Whom Shall We Fear?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, August 20, 2020

Stoking fear and resentment is a powerful way to gain a mass following. Some politicians, and even some preachers, traffic in raising anxieties and fueling anger to draw crowds to their cause. And sometimes it works for a while. But fear based in anger and anxiety can only tear down, it cannot build up. Therefore, it cannot bring lasting hope and peace.

Not all fear is bad. We do our children a great favor when we teach them to fear crossing the street amid traffic. It’s not fear per se, but misguided fear that leads us astray. One way to discern whether fear is healthy or destructive is to ask whether it is accompanied by hostility.

Egypt feared the burgeoning population of Israel, which it successfully enslaved, but was growing too large and strong to keep under foot. Pharaoh ordered a radical remedy – kill all baby boys born to the Hebrews! His edict reveals the latent hostility beneath Egypt’s fear.

Women, as usual, bore the brunt of the burden in doing the dirty work. Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill all newborn boys as soon as they were born. “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

When Pharaoh called them on the carpet, they concocted the tale that Hebrew women were so strong that they bore their babies before the midwives could get to them to do Pharaoh’s bidding. And so the midwives added to their disobedience the further scandal of deceit. All because they feared God more than they feared Pharaoh.

As well they should.

Because they feared God, Shiphrah and Puah were rewarded by God with families of their own. (Exodus 1:21)

Jesus taught his disciples not to fear those who can kill only the body. Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

Thus the disciples refused to obey the authorities who ordered them to stop proclaiming the liberating power of Jesus. In the face of unjust governmental orders, Peter declared, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:27-29)

Recently I wrote a tribute to John Lewis, who was arrested some fifty times for getting himself into what he called “good trouble” by refusing to comply with authorities who perpetuated injustice for Black people. He feared God more than he feared the police. Lewis’s final public appearance was a visit to the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. Reflecting on that visit in his final essay, Lewis said, “I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has wholeheartedly joined the movement toward freedom and justice for all who are Black in America. The recent 224th General Assembly adopted a clarion call, “On the Church in This Moment in History – Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action.” If you are able, please join in any and all activities of the “Presbyterian Week of Action” that is being sponsored by our denomination August 24-30, in response to the GA mandate. The week’s actions are being conducted in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, though the website makes clear that the PCUSA has no affiliation or official status with the “Black Lives Matter” organization (BLM). Pittsburgh Presbytery plans to host a similar week of action specifically focused on our region sometime later this year.

When we declare that “Black Lives Matter” we are not thereby joining the BLM organization. Rather, we are saying we must obey God rather than human authorities, the God in whose image Black lives are made. Whether or not we agree with the BLM organization, we must join in the chorus crying out for fundamental human equality for Black people, and of resistance to all the ways that equality has been abrogated.

We must fear and obey God, who makes no distinction between persons on account of race or station in life. We must fear and obey God, who creates every human being with the same imprint of the divine. We must fear and obey God by declaring “No” to all human authorities and institutions that perpetuate practices and policies that stand on the necks of Black people who simply want to breathe as freely as their White siblings.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10) We can embrace that fear only when we reject being captive to fear of anyone else.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)

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