hero default image

Fear, Love and Discipleship: Learning from Colombia

Rick Ufford-Chase
Executive Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

Former Moderator of the 216th General Assembly

I can remember as if it was yesterday the last time that I felt real fear. It happened a little more than two years ago, on a muggy day in the city of Barranquilla, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. I was meeting in a small, stuffy room with a group of human rights activists from local churches and non-governmental organizations. At the end of our meeting, four of us were to travel across town to visit a young man from one of their organizations who had been jailed for several months on trumped up charges of “terrorist” acts (he was later released). An older Catholic sister and I agreed that we would go to the prison in a taxi, while the other two would travel by car with a local labor organizer who had volunteered to offer them a ride.

Together, the Sister and I tried for several minutes to flag down a taxista, but it was a busy afternoon and they all had fares. Then a man with the labor organizer yelled that there was room for all of us, and a hasty decision was made to go together. I didn’t think twice as I climbed into the back seat of a white, mid-sized sport utility vehicle with darkened windows, but as we drove across town I grew increasingly uncomfortable. The driver and the passenger in the other front seat were large men, wearing dark sunglasses – paid bodyguards for the union organizer who had received death threats. Our fifteen minute journey was erratic; we would come to a sudden stop at every intersection as the driver scanned the streets in every direction before stomping on the gas and accelerating rapidly toward the next intersection. After several minutes, I realized that he was carrying a small machine gun on his lap. My heart was in my throat as I realized, with a sinking feeling, that I had allowed myself to be put in a situation that is all-too-common in today: that of being “protected” in a manner that actually increased our level of insecurity.

Though we finished that journey safely (and I quickly asked our hosts to help me avoid being put in the positions of being “protected” by guns in the future), a few days later the ludicrousness of such an attempt at protection was brought home to me. Alfredo de Correa Andreis is a professor at the local university and outspoken critic of the growing violence in his community.  He has been jailed on false charges of subversion for his human rights work and had received death threats upon his release. He, too, chose to hire an armed bodyguard for protection. On the last afternoon of my visit to Barranquilla, Alfredo and his bodyguard were both murdered on the street, at 2:30 in the afternoon, by death squads operating with a wink and a nod from government police and military officials. Alfredo’s wife and children paid a high price for his courageous work. My own learning was dramatic:  security cannot be purchased at the point of a gun, however reasonable one’s fears of one’s enemies may be.

It seems to me that this is at the heart of the argument that Scott Bader-Saye is making. Fear is a specific tactic used to destroy our notions of community by those who stand to gain from our isolation from one another. Like Harry Potter in his “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class, we must learn that it is our fearfulness itself that is the fundamental underpinning of our insecurity. No lesson could be more critical for the global community today, and no task more important to the global church than that of teaching that lesson.

Jesus clearly understood the irony of attempts to protect oneself from one’s enemies by adopting the enemy’s tactics. Had I not grown up Christian, I expect that I would be sorely tempted to convert to Christianity today by Jesus’ radical notion that one must love one’s enemies. I think that Jesus was crazy like a fox. His advice on how to respond to insecurity is not only counter-intuitive in our time; it’s unpatriotic, standing against everything that we are taught to hold most sacred in the “post 9/11, never-ending ‘War on Terror,’ ‘the whole world hates us for our freedom'” moment in which we live.

What if Jesus not only meant it, but he was right? What if genuine security can be found only in being in right relationship with one another, even to the point of loving our enemies? What if we really believed in “first embrace” rather than in “first strike”?

“What naivete,” I can hear the critics answer. But it seems to me that nothing could be more naïve, nor more destructive to our own security, than the mistaken belief that safety can be purchased through military might, or even through seemingly reasonable efforts to protect ourselves.

Over the last twenty years or so, the pastors and lay leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia have come to the conclusion that Jesus meant just what he said. The only path to security lies in standing against the fear and refusing to become protagonists in a drama where fear is built upon fear upon more fear.

