When I served as the pastor of a Presbyterian church down South, I learned of an event common for local Baptists on Halloween. Instead of a Haunted House, these churches would sponsor a Hell House and invite children and youth of the community to go through. It was scary, and kids like scary at Halloween. So lots of them went. Parents would send their children, even as young as eight, to make their way through the house towards the message at the end. The second to the last scene of the Hell House did not feature ghosts or goblins or any creatures associated with Halloween fun. Instead, it was a passenger jet that had crashed or a brutal car accident. Church members lay around the wreckage, beaten up and bloodied, acting the part of the dead. Before the children left the scene, they were asked a straight forward question. Do you know where you are going when you die? Before given the chance to answer, though, they are shown another scene of the torturous pits of Hell. By the time the children make their way to the end, they are deeply frightened, some reduced to sobbing fits. So when they are asked the final question, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your eternal Savior?” their answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
Fear is an emotion often used (and abused, I would add) as a tool to win over, convert, or control. It’s an emotion ripe for manipulation because when it rises within us we are raw and vulnerable and easily shaped by any potter who steps to the wheel. Donald Trump, a man eager to take the seat of the potter, eager to get his hands into our national clay, is a master manipulator of emotions. I felt myself being manipulated as I sat down in my living room to watch the Republican National Convention and listen to his daughter, Ivanka, introduce him.
As I listened to Trump’s beautiful, smart, eloquent daughter, I thought, maybe, I was wrong about this man. She spoke of her father’s company employing more women executives than men and supports family leave. Her father was a man who is color blind and gender neutral, she said, and I found myself wanting, or maybe just hoping to believe her— hoping to believe that this man who has garnered so much support, this man who many want to become THE man, the most POWERFUL man, was actually good and kind and fair. Was the report I read about how he violently raped the 13-year-old girl a lie? Was he not the distractible sociopath who will do anything for attention that his ghost writer wrote of—the sociopath this ghost writer fears will be the “end of civilization” if he has the nuclear code? Ivanka painted a picture of a loyal father, a wise mentor, a man who runs for President only because he wants to serve. Earlier in the convention, Rudy Giuliani spoke of Trump’s anonymous charity and good deeds for which he never wanted any credit. And then, Donald himself walks on stage, begins his speech humbly, gratefully, using the word “we.” But all of this—this picture of a kind, generous, self-sacrificing, good and fair man—faded for me as Trump began to shout.
He shouted that we will be a country of “law and order”, that the “attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” I heard these words and wondered how he could succeed while ignoring, blatantly disregarding, the cries of Black Lives Matter, the injustice of police brutality, the needs of the African American community. He shouted about his way of “Americanism” that would replace the current way of “Globalism” and I wondered how he could succeed while clearly choosing not to play well with others.
He was succeeding, though, by the use of an effective tool. Stoking the fear of white middle-class Americans, leading them rhetorically through his own version of the Hell House, motivated people to vote for him. His claim was bold. He was the strong man, the savior, the hero who can protect and make us safe.
Donald Trump reveals how easily a country’s emotions can be exploited by a man hell bent on getting his way. To witness so many fellow Americans sucked in, manipulated, and emotionally abused by such a narcissist, makes me afraid, very afraid.
So Trump has also tapped my fear, but not to his own benefit. I am determined to speak out and act out against him. Fear, in a sense, is motivating—a heated, pulsing emotion that moves us out of complacency. But I wish it weren’t so effective. Just as I wonder about the damaging effects of fear used to convert in religion, I wonder about the long-term use of fear as a motivating force. The heat of fear cannot be sustained. It eventually burns out, or we do. A better, healthier, less abusive tool for persuasion and motivation, then, would be an appeal to our best self, our sense of justice, our desire—and need—to live in peace, rather than fear.
Terry Tempest Williams hooked me recently in her plea to save our National Parks. I heard her speak at an independent Iowa City bookstore, where she began, yes, by tweaking my chord of fear. “In their platform” Williams began, “the GOP proposes getting rid of all public land. This means all our national parks, monuments, and historical markers.”
As she spoke, I recalled trips with my family to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Those trips were capstone experiences for me as a child, as the beauty of the landscape called to mind the grandeur of our country and our ideals. Even with the boom of our population and our dependency on the limited resource of oil, how could anyone consider doing away with this public, protected land? Williams made me feel the heat.
But, as she continued, she turned to a different, more poetic tool for persuasion. She described beautifully, eloquently, what our public land provides. She shared an experience she had driving through Yellowstone, coming to a bison jam in the road. She inched her car forward, her windows down, her radio set for classical music. The bison, to Williams’ surprise, did not move away from her car, but inched closer, and closer, tilting their heads to listen to Vivaldi. I smiled at the picture she painted, and felt the emotion beauty stirs within, as Williams reminded, “We are not the only species that lives and loves on this planet.”
Our national parks are our “breathing spaces” Williams surmised, where veterans go after coming home from war to heal, learn to trust again, and open their hearts to beauty. They are where children are taken to learn that the world and those who live in it are not to be feared, but respected and cared for and protected. Our national parks are places 300 million visitors appreciate every year, perhaps because they know they need an alternative source of motivation, an alternative to the fear that will eventually destroy us if we do not seek a more peaceful and sustainable way.
Williams appealed to my sense of possibility, tapped my appreciation for beauty, and wove a message that stirred in me a desire to save—not by the threat of hell—but by the promise of heaven on earth, for those of us willing to strive towards it.
[Feature Image by mell]