Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Anyone Want to Talk about Hatred?

Who here wants to talk about hatred? In a loving manner…?

Hate is not a topic ever covered directly in my classical seminary education as a clergywoman or as a theological scholar. There were glimpses of various sins, given by some mystics and some ethicists, but by and large, hatred itself was never considered a suitable topic for practical theological investigation. There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning. (Howard Thurman). For something that is so everpresent in our world today--considering the utter lack of civility on social media or in the news, politics--I realized I’ve never really thought deeply about the anatomy and power of hatred. And perhaps it would behoove us all to do so...gently...lovingly...but honestly too.

In a different stream of writing unrelated here, I wound up using the word hate to describe my own antipathy toward the phrase child of God. Wanting a rather sing-song kind of tone and cadence, I wrote: “I hate the phrase being a child of God. I hate it in worship. I hate it in Sunday School. I hate it in scripture; I don’t care if it’s a Psalm or from Paul or straight out of “Jesus’s mouth.” I hate it in public prayer. I hate the phrase being a child of God, Sam I am.” (a bit of Dr. Seuss smile here, lightening the mood). I have a whole seminary-professor rationale for this antipathy, of course, which my pastor-husband sadly knows all too well. ðŸ˜†But...

It’s patronizing. 

It’s enabling and disempowering. 

It centers the Patriarch and encourages childishness (refusal to grow, yearning for protection, etc.) , which is different than childlike-ness (wonder, curiosity, joy). 

But the gift in the piece for me was more an awakening to some energies of grief and sadness underneath the rationale. The anger or rage that was driving the rationale (which is not really germane here). I rarely use the word hate after all, but in this case, I had used it at least six times in one paragraph. When I asked a spirit-friend for feedback, she mirrored back what she saw and heard, which startled me into curiosity. 

Hate is a very real feeling in you that runs deep, she said. 

It stung of course, to be seen so, and yet I could not really deny it, especially in the matter of that phrase. The word hate had the energy I was feeling for such a rant, topic, observation.

So imagine my surprise when in an incidence of book providence--a book that finds you right when you have an itch that it can scratch--Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited landed in my heart, mind, soul. I’d read it a long time ago, for some purpose I’d been assigned to read it. But I did not receive it like I needed to receive it this time. I literally could not put it down. I highlighted. I took notes. I’ve sat with it for a couple weeks now. He breaks the Christian conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and meaning. I cannot imagine a more timely wrestling-topic for reconsidering citizenship today…


Thurman opens his overview with a blunt statement: “Hatred cannot be defined. It can only be described.” Over a couple pages, he begins to breakdown the anatomy of hatred into its constitutive elements:

“Hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness.” (65) Here he is quick to clarify that there is such a thing as false fellowship, a kind of shallow nicety shared between human beings imprisoned into categories of weak and strong, dominant and minority, white and black. “It’s easy to have fellowship on your own terms,” he says, “and to repudiate it if your terms are not acceptable. It is this kind of fellowship that one finds often in the South between whites and Negroes” (sic, remember, he’s writing in 1949).

Second, “contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic.” He continues with a remarkable point with impact beyond even my original desire to talk about hatred. Imagine you are an educator, reading these words: “It is a grievous blunder to assume that understanding is always sympathetic,” … [LIGHTBULB] He continues: “There is the kind of understanding that is hard, cold, minute, and deadly. It is the kind of understanding that one gives the enemy, or that is derived from an accurate knowledge of another’s power to injure. There is an understanding of another’s weakness, which may be used as a weapon of offense or defense. Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic. Of course, there may be pity in it--even compassion, sometimes--but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place.” (67) 

The larger context in which this will now sing for me is in my own teaching settings. A popular Christian refrain is that you can love someone if you simply understand where they’re coming from. We presume understanding will lead to love, but that’s a false assumption. Clearly. Moreover, I find this ordering completely backwards for Christian devotion, in my experience. You will only come to understand that which you have already begun to love. Love has its own ‘insufficient reason’ or ‘rationality.’ (Jean Luc Marion). Can I love first? Am I loved? are both elemental questions in a quest for assurance, not certainty. (see October posts). What you decide to love, you will come to understand with sympathy, compassion, wisdom.

