By Aaron and Diane Lincoln
Traveling between cultures leads to some interesting moments.
“Paper or plastic?” a grocery checker asked us one furlough.
We looked at each other quizzically. “We’re paying with cash.”
Now it was the checker who looked confused. “Paper bags or plastic bags?” was of course the question, but not one we hear in England.
When a stranger (or friend) casually references a line of dialogue from a commercial or TV show, we can be left clueless. And it seems every time we return on furlough, bank card machines have changed. Lots of small differences, that have happened since we were last in United States, make us feel sort of like “rookie” Americans when we return.
Perhaps the flip side of being slightly confused about cultural references (and how to pay for your groceries) is being able to view your home culture with a bit of distance. We are, of course, deeply American in ways we may not even recognize, having grown up on the West Coast. But after living in England for nearly 24 years, we are not quite as American as we once were. So, while we notice external differences in America, we also notice internal attitudes and approaches.
Fear is one of the cultural undercurrents we find particularly striking.
Americans Are Afraid
When we go back to America, we are advised not to sign our bank cards for fear the cards (and our identities) might be stolen. We are told to watch when we use our car remotes because the electronic codes could be cloned and not to use ATMs at night. Watching the news on virtually any media outlet is apt to raise one’s blood pressure (cue dramatic music): first there is discussion of an event, then commentary on that event, and then discussion of what might possibly happen as a result of that event. And, of course, the obligatory segment about “what you need to know”—which seems code for “what you need to be afraid of.”
As an example of fear, one need look no further than the recent presidential election in the United States. Can a whole election be based on fear? The 2016 version certainly appeared to be, no matter which candidate you supported.
This element is also at work in England. Note that fear was definitely a factor in the recent Brexit vote (which saw the United Kingdom withdraw from the European Union). England also has news programs long on drama. But the degree and scale of the prevalence of fear in America appears to be markedly higher. We don’t think it can all be put down to stoic Brits always reacting with “stiff upper lips.”
Many Americans are afraid. They are afraid of identity theft and cancer. They are afraid of home invasion and gun violence, of ISIS and terrorism. Americans are afraid of government intrusion and privacy breaches. They are afraid of genetically modified food, killer clowns, tampered-with Halloween candy, Ebola, and climate change.
More subtle fears preying on the mind include fear of death, of social stigma, of missing out, loneliness, or aging. Americans are too often just generally afraid of the “other”—people whose religion or color or culture is different from theirs.
This certainly isn’t just our observation. Barry Glassner, for example, has written The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Social science researchers also study mental health trends and treatment levels for anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting nearly 1 in 5 people; the financial costs from this are staggering, but the huge costs to personal lives are incalculable.
Speaking of costs, we noticed there is big money in fear: insurance, home security, guns, dashboard cameras, huge SUVs, hand sanitizer, gated communities, anti-aging cream, home-schooling, vitamins, every type of technology. All of these things can subtly, and not so subtly, be sold to address, escalate, or perhaps even create our fears.
We don’t want to sound naive. There are terrible things happening in America, England, and around the world. Very real, tragic, and scary events fill the news in print, on the TV, and in social media. Whether there is more crime and disorder now than in the past, or whether we simply know about it more, is a matter of debate.
Regardless, the question remains: How are we as followers of Christ to live in response to the world around us?
Our Lives, God’s Kingdom
We must live differently. As followers of Jesus who are living out our lives under the rule of God, we demonstrate what life is like in God’s kingdom. We are the living, breathing, talking, and walking example of life under God’s management; we are new creations. We seek “your kingdom come” here and now, on earth as it already is in Heaven.
God’s kingdom does not involve living in fear. Scripture is full of verses saying “do not be afraid.” Many passages tell us to live in peace and to be courageous—both qualities on the opposite side of the spectrum from fear.
Instead of fear and anxiety, we are to be filled with the Spirit. Our lives are to overflow in concrete terms with the truth that our security, significance, and identity starts and ends as a child of the King and a follower of Jesus.
The world desperately needs to see a different way of living—one characterized by joy and peace, openness of spirit, and generosity. People need to see an alternative to fear and anxiety.
Fear is a subtle motivator, so we must come honestly before our Father and examine our hearts for actions motivated by fear. When we are prompted by the Spirit to do something, but hesitate, is it because of fear? When we are afraid to reach out to someone, we should remember we do not need to fear. We can give generously and hold our stuff lightly, secure in God who is our provider.
We are ambassadors of the King, filled with his Presence. When circumstances or others around us indicate we should be afraid, we can boldly reject that, opting instead for joy and peace because of who God is. We can watch with expectation that, as we reject fear, a watching world may turn to Christ, the source of our hope.
Aaron and Diane Lincoln are missionaries and church catalysts for Christian Missionary Fellowship International, Indianapolis, Indiana.