Confronting an Age of Fear

By M. Jan Holton

On the night of his arrest, Jesus gathered three of his disciples and asked them to stay vigilant and remain on watch as he prayed. Here, according to Matthew’s account, Jesus struggled with the reality of what awaited him. In a powerful gesture, he brought others to bear witness to his fear and vulnerabilities.

Yet, as crisis loomed, not once but three times the disciples fell asleep! This reaction reveals a terribly disappointing and utterly human response to fear and anxiety. Jesus, on the other hand, offers a liberating model of courage by standing fully in the face of his own death.

Many commentaries on nuclear terrorism seem to imply that the public generally responds to the potential for attack with a pattern of apathy similar, perhaps, to that of the disciples. The underlying message from these political, scientific, and academic experts suggests that fear should spur us into action. Embedded more deeply is the subtle hint that even panic would be a more appropriate response than doing nothing.

I must admit, while many global issues are of concern to me, nuclear catastrophe isn’t usually at the top of the list. I am more likely to be mindful of the nasty environmental problem of nuclear waste than how nuclear materials could be used in bombs. I further admit I am suspicious of dire warnings that do not also consider the degree of probability that such attacks will occur. Experts, nevertheless, make it clear that all of us should be very worried about terrorist attacks utilizing nuclear materials that would lead to great loss of life and property.

If this is true, maybe it’s a good question: why are we not more concerned? And, given the moral magnitude of our country’s responsibility as contributors to nuclear proliferation, how are we to engage this issue in the Christian community? To answer these questions, it may prove helpful first to look briefly at some of the fears we face and how we manage them.

Over the past decades, we have moved from threats of the old Cold War to those of the New Nuclear Age. No longer is total annihilation by the Soviet Union seen as our greatest nightmare. That’s the good news. In its place, we now face unknown terrorists who could potentially steal nuclear materials and use them against the American population. That’s the bad news. Dr. Henry Kelly, President of the American Federation of Scientists, paints a picture of what such an attack might look like:

Now imagine if a single piece of radioactive cobalt from a food irradiation plant was dispersed by an explosion at the lower tip of Manhattan. … No immediate evacuation would be necessary, but in this case, an area of approximately one-thousand square kilometers, extending over three states, would be contaminated. Over an area of about three hundred typical city blocks, there would be a one-in-ten risk of death from cancer for residents living in the contaminated area for forty years. The entire borough of Manhattan would be so contaminated that anyone living there would have a one-in-a-hundred chance of dying from cancer caused by the residual radiation. It would be decades before the city was inhabitable again, and demolition might be necessary.1

Death from this attack would be slow and insidious, not at all the flaming vision of terror we witnessed on September 11. We can imagine the deserted streets of Manhattan only because of the cinematic effects of numerous doomsday thrillers and their depictions of our favorite urban island, abandoned, after a nuclear attack. In trying to understand the threat, we are caught between reference points of genuine horror and make-believe, either of which is overwhelmingly terrifying.

Daily Bombardment

So, why are we not more actively concerned about the nuclear threats we face today? Americans are bombarded with reminders of how our existence is threatened. For many, worrying about anything outside of surviving this day or month is a luxury. Parents wake up wondering if their child will make it home through the gang-infested neighborhood without getting shot or how to get a sick child to the clinic when the only parent must work a double shift. Thousands of the newly unemployed toss and turn, wondering how they will pay the mortgage, put food on the table, or keep health insurance. When we try to escape into an evening of television, we are alerted to the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death and we should know the signs of stroke – it could save our lives. Hospital X has the cutting edge technology to increase survival rates for cancer patients and, oh, by the way, cancer is the second leading cause of death. Sudden deaths of loved ones and our own near-misses allow the tenuous nature of life to break through in startling ways.

Why are we not more actively concerned about the nuclear threats we face today?

