In Security

15th-century painting of St. Francis meeting with the Sultan Al-Kamil (some of the earliest Christian/Muslim dialogue!)
15th-century painting of St. Francis meeting with the Sultan Al-Kamil in a gesture of peacemaking.

During troubled times when life seems more dangerous than usual, words having to do with security are thick in the air: We have heightened security. All is secure. Stay inside until all is secured. Due to heightened airport security, I’ve been searched, scanned, patted down, surrounded by armed National Guardsmen….

It ain’t working for me.

To be “secure” is to be “carefree” (Latin “se” for without + “cure” for care). And the notion of security is a precious one to Americans, many of whom believe we have a right to secure borders, secure airports, secure schools and neighborhoods and race courses. We have a constitutional right to bear arms to preserve our security.

To white Americans, armed police officers are a sign of security: they have our backs. Read any urban newspaper for more than a day, and you will know that police officers are not a sign of security to many people of color in the United States.

In other countries and territories fraught with continual violence, people want security too, but they have never seen the type of security that many Americans have experienced. They don’t expect long, uninterrupted periods free of violence, punctuated on rare occasions by a bomb or a manhunt for an armed terrorist that throws people into a state of insecurity and fear. They have never experienced it. Sociologists and psychologists have written about the devastating effects of continual violence upon Palestinian children who have never known security. All they know are security checkpoints.

A few years ago, I bought a house in Fair Oaks, California, a middle-class suburb of Sacramento. The house had several sliding glass doors with flimsy locks, and my dog frequently ran from window to window to protect us from marauding squirrels. As a single parent, I was always conscious of wanting to live in a safe place for my daughter’s sake. I felt very safe in that home.

I gradually met my neighbors, including a young man across the street who had been released from jail and had moved back in with his mother. A few years before, he had accidentally blown up the garage of the house across the street in some meth lab mixup. He lost an arm in that explosion, and he was arrested at the hospital. We chatted now and then, and I invited him to church once. He hesitated, and then he looked at the swastikas tattooed on his upper arms and said he wasn’t really “like that.” He had tattooed his arms in prison for security’s sake; it bought him the protection of the white supremacist gang in prison. But once out of prison, he had joined a multiracial support group and said he was learning to love. I figured that was his church.

Months later, another neighbor next door was helping me move furniture, and he noticed the flimsy locks on my glass doors. He said I should get better locks, and then he asked if I owned a gun. When I said no, he said that was okay: he had a gun, and my next-door neighbor, a psychiatrist at a nearby prison, also had a gun. And then he pointed across the street to the young man’s house, as if it were clear why we all needed guns.

Now I felt insecure. I was surrounded by guns.

All of this is to say that often, what people say will make us secure (carefree) actually makes us insecure: full of fear, and in more actual physical danger than before. If we associate being “carefree” only with being as far away from physical danger as possible, we’ve engaged in a losing game. Of course, I believe our strong natural instincts to preserve life, including our own, are God-given, and we should heed those. But we are always physically vulnerable: from brain aneurysms, the car that runs the red light, a genetic mutation that causes cancer, a fertilizer plant that blows up. Physical vulnerability is built into our existence.

We need some spiritual balance that addresses the fear that is just as dangerous as other elements of our existence. To be actually carefree is to have no concern for physical danger, to disregard danger when radical love for the other, even our enemy, may take us where we don’t want to go.

This was what Jesus did, whenever his disciples said, “Don’t go to Jerusalem. They want to kill you!” He kept saying, “You don’t get it.” And he walked (with the fear born of humanity’s need to preserve itself, with the love born of God) straight into physical danger. He was free of care about his own physical existence.

This is what St. Francis did. (Sorry, I can’t help myself.) Thinking he would be martyred in the Crusades, he walked with two very fearful friars to visit the sultan, a Muslim. No one knows what was said, but both sides of the account reported that Francis and his companions were treated well and talked to the sultan for at least two days. The sultan wrote that he found Francis very interesting and delightful, and he granted them and other Franciscan friars safe passage to and from the sultan’s headquarters. (He remained a Muslim, by the way, despite from Franciscan hagiographic writing that says that Francis converted him. Not true.)

This is what Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl who insisted upon education for girls, did when she rode the school bus the day she was shot in the head. She knew it was dangerous, but her care for herself and other girls led her to confront fear with justice.

Like many praying Americans, I am praying today for the physical safety of Bostonians as well as the many law enforcement officers and military personnel who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect residents. God bless them for their loving courage.

I also pray that the American people will put more pressure on our government to limit access to guns, especially assault weapons.

I pray that our people will not allow fear to conquer us and cloud our judgments about what we need to do to feel safe.

I pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters who are feeling fear and chagrin right now, that they will feel the love that many Christians bear for them. You are loved, and I ask your forgiveness for the suffering you have endured at the hands of Christians. It makes me feel ashamed.

I pray that my country will stop bombing other countries. It’s not working for us, and I ask God to forgive me for my role in this. I don’t know how to make it stop.

I pray for the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. For therein lies our only true security.

7 Thoughts

  1. Janine, You are so smart and so right on. I will forward this to my not church going sisters as I did with another recent writing of yours. We Christians are far from perfect, but we must cling to our true faith and love.

  2. Janine: Thank you for the wornderful message of love and caring. We need that so much today. There is just too much fear and mistrust going around. Thank you for shareing your thoughts. They gave me a lot to think about!


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