As a father, I always felt terrible when I frightened my children. I was not much more than a child myself when I had my first son, and sometimes I acted like it. He and I both had temper tantrums. I had been raised with spankings, so I passed them along now and then. Over the years I mellowed, and by the time I had my last son, twenty-five years after the first, I was a shadow of my old terrifying self. My youngest son even shamed me into dropping spankings. They weren’t much more than occasional irritated swats by then, but he wouldn’t put up with them. It’s wrong to hit people, he told me, with withering moral clarity, at age four. That was the last one.
None of the moments of which I am proud as a father involved making my children fear me. So I was shocked to see a brass plaque set in the large patio of a church in my neighborhood that contained, in bold letters, the following inscription: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Really? In my experience, the only thing people who are taught to fear learn is to be afraid. Well, that’s the first thing they learn. After not too long, they learn other things as well. They learn to lie. They learn to hide from the one they fear. They learn to hate. Of course, hating your earthly father is (usually) less risky than hating your heavenly father, the one you have been taught will meet you at the pearly gates with a thumbs up or down for eternity.
If you fear someone you can’t afford to hate, you look around for some other target, someone else to blame for the dreadful conflict you feel inside. Non-believers are obvious candidates for this transference. Gays. Abortionists. Catholics. Jews. Muslims. Take your pick. Anyone who isn’t afraid of the same god you are, anyone who isn’t suffering for his faith as reverently as you.
I haven’t been religious for a long time, but I was an altar boy and my great grandfather was an Episcopal minister, so I thought I had a grip on what religion, at least protestant and protestant-like religions in America, were all about. Love your neighbor. Turn the other cheek. The Golden Rule. That sort of thing. I knew about the wrathful god of the Old Testament (even thought he was kind of cool in a Terminator sort of way, with all that smiting of firstborn and parting of waters), but I understood he had been put on the shelf as vain and somewhat unstable, like the gods of pagans. I thought he had been replaced by the kinder, gentler message of the man my great grandfather believed was god’s son.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to see that I was wrong. There is still a lot of religious anger out there. And it’s not confined to fanatics who strap on suicide vests and blow themselves to kingdom come. You can see it in the contorted faces of a crowd of Evangelical Christians confronting abortionists or gays. You can feel it in the Catholic Bishops’ bitter condemnation of their own progressive nuns.
All this anger isn’t doing a thing for our relationships with one another. Anger is corrosive enough to eat away even the strong love of a child for a parent. Imagine how quickly it can dispense with regard for someone you don’t even know, someone for whom your hatred has little cost to you. Hating should be hard. It should be painful.
I don’t know what is being preached in churches, temples and mosques today, but I hope it isn’t fear. If I could go to my neighborhood church and dig up that plaque, I would replace it with one that offers not a prescription for wisdom but a warning: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of intolerance.