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Faith’s Foe

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but the truth is that I did not expect that the desire to reform the system used to pay for medical services in this country would awaken the belligerence and the suspicion of a large number of American citizens. We are all mindful that this is the only industrialized country which does not grant access to medical services on an equal footing to all its citizens. We also know that in this country, relative to the gross national product, more money is spent on medical services than in any other country. Those who can pay have access to the best medicinal care, however, statistics of the outcomes obtained by all patients suffering different illnesses in different countries do not place the United States at the top. Unfortunately, it is far from it.

Recognizing this situation, most citizens agree that reforming the system is most reasonable. While in the past the medical associations, the hospital associations and the pharmaceutical companies opposed reform of the system that benefited them, this time around these three branches of the medical establishment have given their support to efforts toward reform.

The most powerful force in this complicated aspect of public wellbeing, however, has nothing to do with medicine. It controls the purse that pays for medical services. It consists of the insurance companies that collect the quotas and pay the doctors, the hospitals and the pharmacies. By their generous contributions to the presidential, congressional and senatorial electoral campaigns of both parties, a dozen insurance giants have created a system that benefits them handsomely. As a consequence, the cost of medical services is driving the country into bankruptcy, and the executives of these companies receive, in addition to their lucrative salaries, dozens of millions of dollars in annual bonuses.

This being the case, it is reasonable for the great majority of citizens to be in favor of reforming the system.

The insurance companies, their direct beneficiaries, and some hardened ideologues, however, have mounted a well financed campaign to prevent reforming the system. This campaign is based on a basic principle of human life: when things are presented in a certain way, fear generally trumps reason.

Based on this principle, those who oppose the reform of the system have disseminated untruths with the intention of awakening fear. We all know that sometime, maybe at the least propitious moment, we will need medical help. Few things can perturb us and make us fear the future more than knowing that if we find ourselves in need of medical services, they will be beyond our means or will bankrupt us. Using fear as an offensive weapon, insurance companies and their allies have succeeded in confusing the minds of many and in this way make the reform which most think most reasonable likely not to take place.

Of course, the economic circumstances in which the country finds itself are contributing significantly to the campaign against reform. The current depression is causing 10% unemployment. Some sectors, however, are suffering even 20 and 25% unemployment. Many businesses have closed their doors and those who are surviving the crisis are reorganizing on a leaner plan of action. This means that many people who have a job fear loosing their job in the near future. When to this atmosphere of uncertainty and fear is added the fear of loosing access to medical services, fear triumphs handedly over reason.

One of the little known truths that the gospels make clear is that the enemy of faith is not doubt. Actually, doubt is the bedfellow of faith. The true foe of faith is fear. It is generally thought that intellectual concerns, knowledge, science, are the enemies of faith, but these can only press faith to a higher plane. Only fear, a force that encompasses the whole being, can trump faith. Given that fear normally trumps reason, Christians must be on the alert to prevent fear from triumphing over faith. This truth is explicitly presented, especially, in the Gospel of Mark

Mark emphasizes the opposition of fear and faith. In both accounts of Jesus calming the storm we are told that fear has taken hold of the disciples. In the first of these stories Jesus asks his disciples in the boat: “Why are you afraid? Why don’t you have faith?” The evangelist then says that “a great fear had made them afraid,” and they were asking among themselves: “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey?” (4:40-41). Alert readers cannot miss that the sea beaten by the wind, the turbulent sea, is the primordial source of fear. It is the place of darkness and death. In this sea, instead of recognizing by faith who Jesus is, the disciples remain ignorant of his identity, constrained by fear.

The second story tells that Jesus approached the boat at midnight walking on the sea. The disciples have been struggling to survive in the midst of the storm. When they see Jesus approaching, thinking it is a phantom, they panic. This time Jesus explicitly identifies himself: “It is I.” Then, rather than saying to them: “Have faith,” he says “Do not fear” (6:50).

In several of the healings narrated in this gospel fear is mentioned. The gadarenes, who have come out of their city to find out what is going on with the devil-possessed and with their swine, find the fellow healed and “become afraid.” As a result, they tell Jesus to go away (5:15). By contrast, on his way to heal the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, a woman touches his garments and feels herself healed. When Jesus stops and identifies her, the woman “fearful and anxious” comes closer and tells him the truth. Jesus then says to her: “Thy faith has saved you” (5:33). Her transformation was from fear to faith. By then messengers arrive and announce that it is no longer necessary for Jesus to go to the ruler’s house because his daughter has died. Faced with the new situation, Jesus says to the ruler: “Do not fear. Only have faith” (5:36). The opposition is again explicit.

The Gospel of Mark is characterized by the negative way in which it describes the disciples. Once Jesus takes the road to Jerusalem, repeatedly he tells his disciples that he must fulfill his vocation. The evangelist then tells his readers that the disciples “did not understand” what he told them and “were afraid” to ask (9:32). Intellectual confusion and fear go together.

My favorite verbal picture in Mark says: “They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking alone ahead, and those who followed were amazed and full of fear” (10:32). These few words foreshadow the lack of faith that would make all the disciples abandon Jesus at the critical moment in Jerusalem.

Finally the coup de grace. In the earliest manuscripts this gospel ends abruptly in chapter 16 verse 8. The previous verses tell that several women went to the tomb on Sunday morning early to anoint the dead body with aromatic spices. Instead of the body they find there “a young man dressed with a white tunic,” and they became afraid. The stranger charges them to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has been raised and that he will meet with them in Galilee, as he had already told them. The evangelist then closes his book stating: “and the women exited fleeing the tomb because fear and anxiety had taken hold of them, and they told no one a thing because they were afraid.”

It would appear that with this final touch the evangelist is telling us that among the first disciples fear triumphed over faith. This cannot be because, after all, he wrote this gospel to proclaim his faith. As many have done since, the evangelist seems to have made his the words of the father of the deaf-mute Jesus and his disciples encountered on their descent from the Mount of Transfiguration. To this father Jesus said: “If it is possible for you to have faith, all things are possible to he/she who has faith.” The father then exclaimed: “I do have faith. Help my lack of faith” (9:24).

This gospel proclaims that faith with all its deficiencies (its lack of faith) triumphs over fear and anxiety. The Christ who walks on the sea makes the wind and the sea to be still. The Christian of faith also triumphs over fear and death. It is a great tragedy that in our natural lives fear generally triumphs over reason. Lack of understanding and fear travel together, and the faith that triumphs over fear does not always calm all intellectual restlessness. But faith is what makes it possible to face up to the cost of discipleship. Fear is what makes us unwilling to pay for the consequences of discipleship.

It must be remembered that Mark is the most apocalyptic of the four gospels. Therefore, the way in which faith triumphs over fear is to be understood within this framework. Apocalypticism is the tool for the defense of the righteousness of God in an unjust world. Even though at times fear is used by preachers in their efforts to make converts, worldly fear is not the right motive. Apocalypticism proclaims the triumph of God’s justice over the unjust world, but what triumphs over the world is not fear. “This is what is victorious over the world, your faith.” As a theology of justice, apocalypticism is based on the Old Testament and preaches fear of the Lord. In this theological tradition, however, “fear” designates respect and obedience, wonder before the Almighty and All Holy. The fear that paralyzes faith and does not let it work is quite something else. As the apostle Paul well said, faith works by the love that gives it validity as the obedience of faith. According to the gospel, love drives away fear. Fear, as the virtue of this world, regularly triumphs over reason. Faith is the spiritual virtue that triumphs over fear.

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