And, of course, no one has forgotten 9/11. Could a terrorist attack really be around any corner? Since September 11, we have been barraged with security alerts and dire warnings from the Department of Homeland Security. Those who fly must endure threat-level-warning announcements playing overhead on a continuous loop as they move through the airport.

I have often heard the statement that the world is not the same place – 9/11 changed everything. In some sense this is true. But, in another sense, we are living with many of the same fears introduced by the Cold War and the onset of the “first” nuclear age. Robert Lifton and Richard Falk identify the concept of a “double life” in their analysis of an early study on the psychological effects of the nuclear air-raid drills during the 1950s.2 They write this about the individuals in the study:

[They] knew that everything … could be extinguished in a moment. Yet they and everyone else seemed to go about business as usual. To some extent they felt they had to; how else could they get through the day, pursue their lives, do what they had to do? But some sensed it was at a price … that had to do with the expansion of numbing to other areas of life, with gaps between what one knew and what one felt and did. … We all live a double life.3

A similar sense of double life continues today as we confront terrorism in our midst. This sense exists not because people are ignorant but because we cannot sustain the everyday tasks of our lives while constantly living on the edge of fear.

Theologians have long wrestled with the notion that humans live in a perpetual state of anxiety over the vulnerability that emerges from the knowledge of our own demise. According to Paul Tillich, the fact that we will die and cannot prevent this creates existential anxiety of such magnitude that humans cannot stand in its full presence for more than a moment.4 Americans, and I think many in the West, fend off this anxiety in a number of ways. In spite of certain underlying biological causes, I am convinced that on a spiritual level, the widespread substance and behavioral addictions in our culture point to the attempt to numb fears we can’t quite name. Others of us attempt to bolster the illusion that we have control over our lives by buying more stuff, building bigger houses, and driving faster cars. The trappings of this strategy have now come crashing down around us, and we feel more vulnerable than ever. Our energies are absorbed in fending off everyday worries, terrorism alerts, and nameless fears just so we can maintain our day-to-day lives. It is not surprising that we might appear apathetic about nuclear threats.

Between Apathy and Sheer Terror

The truth is, even without the threat of terrorism, if we actually had to stand in the full reality of how vulnerable we really are as human creatures, it would very likely paralyze us. We simply would not make it past the front door. It is necessary to have at least some level of psychic defense that holds back the full force of this vulnerability in order to function. Beyond this, we usually live somewhere between two extreme reactions to the everyday threats that surround us. On the one end is the state of psychological and spiritual slumber similar to that of the disciples. Some people, perhaps all of us to some degree, shut down their fear response when it becomes overloaded. Others move toward the opposite extreme and live in a state of panic, outwardly fearful of everything. Again, most of us will obviously move in between these two extremes. If frightened enough, however, we can all be pushed to the point of shutting down or sheer panic. The more threatened we feel, the more limited our coping strategies may become, and the greater the possibility our productive functioning will shut down. This is one reason that we may not be spurred to productive action by warnings of catastrophic nuclear disaster. Fear is not an effective incentive for sustained action in support of policy change or safeguards against nuclear attacks. Politicians would do well to realize this.

Eyes Wide Open

There is, however, another option for how to confront our fears. At Gethsemane, Jesus showed the disciples how to feel fear and vulnerability without giving in to apathy or panic. As a Christian community, we are urged to move through the world with our eyes wide open. Only then can we set out to change ourselves and the world. Many in the community of faith work hard not to look the other way when we pass someone who is hungry, lost, or in pain because we understand that there is a moral responsibility to tend to those in need.

But it is much more difficult for us to grasp that we have the same responsibility to pay attention when our family, neighbors, and this earth, which has been entrusted to us, are at risk from any variation of nuclear attack. How do we begin to see the dangers in this world with open eyes? Tillich suggests that it takes a particular kind of courage, a courage grounded in God that moves us beyond apathy and sustains us with a strength that resists panic.5 This courage does not make us fearless; rather, it gives us strength to acknowledge and stand in the face of our vulnerabilities.

