We all know what Jesus did to the herd of swine in the gospel story when he allowed the demons who were harassing the demoniac to enter into the herd grazing nearby. Not a PETA poster moment, for sure.
Three weeks ago in Egypt, the government there began a pig slaughter on a slightly bigger scale: some 350,000 pigs were led to the slaughter for fear of the dreaded “swine” flu. Countries all over the world began to ban pork imports from North America and we saw news clips of well-intentioned people (usually in the grocery store, mid-shopping) telling the reporters that they were eliminating pork from their diet, “just in case.”
What these stories intimately share is the fact of possession, of being possessed. In the gospel story, the demonic possession of the pigs leads to their plunging death off the cliff. In our more recent dealings with swine (which extends far beyond Egypt’s rash reaction), it is us, as a culture that is possessed. We are a society that is possessed by fear and being possessed by fear always ends in death.
The days following the swine flu outbreak from Mexico were a newsmaker’s dream and an opportunity for our culture of fear to kick it into high gear. A new, hybrid flu that was unheard of with a catchy name, and an increasing death count—what more could the networks ask for? We were then all witnesses and participants in a quickly escalating panic.
Why did alarm spread so fast even though this flu turned out to be nowhere near as fatal as a regular seasonal flu? Why were we so quick to panic? I think Frank Furedi, in his book Culture of Fear, hints at why when he reminds us that “the risks that kill you are not necessarily the ones that provoke and frighten you.” What does he mean by that? He simply means that while we are afraid of what statistically usually kills us (cancer, heart disease, and stroke) we are, as a culture, more pointedly afraid of terrorism, school shootings, pedophiles, serial killers and these new killer viruses (which, statistically, come nowhere near to the risk of the big three above).
So, again, why did panic spread so quickly over a flu that we now know was overblown? I think the answer is that, as a culture, we’ve transformed fear, like everything else, into a commodity that is bought and sold and we’ve become proficient peddlers and consumers of fear. In other words, just like sex, fear sells. And just like selling sex, marketers, advertisers and producers hold a vested interest in shaping our collective imagination and influencing our desires to line up with what they’re selling—and we’re buying.
In his book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott-Bader Saye makes the observation that in Scripture when we meet an angel from God, they begin their message with “fear not”. Why is that? He says he always thought that it was because angels must be such imposing and frightening figures. But there’s more to it than that. He thinks the reason they tell us to not be afraid is that the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us. And I think he’s right.
Thomas Aquinas taught, eons ago, that disordered fear is a result of disordered desire. Simply put, we fear in deformed and distorted ways because our imaginations, and consequently, our desires are screwed up—which is another way of saying that we are a sinful people who can’t imagine a world of quieted fear and so we act, think, and speak accordingly.
You see, this culture of fear is all about shaping our imaginations through the various rituals that make up this culture from the ways and forms our news is disseminated to the methods with which producers market their products as the ‘safe’ alternative to their competitor’s. This is an embodied cultural reality that is practiced over and over again in order to intentionally form us to be a certain kind of people—in this case, scared.
As followers of Jesus in this culture, we are called to be a living alternative to it. Jesus, like God’s angels, told his disciples over and over again, “fear not”. As the church, our liturgy is all about shaping our imaginations through the rituals that make up this alternative culture of the church. Nowhere is this more clearly, visibly and physically true than in our practice of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is an embodied reality that is practiced over and over again in order to intentionally form us to be a certain kind of people. It is the act of the church whereby it remembers who she is as follower of a crucified and risen Lord. So, it is in the ritual practice of the Eucharist that we learn that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us—which puts us deeply at odds with this predominant culture of fear which feeds off this fear of death.
As Bader-Saye notes, this isn’t about telling ourselves not to fear. Our fears are primal, overwhelming and overpowering. We can’t just tell ourselves to feel less fear—that would be disingenuous. What we need is for our desires and our fears to be re-ordered, or rather, rightly ordered. In other words, our overwhelming fears need themselves to be overwhelmed by something bigger and better. That is what we recognize and practice in the Eucharist. In consuming Jesus we are consumed into the body of Christ; we are consumed into a wonderful adventure where our fears are rightly ordered because we know this story to be ultimately hopeful and not tragic.
So what, in the end, of the pigs? It is our task, as those people whose imaginations are shaped and formed in the Eucharist to embody that imagination in our world through practices that upend the culture of fear. Being a people that don’t buy into the consumerism of fear is a good first step and is part and parcel of our commission as followers of Jesus in our world. We ought to be God’s disciplined people in a scared world—a people who practice hospitality to strangers, who love enemies, who bring gentleness to violence, a people who, in our day to day lives, are dispossessed of the demons of fear and filled with God’s Spirit of peace.