By Joshua M. Caler
On October 30, 1938, the CBS radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air presented Orson Welles’s dramatic interpretation of The War of the Worlds. The first two-thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual invasion by Martians was in progress in New Jersey. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre ran without commercial breaks, adding to the program’s realism. This caused something of a panic — not just in New Jersey but across the country — during the broadcast and in the days that followed.
In the months after the broadcast, Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril undertook a study to investigate how it was possible that millions of Americans had been frightened despite the improbable claims they heard and the four announcements during the broadcast that it was a radio drama.
How was it that thousands of otherwise intelligent, informed citizens found themselves, in Cantril’s words, “praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians”? Mostly, his was a detailed study of dramatic techniques that made the broadcast compelling; but Cantril found that many of the fears directed toward Welles’s drama were expressions of deeper cultural anxiety about war with fascist states around the world.
“For a substantial number of listeners ‘War of the Worlds’ gave expression to those bridled feelings,” Barry Glassner wrote in Culture of Fear (Basic Books, 1999). “Some actually rewrote the script in their minds as they listed to the broadcast. In place of Martians they substituted human enemies.”
“I knew it was some Germans trying to gas us all. When the announcer kept calling them people from Mars, I just thought he was ignorant and didn’t know that Hitler had sent them all,” one person recalled in Cantril’s book, The Invasion from Mars (Harper & Row, 1966). Another said, “I felt it might be the Japanese — they are so crafty.” A third reported, “I was looking forward with some pleasure to the destruction of the entire human race and the end of the world. If we have fascist domination of the world, there is no purpose in living anyway.”
While you might think that there was a greater national naiveté and coordinate anxiety when radio was still something of a novelty, you would be wrong. Studies consistently find that Americans not only wildly overestimate the threats to their lives and safety, but also that we spend incredible money and energy protecting ourselves against statistically improbable threats. Whether the threat of crime, the prevalence of drug use, the likelihood of dying from cancer, the state of the economy, plane crashes, child abuse, or anxiety about potential terrorist attacks, Americans perceive threats that are orders of magnitude greater than any actual danger.
Of course, Americans aren’t unique in this regard, and episodes of mass hysteria are far from the only indicators that fear is an ever-present and powerful force in our lives. We lock our doors at night, we don’t let our children play unsupervised, and we make sure to wash our hands many times a day. The prevalence of security systems, insurance plans, saving and investment accounts, bicycle helmets, and self-defense classes all point to a subtle, low-grade anxiety that directs our lives and decisions in powerful ways.
And into the midst of this, God speaks, telling us, “Do not be afraid.”
Whether from the mouth of the Lord, from his angels, or from Jesus, the Scriptures regularly echo God’s directive to not be afraid. Three dozen times, God tells his people, individually and collectively, to not be afraid.
I imagine that for many of us, this admonition can sound unrealistic and glib, as if God is telling us to “buck up” and “get ahold of ourselves.” On this reading, the directive to not be afraid seems to ignore that fear is often prudent and justified, and that there are genuinely dangerous and frightening aspects to a broken world.
Yet very rarely does God seem to suggest that courage is the alternative to fear. In the biblical imagination, fear is not countered by individual or even corporate fortitude, but by trust. Trust is the condition of living in a relationship of dependence: it is the practice of relying on the presence and instruction of another as reliable, safe, and proven. That’s why the image of discipleship is very often sheep reliant on the care and protection of the Good Shepherd.
It turns out that trust lies at the heart of discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus means that you have come to believe that the Triune God is fundamentally trustworthy; that Jesus and after him the Scriptures and the Church, are gifts that reliably testify to this fact; and that you endeavor to live a life of dependent obedience to his promises.
It is not easy to trust that the pattern of life that God asks of us leads to blessing and peace. But this is the paradox of trust: becoming dependent on God is exactly what frees us to live without fear. Trusting that the poor really are blessed will free us from the anxieties that drive us to secure our contentment through wealth.
Trusting that righteousness really will yield happiness frees us from the desperate search for happiness in possessions and people. Trusting that caring for the needy really will mean encountering Christ frees us from the compulsion to protect our hard-earned possessions. Trusting that God really will raise us to new life after our death frees us from the fear that this is the only life we have and that we must preserve and prolong it at all costs.
I sometimes wonder what the effect would be if we substituted the word trust for believe when saying the Creed. Not, mind you, as a doctrinal reform but as a spiritual exercise. I imagine it would serve as a reminder that the affirmation of our common faith is not remote, sterile, or intellectual, but deeply personal and, more to the point, interpersonal. Our confession does not reflect intellectual assent, but relational trust. It is meant to cultivate exactly what Jesus commends to us in today’s Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that living in dependent relationship with God will mean that no harm, evil, or calamity will befall you and that fear will magically disappear. This is obviously untrue. Likewise, Jesus’ promise that the Father intends to give us the kingdom does not mean that if we pray hard enough, God will bless us with health, wealth, and whiter, straighter teeth. No. Rather, God’s pledge is that to pattern our lives on his promises is to find blessing and peace, even in the midst of turmoil and suffering. It is to know that God is with us always, that we never have to wonder if we are alone or if we have been abandoned.
The surest sign that God is trustworthy and willing to go to any lengths to be with us is, of course, the cross. It is proof positive that God will pursue us, rescue us, and remain with us even unto death. This pledge is renewed each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Christ’s death and resurrection are re-presented to us; his pledge is renewed in these tokens of his self-gift, and our assurance that God is indeed present and faithful to us is strengthened each time we receive him in bread and wine.
Even in moments of unspeakable terror, these tokens of trust given in the Holy Eucharist assure us that we are not alone. In his book Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh chronicles the systematic torture of thousands by the secret police in Chile under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet. In it, he describes torture as a kind of anti-liturgy: a well-scripted drama designed to teach the captive that she or he is alone and powerless, at the mercy and under the control of the state.
And, in response, the Church in Chile began to celebrate the Holy Eucharist as an act of political dissent — a sacramental rebellion — realizing that, through it, God was telling a different story. In the Eucharist, Christians were reminded that they were not alone, that Christ, who himself was tortured by the state, was present to them and that they were mystically joined with their brothers and sisters as Christ’s body through bread and wine. This act of supreme trust became the way in which Christians in Chile countered the fear of government torture: that their bodies, while they could be broken, could not be separated from Christ’s body, could never be removed from God’s love.
Our Lord pledges to be with us always, even to the end of the age. And, in this pledge, he frees us from lives dictated by fear and anxiety, frees us to follow him so that we may know blessing and peace in his continual presence. As the Psalmist reminds us today: