It may well be the lead story on tonight’s newscast: A car bomb on a busy street. A suicide bomber in a Middle Eastern restaurant. An exploding package in a thronged marketplace. Machine guns fired into a crowd. Though we may be far from where it happens, each time we hear it, something within us tightens, like a wrench applied to a bolt.
The perpetrators are inscrutable, unknown; their attacks, unexpected. The psalmist might have been describing them when he spoke of “terror by night,”1 for it is the strategy of these people that we can’t anticipate their violence or see where it comes from. For that reason, it frightens us long after it is over, even when an attack is unlikely.
That is, of course, why it’s called terrorism.
An ancient problem
Terrorism is nothing new. In biblical times, tribal warriors would raid peaceful herders’ encampments, killing men and taking women and children captive. The first organized terrorist cells were documented at the time of Jesus, when a sect of devout Jews, called Zealots, rebelled against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They rejected open confrontation in favor of covert tactics: garroting a Roman official on a dark street or slipping a blade between his ribs in the press of a crowd. Like terrorists today, these few made an impression on the Roman Empire far greater than their numbers.
Interestingly, Jesus had a Zealot numbered among His disciples.2 Though we know little about Simon the Zealot (not to be confused with Simon Peter), some of Jesus’ teachings sound as if they were for Simon’s benefit. A terrorist would likely have approved the maxim “ ‘ “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” ’ ”3 Jesus countered with, “ ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ ”4 Roman law allowed a soldier to conscript a passerby to shoulder his armor and pack for one mile. Imagine how that would anger a Zealot! Jesus might have been addressing Simon when He said, “ ‘If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’ ”5
Under Jesus’ guidance, Simon conquered his anger. Not all Zealots did. In A.D. 73, a remnant of nine hundred secured themselves at Masada, a nearly impregnable mountaintop fortress near the Dead Sea; so angry were the Romans with these terrorists that soldiers spent months constructing a massive earthen ramp to the fortress. But when they finally reached the top of Masada, they found that all nine hundred Zealots, men, women, and children, had committed mass suicide—making them, in a sense, the first suicide terrorists.
Though nothing of the magnitude of the World Trade Center attack has happened again, our fear of terrorism hasn’t gone away. In truth, the actual statistical threat to people like us (even if more terrorist attacks were successful) is small beside the danger of, say, death from an auto accident or heart disease. Yet there need be no actual danger for us to feel afraid; imagining ourselves in danger is enough to rob us of peace of mind.
Some try to address their fear by taking matters into their own hands. One troubling response to the attacks on America in 2001 was a surge in gun purchases—though there was nothing in the entire 9/11 episode that could have been addressed by an average person having a gun in his house. But people didn’t buy guns because they really thought a terrorist would knock on their door one evening during dinner. They bought them to feel more secure. Having a means of defense (whether or not they would ever use it) gave people a false sense of security. Some experts opined that gun buyers may actually have become less secure: Given the prevalence of gun-related accidents, it’s likely that the arming of the American public against terrorism, though it nabbed not a single terrorist, led to more ordinary people being shot.
How to attack fear
The Bible suggests three ways to conquer fear.
First, trust God to care for you. The faithful of Scripture repeatedly testify to God’s protection. King David, often in danger from enemies, declared, “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence.”6
I wonder how often God has saved me from threats to my life, health, and happiness that I didn’t even know about? It is no exaggeration to say that if you are reading this right now, you can be sure God has constantly protected you and kept you in His care! Why not take comfort in His protection 99.999% of our lives, rather than worry about the minuscule chance of being a terrorists’ victim? God doesn’t want us to live fearful lives! Paul insists, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”7
Second, Jesus encouraged us to seek inner peace—no matter what is happening around us. Not peace we must purchase and then manage by our own judgment, strength, and reflexes (as with a firearm), but peace that comes from knowing God is with us. Jesus Himself lived with the knowledge that He was going to die a violent death; yet He trusted His life to His Father’s care. “ ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ ” He said. “ ‘You believe in God, believe also in Me.’ ” “ ‘For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’ ”8 Terrorism weighs heavy on our minds; but Jesus offers a light burden! Clearly, Jesus is not as worried about terrorism (or, for that matter, war or cancer or the stock market) as we are! He knows that by the mercy of His Father, all things will ultimately redound to the good of those who love Him.9
Surprisingly, the best antidote to terror may not be self-defense, but a kind, open, and sympathetic heart. The apostle John, who himself suffered much at the hands of cruel men, wrote, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.”10 How much less torment might we suffer if we’d try, as Jesus said, to love our enemy?11 There is no natural end to a cycle of revenge; but might not our enemy, met with love and understanding rather than hate, be less likely to continue his destruction?
Finally, fix your mind on the life beyond this life. Jesus never ruled out the possibility of our facing genuine danger down here. “ ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ ”12 He said. His own shortened life demonstrated that on this earth, even the very best people are not safe. But eternal salvation is more important than present safety: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”13
Jesus is, at this very moment, preparing a safe place for us.14 “Fear not, little flock,” comforted Jesus, “for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”15 Earthly kingdoms will always be troubled. The kingdom God is preparing for us will never be troubled! The most compelling reason to set aside our fear is that beyond this life is a world utterly without terrorism—or any reason for it.
Loren Seibold writes from Worthington, Ohio.