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July 26, 2014

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for every person to worship in his or her own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Every freedom carries with it certain responsibilities. Perhaps the Bill of Rights should include a companion Bill of Responsibility.

During the month of July, this column will feature the Four Freedoms and the responsibilities that accompany them. This is the fourth in the series:

Freedom from Fear

On the very day of Bill Drake’s funeral, while hundreds of friends and family were gathered at Memorial Auditorium to pay respects to Bill and to support his family, Bill’s radio studio was broken into and vandalized. It was an ordinary crime made more heinous by the occasion.

After Easter several years ago, I planted red begonias and white petunias in six white wrought iron baskets lined with coconut mats. I hung them on our front porch as I have done for years.   By mid-June the hanging baskets were full and blooming in all their glory. The flowers were admired by visitors to our home as well as by those driving or walking past.  Someone liked the flowers so much that they took them. A thief walked up on our porch and literally lifted our beautiful baskets.

The very idea! We felt violated and vulnerable. Someone had stolen our flowers. We were angry, and we were afraid.

Freedom from fear is rare. We live in a world dominated by fear. We start our day with morning headlines that are alarming. The 11:00 evening news sends us to bed frightened. We live in an age of anxiety. Few of us enjoy freedom from fear.

Since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, America has been on alert. Terrorists took possession of our commercial jet planes, converting them to weapons of mass destruction capable of attacking structures that had stood as symbols of strength. Rarely in our history have we felt so vulnerable and so violated. Our anger and fear have been magnified. The apprehension created by the theft of hanging baskets from our front porch is miniscule in comparison.

Terrorism literally strikes terror in the hearts of victims. Fear is the purpose of terrorist activity. It is not a new thing. For centuries, those who sought to control others have utilized fear as a means of domination. From Attila the Hun to Adolph Hitler, from the Christian Inquisition to Islam’s evangelism by the sword, from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin and Stalin, from vigilante groups in the Wild West to the Ku Klux Klan in the postwar South, merchants of fear have attempted to control others by terror.

How can we secure freedom from fear in a world like ours?

In his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport identified fear as the root cause of prejudice. Our fear of people who are different from us leads to prejudice. Prejudice, in turn, intensifies fear and leads to acts of violence. From Allport’s perspective, fear breeds greater fear. In other words, there is a cycle of fear. The more afraid we are of other people, the more we react with suspicion, prejudice, and violence. Fear is the primary emotion at the root of terrorism and war. No wonder freedom from fear is so rare.

In his call for a declaration of war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” He was right!

The master teacher instructed, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”  Mark Twain’s twist on that was “Love your enemies. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” It is a difficult concept, but love is the only way toward freedom from fear.

Howard Thurman, born in 1900, was the grandson of slaves. He grew up as a sharecropper’s son. He was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Sr., and a mentor to the son, Martin Luther King, Jr. He told a story about the time his family moved into a farmhouse that shared a back fence with another sharecropper family. Soon after the Thurman family arrived, the neighbor cleaned out his chicken house, dumping all of the manure over the fence into the Thurmans’ backyard. Howard was furious, convinced that the act was racially motivated.

His mother spoke calmly, “I know what to do.”

For weeks, Howard’s mother did nothing. Young Howard seethed.  The pile of chicken manure rotted in the hot summer sun. In the fall, Howard’s mother took a potato fork and turned over a plot of ground, working the chicken manure, now fertilizer, into the ground. In the spring, she planted seed. By the following June, nearly a year after they had moved in, the neighbor had not spoken to the Thurmans; not even once.

Then, one day Mrs. Thurman took Howard by the hand. In the garden they gathered fresh vegetables and flowers to fill a basket. They walked around the side of the fence and onto the neighbor’s front porch. Mrs. Thurman knocked on the door. The man who had dumped the manure into their yard opened the door. Mrs. Thurman said to the surprised man, “You were so good to share your chicken manure with us last summer. I wanted to share our vegetables and flowers with you.”

The decision to love our enemies is not an easy one. Refusing to return evil for evil, meanness for meanness, and violence for violence takes great courage that is often confused with cowardice. The wisdom of the ages teaches that it is only by love that we can overcome hate. Only by love can we break the cycle of fear.

An elderly apostle wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear.” It is the way to secure freedom from fear for ourselves, and for our world.

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