Mike's Musings

The Reverend Doctor Michael J. Fay

Timothy Egan’s column in the March 25, 2016, New York Times talks about Donald Trump’s “Terror Dependency.” What he is talking about in a not-so-round-about way is fear. Egan writes, “Most political leaders at least expressed sorrow and mourning for the loss of thirty-one lives in Brussels on Tuesday. Trump called the city ‘a total disaster,’ and said the fear cast by Islamic State terror ‘is probably why I’m No. 1 in public polls.’” {Which is not true either, but that is not the purpose of this column.}
As for Paris, “in Trump’s telling, it was a wonderful turning point for him. ‘Paris happened, and Paris was a disaster.’ From there he lumped Paris, the Mexican border, and the Syrian refugee crisis in one big rancid stew of fear.”
Fear is a protective, survival reaction. Physiologically it is a sympathetic nervous system response. Some blood vessels dilate, others constrict, pupils enlarge, we begin to sweat and we become hyper aware. We are ready to flee or fight. Sadly, chronic fear can lead to chronic anxiety and mental pathology. A reflex designed for survival becomes a reflex for depression and an inability to function rationally.
Was Jesus afraid in Gethsemane?
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death,” and “if possible let this cup pass from me.” In Mark, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him and begins “to be greatly distressed and troubled,” again asking, “remove this cup from me.” In Luke, “Father if thou art willing remove this cup.”
Only in Luke do we find Jesus in “anguish praying more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood, falling down to the ground.”
John’s gospel does not say anything about the garden except as a place for Judas to betray Jesus.
Let us assume if we declare that Jesus was both fully man and fully God that he was indeed afraid to the death. He had been threatened all along and knew he was betrayed. He knew people were coming to kill him. It wasn’t just a far-flung possibility, it was happening in real time and he could not control the outcome himself. So he was very afraid. Does that make him a coward?
John’s Gospel written for a different audience and a later time has Jesus appear as one entirely in control, even fearless. In fact, Jesus on the cross is quite chatty. He speaks to his mother and his disciple, he asks for something to drink and finally declares “It is finished.” All in contrast to the synoptics who have him say only the first verse of Psalm 22, except Luke who has Jesus pray, “Father forgive them…”
Does the anguish cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” imply fear? You bet. Cowardice in the face of fear? Not so much.
Chris Walsh, as associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University wrote “Cowardice: A Brief History,” but the book is much more of a social cultural survey of American’s attitudes toward cowardice at various times in our history. James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington reviewed Walsh’s book in the January 9, 2015 New York Times Book Review. Here is an extended quote from his review:
“Cowardice, is not quite one of those words, like “honor,” whose meaning was once understood by everyone but is now understood be almost no one. Yet its meaning has lately become more elusive. Are suicide bombers “cowardly,” as we are so often assured they are, or insanely courageous? Is it more cowardly to refuse to fight or to fight for fear of being called a coward for not fighting? Some people claim to have the answers to such questions about this once familiar and unproblematic subject, but the tend to disagree. There is no consensus as top who is a coward and who is not – or even about whether the question is one of any importance. Cowardice, what ever it means, must seem a matter of individual choice like everything else, and the implied judgment made by the term probably requires that we decline to use it at all.

Putting aside the idea of honor “being understood by almost no one;” I disagree with Mr. Bowman, probably because I am a product of my upbringing, the son of a B-17 pilot who suffered from PTSD but had complete 30 missions, and a kid formed by the values at West Point in the middle 1960s. I wasn’t raised up to believe in the situational ethics Mr. Bowman is describing. “Individual choice” is for me a cop out. For me that phrase implies no societal standards, and individualism that is held higher than any other value. That seems to mean there can be no such thing as altruism, which, I submit, is perhaps the most important evolutionary value we humans have.
            Cowardice is simply a failure to do one’s duty. As Davy Crockett said, “Remember these words when I am dead. First be sure you're right, then go ahead.” The hard part is the “be sure you’re right” part. It is then knowing of one’s duty that is hard and perhaps the part with which Mr. Bowman struggles. It is a complicated world made more complicated if there are no absolutes.
            Today we struggle with trivialization of the term. Cruz calls Trump a “sniveling coward” for insulting his wife, when “the north end of a southbound mule would have been more appropriate.”
            A coward is one who’s standards aren’t high enough for the challenges facing him. The coward is willing to abandon church, friends and family for self-realization and continued existence. The coward believes there is no higher calling than individuality. Were Jesus a coward, he would have done exactly what the hecklers at the foot of the cross said, “let him save himself…”
            What he did was save us all.

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