Fear and Temptation

The Fear
Australia's refugee policy is founded in the assertion that we are at risk from these people and have to keep them out. "Stopping the boats to save lives" is a pretence at compassion to hide the fact that we do not want people to come.  What energises this essentially irrational fear? After all, the number of refugees who make it this far is tiny compared to the scale of refugee movements in Africa and Europe, and the vast majority of people who do arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees, and not a security risk. We also know from experience after World War 2 and Vietnam that we are culturally enriched by the refugees who come to us. Why are we so afraid?

We may hypothesise that our attitudes are being fuelled by simple racism, and the fear of difference. We may also see that as outsiders who are vulnerable, refugees offer a chance to scapegoat people as a way of "dealing" with other problems dividing us. For example, the cultivated fear of refugees (and the constant demonisation of unemployed people) distracts and mollifies many who might otherwise question the government, and the rich, about declining social conditions in Australia.

The passion and fear of social media posts I have read suggests that to stop at hypotheses of racism and scapegoating is to underestimate the levels of fear involved. There are deeper issues at stake, and these begin to be addressed by the Gospel reading set down for Week One of Lent.

The Psychology
Our deepest fear is the fear of death. One branch of psychology which deals with this fear is Terror Management Theory.  I remember a six year old telling me at a funeral that he was not going to die! The fear starts as we begin to meet death, and as life continues, we bury the fear deep.  Research psychologist Richard Beck writes

Many people are psychologically crippled by a fear of death. And this isn't necessarily a conscious battle. As Ernest Becker argued in his book The Denial of Death, much of our lives are actively involved in repressing our existential anxieties, usually via our efforts to be "significant" or to "make a difference." According to Becker, most of our self-esteem projects are simply elaborate death repression mechanisms. We want to be "noticed" by a cosmos that seems largely indifferent to our birth, life and eventual death. So we fight to be noticed by the cosmos. "Hey Cosmos, look at me! I'm smart, talented, unique, special and have achieved a lot in life! For example, look how many hits my blog has!"

In short, our slavery to the fear of death is insidious and often outside of our awareness. So it would be liberating to step out of this trap, to face life in an existentially open and honest manner, to be set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Much of our emotional energy, freed from maintaining our death-denying self-esteem projects, would become available for more life-affirming and other-affirming activity. I could give up my neurotic quest to become "significant" or my pretending I could live forever (via things like working out, modern medicine, cosmetic surgery, diets, or cryogenics) and become open to this moment and the person right in front of me. For God's sake, stop going to the gym and start drinking whole milk. You're missing your life.

Beck points out in another post that all our effort to be significant in the world, "by and large,"

… is a good thing as our neurotic pursuit of significance leads to culture creation. We build, work, and create. Psychologists call this sublimation, where neurotic anxiety is channeled into culturally valued outlets.

Trouble begins when

in the face of existential anxiety we … engage in worldview defense. We replace the doubt with dogmatism which makes us hostile toward out-group members. And yet, this show of conviction is actually being motivated by a deep-seated fear. Rather than dealing with the existential anxiety we externalize the fear by angrily lashing out at those who we perceive to be a threat to our values, culture, beliefs, worldview and way of life. You see this fear-driven dogmatism and attacking behavior all over the place in Christianity.

This third quotation from Beck comes from a web post where he is critiquing the use of Christianity as a world view defence as opposed to that Christianity which is a life discipline for facing and dealing with death. The criticism he applies to "worldview defence Christianity" is obviously also applicable to folk with no religious affiliation.

So I am suggesting that in a time of declining social conditions, and a time of growing anxiety about climate change, our existential anxiety which is rooted in the fear of death, is being channelled into hatred and fear of refugees. As a nation we are assenting to successive governments' morally indefensible border protection policies which involve incarcerating children and babies in concentration camps because we are afraid of dying.

The fourth century archbishop John Chrysostom said the one

… who fears death is a slave and subjects himself (sic) to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24].  Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? (Quoted in Richard Beck The Slavery of Death, Cascade Books 2014 pp 14)

Lent is the time we re-assess our place in the world, and how it is that we should live. It is especially the time we face our fear of death as we work out our response to Jesus' command to take up our cross and follow him to Jerusalem.

The Bible
The reading set for Week One this year comes from Luke Chapter 4.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 


“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 

12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

In his book Beyond Literal Belief David Tacey says

In psychological terms we might say the devil is not pure evil, but represents the ego and its desires. Those desires are hunger, the desire for spectacle and certainty, and the desire to rule and find power in a worldly sense. In particular, what this scene dramatizes is not a fight with a supernatural demon "out there," but Jesus' struggle with his own egotism, his desire for worldly conquest. (David Tacey Beyond Literal Belief Garratt 2015 pp159)

Terror Management Theory would suggest that what drives much of our egotism— that "desire for world conquest"— is fear of death. Carving out my own little empire is an attempt at immortality—which might suggest why so few of us ever feel that we are rich enough! On my own website I quote more from Tacey on Jesus' temptations, including that

The temptations

Satisfy short-term needs, but not the needs of the soul. They are rejected because they do not satisfy the inner self, which is only satiated by a deeper kind of nourishment. They are "wrong" because their promises are hollow and short lived…. Spirituality is not about suppressing desire but transforming it. (Tacey p161)

I tried the suppressing-desire-being-moral path and found it, too, is a promise with is hollow and short lived. There is a miserable, self-abnegating, insular kind of faith which does not transform, but which traps us, abuses us, and makes us miserable and small people.

This last paragraph describes a worldview defence. It is the stance of the fearful individual who is, at base, avoiding the fear of their own mortality. Life is, most of all, something to be preserved against death. Such faith often worries about "losing it's salvation."

The temptations of Jesus are, psychologically, a picture of him rejecting a worldview defence approach to life because he understands  that life

… does not consist in carving out my own little empire of "worldly conquest." Life is about conquering my fear of dying—Lent is taking us to death, first of all— and learning to enjoy my being as sheer gift. Life is a gift already given, not a striving to become significant and permanent by accumulating material goods… [or] reputation... (Pilgrim News sheet February 14, 2016)

Compassion toward refugees—and political action for their sake— is not only morally exemplary, and is not simply a Christian duty. It is a gift to us, because it forces us to confront difference and fear. It is, if you like, a Lenten discipline which is part of our being freed from the fear of death. 

Andrew Prior (Written for Pilgrim Church 11-2-2016)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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