Thurman’s point, however, is that hate can form in contacts without fellowship, which tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic. It is an understanding disconnected from any commitment or connection of relationship, belonging, interdependence. What happens to you happens to me. Disconnection from all that. Unsympathetic understanding.

Third, ill will is not far behind an unsympathetic understanding. That which you are not connected to, those whom you see as other than yourself or your own, can easily become objects of ill will, unconscious injury. All who are held in unsympathetic understanding become other, therefore vulnerable to human ill will. And when all this “is dramatized in a human being”, you see “hatred walking on the earth.” (67)

Thurman’s summary: “The outline is now complete and simple—contacts without fellowship developing hatred and expressing themselves in unsympathetic understanding; and unsympathetic understanding tending to express itself in the exercise of ill will; and ill will, dramatized in a man or woman, becoming hatred walking on the earth.” (68)


So let’s begin to flesh this out in terms that should seem familiar and even obvious by now. Contacts without fellowship. Is there any better description of social media today? The range of contacts we human beings can have with one another have increased exponentially (it seems), yet there are few ‘containers’ within which to experience these contacts with fellowship. The fellowship we do know with one another is implicit or within previous historical-geographical containers: family, schools, churches, jobs/work, etc. Yet the fellowship available overall in physical time-space has lessened. Even before the pandemic, but particularly in the pandemic too. Contacts without fellowship.

Unsympathetic understanding. This is not only visible within social media or news media outlets predisposed to the most salacious or violent kinds of portrayals, understandings. The divorce of reason from the humane, the technological from the scientific, the individual from the communal has crafted an understanding valued when it is most unsympathetic. When most objective. When least connected to the humanly subjective or anecdotal. Understanding today aims for unsympathy. And we wonder why we feel so cold, separate, lost to one another?

Unsympathetic understanding tending to express itself in the exercise of ill will. It has become second nature to see ill will everywhere today. Distrust of institutions. Distrust of leaders. Distrust of one another. The understandings we have lash out at those who do not share our experience, share our wound, share our outrage. We gather with those who agree with us, and portray as unsympathetic all those who differ from us.

At this point, Thurman’s description of hatred helped me to break the ingrained taboo against even considering the topic. I could begin to see hate everywhere. 


Thurman’s brilliant contribution for me, today, however, was beginning to see the positive underbelly of this phenomenon, even as it is ultimately destructive. He tracks hate in the violent dance of the strong and the weak. He pushes us further to inquire into the strength that hatred gives to the weak for self-realization, for survival. He mirrors one of the reasons that hatred can run so strong, appear so valiant, be so seductive in the violent, dangerous world in which we live, collectively. In his words:

“In many analyses of hatred it is customary to apply it only to the attitude of the strong toward the weak. … Such an assumption is quite ridiculous. Hatred,in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness--a bitterness that is made possible by the sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis of self-realization.” (69) Hatred makes (a) sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice. (italics mine)

The vitality he describes expresses itself in the quality of endurance. Hate gives an energy of survival that cannot be ignored or denied. 

Also, an illusion of righteousness can emerge, just over the cusp of the bitterness and resentment. For the disinherited (which it should be said is not ‘me’) to know the feelings and power of righteousness is no bad thing. Even if Thurman says it’s an illusion. To be unprotected and greatly at risk all the time in a particular society, yet know righteousness anyway can nourish, even protect.

The logic of the strong-weak relationships in society also places all moral judgment of behavior out of bounds. Behaviors that under normal circumstances would be questionable become perceivably necessary and defensible for self-realization, for survival. Thus hatred can become a device by which an individual seeks to protect himself against moral disintegration. He does to other human beings what he could not ordinarily do to them without losing his self-respect.

