As I emerged from grocery shopping tonight, a small crowd gathered at the window between the doors. At first I thought they were waiting out the deluge of rain. Maybe some of them were. Then I noticed red and blue flashing lights reflected on the wet pavement and windows. Two sheriff cars were parked fore and aft a small red clunker of a car. Soon another sheriff car arrived. And another. Finally there were five, all with lights blazing. I stood next to an elderly black gentleman. He was clearly agitated. Speaking to himself as much as anyone, he announced that he was going to leave by the other set of doors. He stopped short of leaving, and returned to the area next to me. Beads of sweat broke out around his collar and his brow. An officer stepped into the store and asked everyone to remain where we were for a few more minutes. The thunderstorm was ramping up, so it didn’t require much encouragement for us to stay put. The effect on my companion was palpable. I tried to divert his attention with small talk about the storm, and he tried to be diverted. Anxiety was winning when the officer came to one set of doors and told us that we could leave through them. My companion fell back. I wasn’t sure he was going to leave at all. I asked if we could walk together to our cars. Maybe he thought he was doing me as much a favor as I thought I was doing for him. He waved over the top of his head as he ducked into his car, and we both went our ways.
There are no end to the stories and explanations that could describe what happened there. Maybe I’m the one who should have been afraid. Maybe he had cause to be afraid. Maybe it’s just seeing the news videos of a police officer shooting a man in South Carolina that instilled such fear in him. Maybe there’s a story in the past. Maybe he was actually a criminal. Maybe he was connected somehow to the person in that junker of a car surrounded by five sheriff cars. I tipped my hand when I described him as “elderly” and “black.” You can’t be an innocent bystander now. (Remember the story about the hit and run driver?) However you read those paragraphs, it’s going to say as much about you as it says about me, or about my companion in that store entryway. It also says a lot about what we believe is true living in this country of ours.
The disciples were gathered in that upper room for fear, the Gospel of John tells us in this weekend’s reading. For fear of the Jews. Fear can make people jump to some strange conclusions. The disciples were Jews. Why should they be afraid? The Gospel writer has fed us a lot of suggestions about what might have made them afraid. Fear makes us make quick assessments of who is with us and who is against us, who is friend and who is foe. Our brains are hardwired to it. Our adrenal glands pump it.
Maybe the Jews had as much to fear as the disciples did. And maybe the Gospel writer had even more to fear than all of them, and it oozes out between the spaces between the letters and the words. Jesus died in an occupied nation, in a police state. There were the religious police and authorities, upon whom the burden of securing people’s compliance fell–and for which they were often very well rewarded. They had a lot to lose. There were the Roman militia and authorities, for whose benefit the charade of the Pax Romana was carried out in Palestine. Everyone gets a little crazy with so much adrenaline pumping fear into a system. Someone is like to get killed.
Yet. And yet. When we read these words on Sunday morning, we read them as placidly as though we were reading a grocery list. Maybe you get a really good reader who uses a little dramatic inflection. Will the inflection of fear fall on the side of the Jews or the disciples? Will the disciples come off as weaklings afraid of their own shadows, or will the Jews come off as “Christ killing” embodiments of evil? That’s what fear does to us. We choose sides and use them to explain the conclusions we’ve already reached.
The violence continues. Is there a way to tell the story that acknowledges the fear in all of us? My Aunt Tilly would have scolded me for walking with a man, a black man, an old black man I did not know. She always saw the worst in people and the world. My optimism about people and the world is in good part a vestigial remain of adolescent rebelliousness. Is there a way to tell the story that creates the love that casts out all that fear? Now I hear my mother’s voice, waving a hand in resignation, “Everyone’s going to believe what they want to believe.” My heart always sank in frustrated despair when she said that. I still have hope people will believe what is just beyond their own wants, and just beyond what they they are resigned to believe is the ugly truth of the world.
I grieve that a person old enough to have seen plenty would feel such terror at the sight of so many flashing lights on police cars. I might be reading a lot into it. Then again, maybe I’m not reading enough into it. It has never occurred to me to fear such things.