It was 1967 when the Youngblood’s version of Chet Powers’ song “Get Together” was first on the radio. It became a hit in 1969. The chorus is familiar, “Come on people, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” But it was the opening line of the song that caught my attention in 1967 and again today, “Love is but a song we sing, fear’s the way we die.”
“Love is but a song we sing, fear’s the way we die.” The coronavirus pandemic has laid the tension between love and fear at our doorsteps. All of a sudden, we find ourselves living in a time of a widespread, life-threatening disease, a disease that has disrupted every part of our lives. People are afraid. In a time of pandemic, how do we balance love and fear? It is an ancient question, a question central to the teaching of Jesus.
The phrase “fear not” is one of the most common phrases in the Bible. I’ve read that some form of that phrase appears more than 300 times. In the Christian tradition, the warning not to be afraid is there at the beginning when the angel announcing Jesus’ birth says, “Do not be afraid.“ It’s there near the end, when the women find an empty tomb and an angel says, “Do not be afraid.“ Yet, “Do not be afraid” is one lesson or command many of us fail to obey. Fear is a part of most lives. Is fear a sign of faithlessness? Or is the repetition of the commandment 300-plus times an acknowledgment that fear is a reality in life, a reality we need to learn to live with?
The coronavirus is something we should be afraid of, something we need to take seriously. Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid,” do not ask us to deny things that make us afraid. In a time of pandemic, we are not asked to deny the real fear this virus creates but to recognize it and to live in a way that deals wisely with the fear the pandemic creates.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this. He had much to fear, yet he never let it have the last word and be greater than love. In a sermon, he said, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.”
The fear Jesus spoke of was, I believe, what Dr. King called “abnormal fear,” fear that paralyzes and shuts us down. Abnormal fear is, in the words of the song, “the way we die.” It destroys community and “constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”
In this pandemic spring, Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid,” remind us to be aware of the destructiveness of abnormal fear and to be honest about normal fears; they are real and not a sign of faithlessness. In March 2020, we need to be cautious, smart and hold love and fear together. And, in the familiar words of the Youngbloods song, smile on our brothers and sisters and love one another right now.