If you’ve followed me for anytime at all, you know that I believe that fear is the antithesis of the Gospel. We are called over and over again to Be Not Afraid throughout the Old and New Testatments. But of course, sometimes the fear gets us.
I imagine most of you have heard about the killing of Jordan Neely on the NYC subway, and the subsequent arrest of former marine Daniel Penny who ended Neely’s life with a chokehold. I NEVER want anyone’s life to be ended–especially in violence. I often find myself outraged at justice delayed or denied in such situations, but this one left me conflicted.
I live in New York. I have been on the subway more than once when someone was acting erratically, and I have been scared. And I am not easily scared–particularly by people who suffer from mental illness. My father has had a private counseling practice most of my life, and when I was in elementary school, my mother was the director of our county mental health association. I practiced my times tables in an office where mentally ill and borderline homeless people wandered in and out all day long. But I have been scared on the NYC subway system.
I was at a conference full of people in ministry when the news came down that Penny would be arrested for killing Neely, and I found myself conflicted. (I know! It was weird for me, too.)
I was sharing my conflicted feelings and how disturbed I was by them with some colleagues at the breakfast table and said, “I can’t help but think about some of the situations I’ve been in. If I had the size and strength, and knew how to execute a choke hold and subdue someone who was scaring me and other people, might I find myself in the same situation?”
“Just don’t ever learn how to do a choke hold, and you won’t ever be in that situation,” was the reply of the music minister sitting next to me.
That statement has lived in my head rent free for awhile now. The truth is that as uncomfortable and even scared as I have been on the subway, I have never come to any harm. And while there are voices out there claiming the city is a cesspool of crime, rumors of NYC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
My fear of ranting and erratic subway riders is not rooted in reality. Do they make me uncomfortable? Yes. Unsafe? Probably not.
And my colleague is right–if I don’t have deadly force available to me in the form of my size, my skill or a weapon, I will never find myself in the position of ending the life of another simply because I let the fear get to me. So I am not going to learn how to execute a chokehold. I am not going to purchase a gun or a knife (though pepper spray might be an option).
I pray for Jordan Neely’s family and all who loved him.
I pray for Daniel Penny and for those who must determine what justice looks like in this case.
I pray that NYC will do better by the homeless and mentally ill population of our city.
I pray that, one day, the value we place on human life will not be determined by employment status, place of residence, race, gender or health status.
I pray that compassion will win out over fear when we (I) encounter people who make us uncomfortable.
Be not afraid, friends. We were not created to live (and certainly cannot thrive) in such a state.
Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.