned that their gay neighbors and co-workers were just neighbors and co-workers, the fear of gay people dissipated.
We hear news stories about doctors hesitant or refusing to perform once unquestioned abortions for fear of losing their license. I am reading about people hiding their Star of Davids and menorahs due to anti-semitism. Are we changing any of our behaviors out of fear? And if we are, is it justified or necessary? Or are we just paralyzing ourselves?
Another high and mighty quote I’m reminded of comes from John Stuart Mill, who wrote, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,” which we generally now paraphrase as “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
We may be in for some gloomy times. I remind myself that the one thing I cannot do, and hope we would not do as a church, is begin to “hide our light” out of fear. As we know from all of history, social progress inevitably means upsetting people and sometimes even drawing ire. If we are perceiving difficult times, rather than shrinking back, it is good to be mindful of how we are thinking, and especially speaking. If acting rightly and justly, how I am perceived, and how we are perceived, is mostly out of my control. But, if what we are doing is right, we need to do it
nonetheless, no matter how it’s perceived, misperceived, or even construed.