Courage and Compassion in the Midst of Fear


eiffel-tower-01-800My newest article at the Washington Post:

The Eiffel Tower was engulfed in darkness on Friday night. Today, schools and government offices in France are closed down until further notice. The borders are closed, a curfew has been established, and the country is considered to be in a state of emergency.

Still, thousands of citizens gathered in the streets this weekend to proclaim one message: “Not afraid.” Even after watching on video people running for their lives from a crowded theater, after witnessing the carnage left in the wake of Friday’s attacks, the people of France made it clear that the most powerful weapon in the terrorist arsenal — fear — would not win.

The march of the Islamic State in the Middle East takes a new turn with the recent events in Europe. The War on Terror has entered a new phase, where the violence we have sought to contain in Middle Eastern countries is sweeping into other societies — bringing violence, causing heartbreak.

When I think of the ways the Islamic State could achieve its objectives in its war against the West, I consider its militant plans and our government responses. Yes, there are well-worn paths of appeasement or containment, which are reminiscent of Europe’s bumbling into World War II. There is always the specter of nuclear warfare or the random targeting of unsuspecting civilians.

I cannot speak to the possibility of the Islamic State scoring military victories against the United States or Europe, because we cannot look into the future to see what kind of forces will be marshaled against us. But I do know this – one way that the terrorist wins is by immersing the world in fear.

Terrorism thrives on fear, and fear — if left unchecked — can spread into the deepest, darkest corners of our hearts and lead to decisions and choices that, in normal times, would be unthinkable. The apostle John wrote in the New Testament of “perfect love driving out fear.” From a Christian perspective, there is no fear in love because love is the primary purpose for human existence. There is no fear of God’s judgment when we love as we ought.

Almost a thousand years ago, the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose interactions with Muslim thinkers led to some of his greatest works, wrote, “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”

Aquinas is right. Fear and compassion cannot coexist. The former inevitably drives out the latter.