Whom shall I fear?

candlelightAmericans are afraid.

I understand. Once a week, it seems, we wake to the news crawl at the bottom of our television screens telling us of 80 dead here, 49 killed there, a terrorist attack in France, gunfire in Orlando.

FBI crime statistics argue against our fear. Violent crime in the U.S. is down. In fact, there has been a steady drop in the number of murders, rapes, robberies and assaults since 1995. But we don’t meet statistics while walking down the street. Instead, we confront our impressions about a world that seems to have gone haywire.

There is nothing wrong with a little fear. Fear makes us cautious. Allowed to evolve into awareness, fear can become a means of protection.

It’s when we allow fear to transform into hatred that we run into problems.

A little hate can poison an entire nation. It clouds your focus, burns you alive and encourages others to hate you right back. Hate accomplishes nothing except to beget more hate.

Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who woke up each morning to a frightening world. He walked in a time and place that despised him for a hue that was not of his choosing. Surely, he had to harbor some hatred for the small-minded bigots who considered themselves superior. Somehow, he molded those volatile emotions into a movement of peace.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” he once said. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Fire hoses turned on his brothers. The gnashing teeth of police dogs nipping at his throat. Threats that culminated in his death. The world encouraged Dr. King to return hate with hate, but he and his followers refused. They had to be scared as they marched down streets lined with those who wanted to lynch them. While trembling inside, they encouraged the world to dream of a day full of understanding, a day without fear.

“The chain reaction of evil, hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars, must be broken.”

Today’s fear is focused on extremists. The natural inclination is to hate ISIS, to hate the ideologues who think with a gun rather than with compassion. Dr. King, you’re thinking, didn’t have to deal with radical Islamists.

No, but he did have to deal with incredible injustice. He had to go face-to-face with the KKK, with sheriffs and police chiefs and mayors who wore robes after hours. He hated their ideology. He must have. I’m sure he was afraid. But he never acted out of hate.

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” Dr. King warned us.

As I struggle to find the words to express my own fear of a world ruled by hate, I keep turning to Dr. King and the teachings of those who followed them. Their words are written on my heart. Among the men of that era I admire most is Ambassador Andrew Young, who is still calling for peace in our current time of turmoil.

“I don’t think I’ve sensed as much confusion among the American people in my lifetime since the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Ambassador Young said recently, speaking of the recent police involved shootings and the protests that followed. “There’s so much bombarding us, we’re scared of the world.

“Violence grows out of frustration and emotion, leading to unintended destruction of life and property,” Ambassador Young goes on. “After it’s over, everyone is sorry.”

Easy for me to adopt this attitude. I’m not a victim of discrimination. I don’t have to deal with the growing threat of radical extremists. I do fear, however. I fear the day when hate compounds hate until it overshadows the brave men who encouraged us to dream. I’m afraid we’re on the verge of forgetting the words of those who have walked through darkness and used peace as their illumination.

Their words, their actions, can light our path through this frightening time.

Fear can fuel a movement. Hate will tear it apart.

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