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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Facing Up to Fear
distributed 12/11/15 - ©2015

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"Do not be afraid!" say the Christmas angels.

What wise and important advice that is -- not only in the presence of winged messengers, but especially in our ongoing experience of life in a dangerous world.

This week's headlines offer a stark contrast in how to address the dangers that confront us. The high-stakes climate negotiations in Paris demonstrate honesty, diplomacy, and a recognition of our shared destiny. The wild remarks by Donald Trump, calling for a ban on Muslims entering the US, play to the most isolating and hateful expressions of fear.

The divergence of those paths reveals -- to me, at least -- the truth of the angelic admonition. Fear is not the way to justice or joy.

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The news from Paris is mixed. (I'm following the running blog of events from the Guardian, with updates coming every 10 minutes or so.)

The COP21 climate negotiations were scheduled to end today, and they have now been extended to Saturday, at least. That is fairly normal in these complicated meetings.

What does seem unusual is that there is progress toward actual agreements. In the face of conflicts and differing interests, conversation continues. US Secretary of State John Kerry said today: "I'm hopeful. I think there is a way to go forward, that there's a reasonableness."

On the sticking points that remain, Kerry said: "I think some of us have been working quietly behind the scenes to work out compromises ahead of time on some of those issues. And so tomorrow [Saturday] will be really a reflection of many of those compromises surfacing."

The decisions that remain are hard. There are no guarantees that any agreement will be made. And anything that can emerge with international consensus will fall short of what is needed to avert severe climate distortions. But at this late stage in the process, real proposals are on the table, and serious conversations are continuing. That is good news.

Paris is dramatically different than what happened in Copenhagen, in 2009,when hopes for agreements were high in advance of the meeting. On a December Friday six years ago, I wrote, "This is the final day of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and MSNBC reports that a 'diplomatic frenzy grips' the conference. The outcome of the meeting is not clear, except to know that it will not achieve what is necessary." And "Hopenhagen" failed to produce anything but vague frameworks for further discussion.

What brings this year's commitment to dialogue? There are many factors, but one of them is fear. It has become abundantly clear to all nations that "business as usual" is a path to catastrophe.

The rapid heating of the planet is undeniable. The last few years have shown that climate chaos and rising seas are a threat not only to island nations and poor countries. We all face turmoil and trauma from extreme and unpredictable weather, from water shortages and crop failures, and from unprecedented floods of climate refugees. If we do not change, what lies ahead of us is genuinely fearful. A future without agreements is more dangerous than many of us can imagine.

Fear of that dangerous future is forcing the nations of the world to talk to each other, to find common ground, to compromise. There is no other option.

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The danger of terrorism is real. Violence in Paris and San Bernardino brings to the west what much of the rest of the world has experienced far too long and far too frequently.

Fear bubbles up in the face of unpredictable mayhem, and in the presence of unfamiliar ideologies that are tearing apart large swaths of the Middle East and Africa. Fear grows when strangers are encountered close to home who, on some superficial level, look like those dangerous fundamentalists.

And that fear of radicalism and terrorism sits on top of other fears: economic uncertainty, political alienation, high-visibility racial conflict, shifting sensibilities about gender roles, and even climate anxieties. Our world is changing rapidly, and it does not feel safe or familiar. For all of us to some degree, and for some in our society to a high degree, fear is real and rational and ever-present.

But how do we address that fear? Do we face up to it in constructive ways? Do we sort out which of are fears are legitimate, and which are imagined? Do we try to know and understand those that we see as strangers? Do we -- like the climate negotiators in Paris -- recognize that we must work cooperatively with all members of our community to find viable options?

Or do we give into the fear, so that "being afraid" shapes our consciousness? Six years ago, as the Copenhagen talks were falling apart, I reflected theologically about being afraid (in more depth than I can today -- read the 2009 Notes). I said:

Being afraid makes us strive for control. It makes us focus defensively on ourselves. It makes us define others as enemies. It makes us more willing to inflict great costs on those we see as 'other', so that we can be safe.

What I find reprehensible about Donald Trump's "ban the Muslims" proposal is that it panders to fear. It does nothing to alleviate the danger. In fact, even making the suggestion of a categorical religious exclusion heightens global religious conflicts, makes the US an even more reasonable target for extremists, and makes us less safe.

Mr. Trump is appealing to those who are afraid in terms that increase the fear. He may give voice to their anxieties and their anger, but he does nothing to resolve them. He inflames fear to attract a passionate following of the fearful.

Trump's latest inflammatory proposal only leads deeper into anger, isolation, hatred and conflict. That is where fear always takes us.

I invite the readers of Notes who self-identify as "religious leaders" to sign an Open Letter from Faith Leaders to Donald Trump. The letter includes this statement: "We cannot remain silent as political leaders seek to divide Americans along religious lines for partisan gain. Your language and proposals serve only to divide our nation and to bring comfort to ISIS and their allies."

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"Do not be afraid" does not imply that there are no dangers. The wisdom of the angels meshes with pragmatic conflict resolution.

In the face of danger, it does not help to go ever deeper into fear. We find hope and possibility when we face up to that which frightens us, and seek paths to the common good.

A few minutes ago, the official sessions of the Paris negotiations adjourned for the night. The Guardian blog says, "the French foreign minister called for a cooling off period to allow more high level lobbying behind closed doors. Fabius put off planned public plenary sessions, which risk being volatile, and gave the floor over to closed meetings in a last push for an agreement."

In the presence of fear and danger, may we step back from volatility and anger, and seek agreement.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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