“Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”
– Grand Moff Tarkin, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977
“He’s on His way, man! Are you ready?” – Hippie Christian, 1974
My mainline Protestant childhood theology was never fear-based. Mostly it was that God is love, we are created to bring glory to God, Jesus is the good shepherd, etc.
Many of my friends and family, on the other hand, were raised in Baptist or Bible churches, where they heard regularly that all people were sinners who were bound to burn in hell. This message loomed – still looms, even if they no longer believe it – above them like a boulder ready to squash them.
For a while during my Junior High years, when we attended a non-denominational charismatic church in South Texas because my mother became disaffected with the Presbyterian church / was “finding herself” during the Consciousness Revolution of the 70’s, I was infected with a slight but nagging case of fear-based faith.
The pastor used words like “victory” and “enemy” and “king” and “power” and “might” and “Satan” and “army,” and taught lessons on the End of the World, when the Great King would come and re-order all of “fallen” creation. I was terrified – and enthralled. I was also in Junior High, when the world is scary enough, and my mother was in her second marriage and it was going badly, and she was struggling with her mental illness and that was hard; having something concrete and strong to hold onto in the middle of what felt like a series of tornados was very comforting. I liked the good shepherd Jesus, but I really liked the victorious king Jesus who could a. defeat my enemies and b. raise me up to the clouds.
I remember this guy and his wife; they’re in their mid-twenties, and they’re grinning blissfully at me one Sunday or Thursday evening after the marathon-length worship services, and the guy says, tossing his long hair a little to the side, “He’s on His way, man! Are you ready?” and they laugh and nod with joy, including me in the happiness of knowing we are going to be rescued, snatched up out of this shitshow at any minute by the powerful king. I smiled with them, sharing in their blessed assurance.
But I also remember wondering – worrying – panicking – Wait, AM I ready?
It lasted for years after we left that church/cult: the fear that at any moment, cosmic trumpets would sound, the sky above Corpus Christi would open, but I would be picking my nose or thinking about girls or feeling angry or just not being prayerful enough, and I wouldn’t be ready, and I would not go up into the sky to meet The Lord in a twinkling of an eye. I would be left here on the earth for years or millennia or whatever, rejected, burning alive, thrown into a pit, etc.
So: If I want to get people to do what I want, I can simply construct messages that terrify them, and then give them a solution – a solution which I have the power to dispense. And that way, I am the savior. Actually, the terrifying message doesn’t need to be original; people are already afraid, so, I just need to find the right button to push.
I can build movements, win elections, create religions.