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Peter Stockland: Living our faith in a world of fear

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  • June 27, 2020

Deep into ESPN’s irresistible documentary The Last Dance, rumination turns to the specific qualities that catalyzed Michael Jordan’s leadership of six NBA championship teams between 1991 and 1998.

Theories are advanced. Jordan’s inexhaustible physical prowess. His ravenous need to win, whether a sixth NBA crown or a penny-pitching contest against lower-order support staff for his Chicago Bulls. His preternatural gift for total focus on exactly what he was doing in any given second. But the best answer, it seems to me, comes from Jordan himself in the form of a query.

“Why,” he asks in a somewhat puzzled voice, “would I fear failing by missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?”

We cannot say with any certainty whether the prodding logic behind his rhetorical question is the sine qua non for Jordan being rivalled probably only by Muhammad Ali as the most dominant athlete of the 20th century. With the first quarter of the 21st century coming to a panic-stricken close, Jordan’s words provide an essential secular complement, a clarifying wide-world-of-sports footnote, to the Gospel message St. John Paul II carried through the world: “Be not afraid.”

We are mired in the midst of a moment, after all, when even democratic governments used the techniques of what former Czech Republic president Václav Havel called “soft totalitarianism” to compel obedience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reasonable people can agree it was a justifiable compulsion to achieve what were, at least initially, worthy public health policy ends.

But let’s not be shy. The primary tool used for human herd management since COVID-19 broke upon the world has been fear. Fear of being infected. Fear of spreading infection. Fear that our neighbours did not sufficiently care about being or spreading infection. Fear of the impossibility of rescue (i.e., creation of a vaccine). Fear that even if rescue arrived, life as we’ve known it would be a perpetual wreck and shambles. Fear that an inexorable “second wave” of pandemic would hit the instant the first wave began to recede.

The effect was evident in a street-view example a few days ago when I saw a man wearing an anti-COVID mask while he was driving alone in a car on an early morning jaunt through my neighbourhood. It is entirely fair to infer such behaviour is fear obliterating prudence. When I mentioned it to a friend, she said she sees the same thing so often her kids have told her to stop mentioning it. We are all and everywhere contaminated — not by the virus but by vertiginous dread.

We as Church, alas, fell far short of offering the restorative that the moment required. Too many of us descended, far too quickly, into bickering, both with secular authorities and amongst ourselves, over whether the closure of physical churches was justified. Our job was not jawboning over justice. Our call was to charity. It was to bring the light of hope to the world in the message that we need not fear what we do not yet know. What we can never know is the day or the hour. Our reminder for the world should have been — must now be — the contradiction of fear that is faith.

Faith is ultimately the conjunction between St. John Paul II’s Gospel imperative to “Be not afraid” and Michael Jordan’s wonderment over why on Earth he would fear missing a shot he hadn’t yet taken. Neither is absolution for recklessness. Both set obligations — one spiritual, one physical — for preparation.

Michael Jordan certainly didn’t win six championships in eight years by simply flinging the basketball in a random direction and praying to the NBA gods it would go in. Karol Wojtyla obviously didn’t stare down both demonic hard totalitarianisms of the previous century with best of luck and good wishes. Yet both lived to their fullest the faith that gifts given and honed make fear unfathomable, and therefore mandate taking the shot.

As Christians our faith rests in the even greater promise that Christ has won all of humanity the victory before the last dance begins.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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