This is no Pollyanna, “let’s all hold hands and get along” belief from a people who are out of touch with the reality of violence in our world today. Certainly no one in the understands insecurity and fear better than the people of . Theirs is a country that has experienced almost forty years of civil war. It is a country where the guerrilla movement that initially began with visions of justice for the poor and oppressed of their country has become so corrupted by its own use of violence that most Colombians have themselves become targets for what seems to be random and senseless abductions and assassinations.

is a country where the paramilitary death squads, who have long been given a blank check by the government, operate outside of any judicial process and create far more terror among average Colombians than the guerilla forces they supposedly seek to control. In the eyes of the paramilitary, every Colombian is a potential subversive, communist or terrorist, a lesson we would do well to remember in our own country as our fear of terror leads us to do away with even the most rudimentary checks and balances on the power of the state to jail and torture possible “terrorists.”

is a country where the government itself, backed by overwhelming military power from the , has become a worse offender of human rights than those it seeks to “control,” at least in the minds of the average Colombian. Everyone in knows that the military is the last place one turns for support when one is afraid. The week I visited my colleagues in Barranquilla, unmarked cars, known to be those of the military, sat outside the Presbyterian Seminary taking pictures of all who entered the small human rights documentation office located on its grounds.

In spite of all of those realities, Colombian pastors have had the audacity to insist that the greatest challenge confronting followers of Jesus Christ in our world today is actually to place our trust in him – to act as if we believe that Jesus meant what he said.

Try for a moment to imagine a world that confronts fear the way that Jesus asks us to:

Imagine a church where families and friends agree to be vulnerable enough to one another to deal openly with the ways we hurt one another and to choose reconciliation instead of a lifetime of alienation.

Imagine a church that commits to do whatever it takes – whatever it takes – to get to the root of the violence that seems random (but often isn’t) that defines our communities as school shootings like the one in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to which Scott Bader-Saye referred in his essay.

Imagine a community of followers of Jesus Christ (call it “church” if you prefer) that is strong enough in its belief to field a nonviolent army of thousands, even tens of thousands, to violent “hot-spots” around the world today.

Imagine a country that responds to our legitimate fears in a post 9/11 world with a commitment to spend 400 billion dollars (roughly what we’ve spent or committed to spend so far on the war on terror) in an effort to build strong, inter-dependent, local economies around the world.

Put another way, imagine a world in which no one puts their kids to bed at night hungry, or without access to basic health care or an education; where neither I, my family, nor other families  experience the sin of over-abundance and wastefulness that both describes and drives the growing inequity between rich and poor that characterizes our world today.

In short, imagine the kind of world Jesus imagined. Imagine that it is not only possible, but reasonable, to answer fear with love. This is, I believe, what Jesus had in mind when he described the Reign of God – the Beloved Community. It is a world in which our primary allegiance is defined not by the borders of the nation-state, nor by considerations of who is “in” and who is “out,” but by a real commitment to live as if all of God’s children are inherently worthy of God’s love, and of ours as well.

Scott Bader-Saye asks the question that should plague us, a people of faith, in a culture characterized by comfort, privilege, affluence, and, increasingly, by our own violent attempts to hold on to that which we know is not rightfully ours. “How do we become a people shaped by a story that does not provoke fear?”

I would suggest that the answer lies in our willingness to become protagonists, starting right now, in the story of God’s people who are struggling to be faithful. The debate about security and fear is one that we must not allow to live only in our heads. Instead, we must take action to follow the Jesus who eschewed violence, allowing our actions to reshape our consciousness as a people. As an illustration of the kind of action I would propose, I turn once more to .

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church of Colombia extended a call to its sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). “Come to Colombia,” they said. “We need you to be our international eyes and ears, to see and be seen with us, here in the midst of the violence.” With organizational support from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and from the staff of the Peacemaking and Mission programs of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterians from across the U.S. have stepped up to answer that call. Since November of 2004, almost fifty people have been trained to become “accompaniers” in , and roughly thirty of them have committed a month of their own time and great financial support from their congregations, family and friends to go to to “see and be seen.”

None of these Presbyterians would claim any kind of courage, nor status as a hero. All of them describe what they gained through the experience far more readily than they can describe their value to our sisters and brothers in the church of Colombia.  No reasonable person could make the case that the situation of generalized violence in the country today is any less endemic than it was two years ago when the program began, though our Presbyterian partners in tell us that they are grateful for the added measure of protection as they seek to stand against the violence in their country.

The point is that Scott Bader-Saye is absolutely right. Fear is an appropriate emotion for people who love in a transient and vulnerable world. But hope and fear run parallel to one another, and the bridge between the two is love – unreasonable love that chooses to believe in God’s overwhelming providence in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In 1 John 4, the author puts it this way:

“Love has been perfected among us in this, that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, for as God is, so are we, in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear: for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

That’s good enough for me.

Questions for further reflection:

  1. How does experiencing life in other cultures help us understand fear?  How might it inhibit our understanding of it?
  1. How do you understand the relationship between radical Christian discipleship and fear?
  1. What does it mean to “allow our actions to reshape our consciousness as a people”?