If the scene at Gethsemane can offer us any pointers about how to face crisis, I think it includes three fundamental aspects. The most important among these is community – understanding how we are connected to others. Jesus intentionally calls out three of the disciples to accompany him through this time of personal crisis. Now, there are many interpretations as to why the disciples are present at Gethsemane. I believe, though, we need to pay attention to the possibility that Jesus wanted, even needed, human companionship. Could he have been pointing to the fact that in our humanity we are fundamentally connected to each other?

Even non-theologians recognized this as a neces- sary step toward change in the post-Cold War era. Lifton uses the helpful though altogether unappealing term species mentality to describe a way of thinking that recognizes our human connectedness not only to each other but to future generations.6 I must note here that while we gain strength as Christians through the faith we hold dear and true, creating change of this magnitude requires the help of those from all religious orientations and even those with none. We are not only a Christian family but a human one.

Secondly, we must maintain a state of prayerful attentiveness. We cannot find the spiritual underpinnings that ground us in a lasting sense of courage without this fundamental spiritual practice. Jesus models this on the night of his arrest and, indeed, throughout his ministry. Prayer opens us to seeing the daily needs and risks around us that we may prefer not to see. In this time of terrorism, prayer can deepen our ability to find alternative responses to shrinking away from the fear or giving in to panic.

Finally, as threat approached on that night, Jesus asked his disciples to enter a time of vigilant watchfulness. I suggest that this is not a passive but rather a bold state of attentiveness that leads to action. It is hard to know what this will look like for individuals and their community of faith in regard to nuclear terrorism or solving the problem of nuclear disarmament. But it must include an informed understanding of the issues. We can begin by pursuing alternative news sources that dig at the truth behind our current state of nuclear security and provide information about global conversations around nuclear disarmament. This will help us become alert both to exaggerated threats that are intended to bolster support for political or personal agendas and to subtle indications of government or private irresponsibility. Navigating the political, scientific, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the nuclear challenges we face requires that we intentionally take on the task of grasping the issues and what we can do about them.

Only when we see our world more clearly through eyes that embrace our human connectedness, prayerful attentiveness, and vigilant watchfulness can we effectively advocate for change. Though all change comes in small steps, we start by naming the grand vision toward which we work. In the case of nuclear weapons, this should be full global disarmament. We may need to humble ourselves and acknowledge our own national complicity in creating and using weapons that have no purpose other than catastrophic loss of human life. On some level, this may also mean acknowledging our personal complicity through silence as a first step toward action. Advocacy will then compel us to evaluate our gifts and resources and to use them generously even when it comes at a cost.

On the one hand, a world without nuclear weapons seems impossible. Isn’t it a bit like trying to put the genie back in the bottle? I am tempted to wonder if only academics and diplomats have an inclination to speak of such grandiose ideas as if they were real possibilities. But if leading a Christian life means believing that all things are possible and living into the moment when we will see it revealed before us, then we are uniquely prepared for the task.

M. Jan Holton is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at YDS. Her research includes the role of faith in post-conflict communities, refugee trauma, displacement, death and dying, and addiction. Most recently she conducted research, supported by a grant from the Lilly Foundation, in the remote town of Bor in Southern Sudan for her upcoming book Strangers in a Land Called Home: Faith and Survival in Southern Sudan.


  1. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Testimony of Dr. Henry Kelly, President, Federation of American Scientists, March 6, 2002.

  2. Robert J. Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons, the Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1982). Page 52. The study examined by the authors is titled “Psychological Fallout,” by Michael J. Carey, and can be found in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 38 (January 1982): 20-24.

  3. Ibid., 52.

  4. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale

    University Press, 1952).

  5. Ibid.

  6. Robert J. Lifton, “From Genocidal Mentality to
    a Species Mentality,” in Psychology and Social Responsibility: Facing Global Challenges, ed. Sylvia Staub and Paula Green (New York: New York University Press, 1992).