A Review of
Fearing Bravely: Risking Love For Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies
Reviewed by Jeff Kennon
Love God. Love others. This is Theology 101. So we got this, right? We can move on to deeper things. Well, maybe not. First of all, depth in the Christian life is not found in an ivory tower of theological speculation but in the sacrificial service for one’s neighbor. You can’t go much deeper than learning to love your neighbor. This is not to slam theological discourse by any means. But following Jesus involves our whole lives of which loving our neighbors is pivotal. And second, I’m not sure we as Christ followers are doing as well as we sometimes think we are in the “love others” category.
Have you ever typed in “Christians are” for an internet search? Catherine McNiel, the author of Fearing Bravely: Risking Love For Our Neighbors, Strangers, & Enemies has and what she discovered was not what she had hoped. She found that many “American Christians are known for fearfulness—a fear quickly disintegrating into hatred.” Polls indicate that “white American evangelicals are twice as likely to believe our safety is threatened by those around us; far more likely to claim long-debunked hoaxes as truth; and out of all Americans, most likely to be viewed by our neighbors as hateful” (22).
How can this be? Why are we moving away from “they will know us by our love” (John 13:35) to being known by our judgmental indifference? According to McNiel’s research, it’s because of fear. We have come to believe that our neighbor is out to get us. And as a result, “our own neighbors have become strangers to us.” And the more “obsessed with seeing danger in each other—whether the ‘other’ lives across the street, across the border, or across the globe” (20), the less likely we are to reach out in love.
So what are we to do? Fear is real. Plus, don’t we need a little bit of fear? The answer is yes. Fear can be a friend. It can keep us safe. However, it can also be an enemy as we have the tendency to misread the world around us. Not everything is unsafe. Yet we interpret it as so. As a result, fear eventually takes control and we begin to view everything as a threat. And eventually fear leads to hate which leads to violence which leads to war which leads to more fear. And the cycle continues.
McNiel’s writing, however, pushes us to reevaluate what we should fear and to embrace the call of Jesus in our lives. As the title suggests, she wants Christ followers to “fear bravely.” She’s transparent as she writes that “I suspect we are afraid to follow the God who dies for his enemies, who seeks victory by relinquishing power, who sets free through love rather than destruction. Are we afraid to love the God who invites his followers to die rather than kill?” (45) These are indeed some tough words. But according to McNiel, it’s in embracing the love of God for both ourselves and the world around us which moves us to step beyond our own safety and to risk loving those we have grown accustomed to fearing. McNiel is adamant, as crazy as it might sound, that this openness to loving our neighbors, strangers, and enemies is where real life will be found.
The heart and majority of Fearing Bravely, as one might suspect, is in addressing how one goes about loving one’s neighbor, stranger, and enemy. I would be amiss therefore if I didn’t briefly comment on each. First; neighbors. McNiel surprisingly and appropriately not only asks us to reflect on who our neighbors are, but why? In other words, why do we live where we do and why do we “hang out” with the people we do? She writes, “When we live among those who are like us—racially, ethnically, religiously, educationally, economically—we withhold something important from ourselves, something we don’t realize we are missing: intimacy and cross-pollination with people who are different from us” (77).
Second; strangers. We have the tendency to avoid those who are not like us. McNiel writes that “when a group of people living among us follows different traditions and rhythms, we easily assume the worst. Suspicions turn to rumors, rumors turn to deadly accusations. Misinformation plays a huge role in transforming strangers into enemies—or rather, how we turn ourselves into their enemies” (134). As strangers become our enemies, we end up dehumanizing them with both our language and actions. No longer are they people to be welcomed but they are “others” to be shunned.
Finally; enemies. In this section, I felt the most helpful insight was McNiel’s description of the command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” She designates these as two different types of people. Those who persecute you are obviously those who want to harm you. Enemies on the other hand, are not a certain group of people, but are folks in whom we label as those we hate. They are folks that we classify as obnoxious. We are to show goodwill towards those we find difficult while we are to pray for those who wish violence upon us. In the latter case, to pray is to “love from a distance” (163).
There are a couple of helpful things that stick out to me about this book. First is the practicality found throughout. It’s not just theory but praxis. McNiel writes, “Discipleship doesn’t ask us to merely convert our beliefs but to get up and move, to become and behave in a different way” (51). Suggestions to live out this love for others can be found at the end of each section in the book where she writes “Brave Steps.” Second is McNiel’s transparency. She doesn’t write as one who has this all figured out. She quite frequently alludes to times she has disengaged and struggled to love. I’m thankful for such honest confessions to which I can relate.
The question might arise as to whether McNiel is a bit naive. This is especially so in regards to loving enemies. Personally, I think she is right on the mark. She in no way writes that to love others is easy. It takes some guts. And if folks view loving others as the means to changing the world as a bit simple, then I’ll take it.
Jeff Kennon lives in Lubbock, Texas where is the director of the Baptist Student Ministries at Texas Tech University. He is also the author of The Cross-Shaped Life: Taking On Christ’s Humanity, published by Leafwood Press. You can find him online at www.jkennon.com.