In all this, I’m not providing a rationale for hate in a civil society, an argument for why it should remain or not be redressed. But I am grateful for such a clear description of the purposes it can serve toward self-realization for those society has denied, maligned, neglected, abused, even killed. To bear up under systemic forces already slated against you, from the time you were an infant to the year you’ve been blessed to live to? 

I can empathize with those in the throes of hatred’s force. I can share in a fierce commitment to the self-realization of each and every one of us, all of us together. I can see, as Thurman names it, how “the oppressed can give themselves over with utter enthusiasm to life-affirming attitudes toward their fellow sufferers, and this becomes compensation for their life-negating attitude toward the strong.” (75) I can honor the exhausting both/and of it all, even as I am not one of the disinherited in Thurman's work.


None of which is to say that "hatred is a Good" in our society today. “Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater” Thurman teaches. “While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. It blinds the individual to all values of worth, even as they apply to himself and to his fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit.” (76)

Contacts without fellowship. Unsympathetic understanding. Ill will. Hate. We see the disintegration of humanity, its blindness to its own moral divisions. And we see the barrenness of creative thought in those enthralled to hate, only able to see the failings and voids of the hated.

Those who travel with me for any period of time know that I will eventually turn the topic around toward the archetype of the Circle, wherever She is welcome. ;) But circle does have two main practices that mirror our frailties and provide new directions to explore that will both allow our hatreds to be seen and to gently diffuse them in a love shared across violence. 

Story-councils, for one. Listen to a person’s story, held with reverence and care by a whole community of listeners, and fellowship simply happens. I won't try to argue the point with those who've not been in circle, or who won't enter into circle. It simply happens, every time willing human beings face one another, held in a co-created trust, allowing themselves to be seen in all frailties and fierceness. If you disagree, try a circle of trust or a series of circles that are well held by certified/trained facilitators. I dare you.

The second pathway is one from a particular community, Women Writing for (a) Change. We've learned over the years this powerful practice, but not without its Achilles heel: presume good will. Listen deeply to whomever is speaking. Note your own reactions, attractions, aversions. Get curious about your own aversions, especially the most energetic-charged ones. Do not assume you know others' feelings or reactions, even watching their bodylanguage. Then presume the speaker is doing her/his work, is speaking what needs to be said. Presume good will. The more we can learn to presume good will, the more good will there will be around us, in the world beyond us. We are co-creating our worlds more and more, after all. How may we meet ill will with compassionate goodwill? Again and again?  

The Achilles heel, of course, is that it’s easier for people in power to presume goodwill than it is for those with less power. Particularly over longer periods of time with more opportunity for systemic dynamics to play out with well-intentioned, but wounded-healing persons. Even with the best of intentions, the presumption of good will can be abused. It can serve as an excuse to refuse the experience of those we cannot see, for whatever reason (be it race, or legalities, or whatever). I've learned to look for this dynamic when I'm asked to presume goodwill by someone in greater power or authority than myself. Not to assume or presume anything, but to get curious about the power structure, enforced by what means, exercised legalities etc.


In the end, it will behoove us all to learn to see the entire anatomy of hatred in our public spaces today, noting the body language and the spoken/written expressions of contact without fellowship, unsympathetic understanding, and ill will...walking in human beings on the earth. The new energy for me here is honoring the positive role hatred may be playing in someone’s life, if that someone has faced literally unimaginable (by me) challenges and repeated slights, injustices, threats to their person, personhood. How can I honor that, especially if the hatred is directed toward me? How can I honor all s/he/they have had to endure...without losing my own boundaries, my own sense of self, my own self-realization path?

All of which I will only really come to know if she/he/they are willing to tell me their stories and I am willing to share mine. Whereby I can presume goodwill, and hope they will too. Whereby we may live in fellowship that is deepening, with an understanding that is birthed in love first. I am fine to not understand you, and I aim to practice loving first so to understand whatever it is I can be to know and be known.

Deep bow to Howard Thurman here, probably not for the last time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

ENACTING Beloved Community

This is a phrase that undergirds the work of C. Anthony Hunt (or here ) as well as a curricular goal of one of United Seminary’s Immersion...