by Libby Trudeau, Client Services Analyst
“Sorry buddy, you’re too big and scary.” I often talk to things that have no ability to speak back. My husband will tell you that I’m often not capable of processing my day unless I pontificate—and if no actual humans are around at the time to hear and understand my words—no problem!
Last weekend while home visiting my parents, I was indeed not speaking to an actual human, but rather to a big, hairy spider encountered while sweeping the floor. He crept around the corner of the kitchen island just as I crouched down with dustpan in hand. In theory, spiders are marvelous intricate creatures. In practice, I prefer to appreciate this intricate beauty from a very safe distance. I reacted in a common enough fashion: I smacked him with the broom.
In the next second, when my superior human strength and size had decisively reduced the arachnid in question to a pile of legs, my more rational mind kicked in. Clearly he had not been the threat—the one capable of inflicting harm. The harm-causer was me. In fact, my mom’s a biology teacher, and I know which common spiders in the Midwest are potentially poisonous. This little guy was not one. Having smashed many spiders in the past without a second thought, I was about to go along with the day. However, speaking to even unintelligent things forms a sort of connection, and God used it to grab my attention with a little thought that nudged its way into my mind.
“‘Sorry?’ Why did I feel the need to apologize?” Even as my gut reaction was to smash, something in my mind was telling me that this behavior was something to be apologized for. Perhaps it’s because, when you take time to think about it, destroying something because it looks “big and scary” is not an accepted or adequate reason to do something. Nor is it defensible based on my conviction for a God-imitating loving world. Can you name one time Jesus smashed something because he thought it was scary? Neither can I; in fact the Bible is full of stories where Jesus and early Christian leaders stand up in humility and bravery in the face of “real” scary situations (like when someone was about to be crucified, for example).
Ironically, it’s often when fear is the least justifiable that it can do the most damage. I was not actually in any physical danger from the spider, but my second of fright cost it its life because I was immeasurably more powerful. By contrast, when my sister thinks it’s funny to jump around the corner and scare me, I might react in a similar way, but at most she will get a bruise. Instinct might kick in, but somewhere in my mind as my arm shoots out in surprise, I also know that it’s my sister and we love each other. Not only is she big enough to survive the encounter, but my instinctive blow will be softened by my bias towards her.
For the men that often come through Emmaus’ doors, this instinctive benefit of the doubt that comes from love and trust is almost always absent in their lives. Rather than looking at them and reacting to them through a lens of love and trust, people everywhere most often react to them out of fear and suspicion. This instinctive mistrust and fear wears a number of faces—maybe someone mistrusts men, or jobless folks, or urban folks, or the homeless, or someone with a different color of skin or from a certain side of town. Maybe the homeless guy panhandling makes them a little uncomfortable on the way to work, or the thought that someone has been incarcerated makes him seem a little dangerous or crazy. Maybe people with tattoos seem too edgy or someone who wears different clothes seems too different.
Fear can also strike a number of chords and we all experience it in some way. Maybe we’re physically afraid, or maybe we’re afraid the economy might be on a downturn, the job market is too lean, or that our neighborhood is attracting the “wrong crowd.” Whatever the fears may be, they tend to be manifested in the people who are different in some way. And this is often the men of Emmaus. But as in the case of my spider, the people we feel these instinctive fears towards are often not the ones who can actually cause us harm—usually it’s the other way around.
I bet a lot of people could explain why some of our guys “appear” to be scary, but if you look at the life circumstances of these men compared to people who complain about or fear them the most, who has actually experienced the most hardship? Who has been hurt? Who has experienced the most physical violence? Who has experienced more job insecurity? Who has been held back, demeaned and bullied the most? In short, who is actually being smashed and whose fear might be causing the smashing?
The great evil of fear is that it can turn reality on its head. It can convince people, society, even the church, that the ones experiencing the most hardship are somehow the ones most to be feared. It can help us justify hurting or even simply ignoring the hardship of others for no other reason (when it boils down to it) than that they “seem” scary, or delinquent, or just … different. Fear is a liar, and it is the opposite of love. It is one of the greatest tools of evil in any society. Because if the Church can be convinced that it’s justifiable for such-and-such person to be smashed or ignored, the Kingdom of God is not winning, the message of love spelled out in the Bible is not being communicated effectively, and true community cannot happen. In the case of my spider, fear caused me to hurt a tiny creature and passed quickly, but afterwards I found myself wondering: how often has my fear been used to justify hurting another human being?
This is perhaps the church’s biggest but most difficult mission—to spread hope through truth, love, and community, to banish fear (2 Timothy 1:7). Because if fear wins, the people that God most wants to love—the poor, the down-trodden, the ones society leaves out—are the ones being most ignored. If fear wins, it not only turns reality on its head, but the gospel message as well! If God is your God and Christ is your Savior like he is mine, we simply cannot allow this to happen. It’s our greatest mission. In fact, it’s so important that God is willing to use anything—even tiny, safe, spiders and a tendency to talk to dumb animals—to remind us.