It’s funny how we never feel unjustified in our hatred–whether it be a collective hatred for some segment of society, or the personal hatred we feel from someone who’s “done us wrong”. What is most fascinating about this emotion is how it creates, within us, an aversion to any sort of self-evaluation. Other emotions, like sadness and depression, draw us towards deep self-reflection, but hatred seems to emanate an attitude of don’t talk to me.
As a survival mechanism, hatred blinds us to empathy, thereby enabling us to attack, fight, and destroy those who threaten us. From a Darwinian point of view, the ability to hate may have been an advantage, but from a spiritual point of view, can anything be gained by it? Does our propensity towards hatred have any value?
I believe the answer to these questions is yes, but yes only when we muster the discipline to overcome it–and discipline is what it will take because overcoming hatred requires us to admit our fears, recognize our own inadequacies, recognize the value of those we hate, re-think our own sense of identity, and change our understanding of society and our place in it. But why would anyone want to do this? Well–because Jesus told us to. In Mathew 5:44, Jesus says You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
When we take this advice of Christ’s as a command and attempt to follow it out of obedience, we will never taste the full fruit of what His words have to offer. However, when we simply trust that Jesus knows what He is talking about, and in our yearning for spiritual maturity, put our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength into the cause, then we will find the fruit we desire (and not the genetically engineered stuff, but the good stuff, ripe, sweet, juicy, and fresh from the vine.)
Step one, in working through hatred, is understanding it–understanding that it is a passionate response, not a reasoned response, and since passion is bound to our strongest and deepest desires, we can see that hatred arises out of a threat to those desires. But what do we desire most? Acceptance, appreciation, and stability–the three things we lost when Adam and Eve left God’s presence.
In order to understand what it means to feel accepted, appreciated, and have stability, it helps to understand how we construct our identity. Kathryn Schultz, in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, shares how we each construct beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, through vast extrapolations from comparatively small amounts of factual information collected over the course of our life (e.g. who’s actually read the Obama Care act, the full text of the latest supreme court decisions, or the plethora of climate study reports? Yet we have our firm opinions don’t we?). Further, Kathryn uncovers our inclination to reject ideas or information that contradict notions that we have already constructed for ourselves. Within the New Testament, this propensity is evident within the response many had to both Christ and, later, the apostles. The Jews of the day had constructed a notion of religion that was heavy on law and tradition, but deficient in compassion and mercy. Through affectionate love, reason, and miracles, Jesus and his disciples shared a different message–a message that few, at the time, would accept. Within the Christian community today, the same problem exists. Most of us will not openly consider the value of the traditions or theological arguments of another denomination, even while being dumbfounded as to why the other doesn’t see the obvious supremacy of our own. Of course, the same principal holds for other components of our belief system: political, environmental, & societal.
When asked to identify ourselves, notice how we couch our response in terms of a belief system? I’m a republican, I’m an environmentalist, I’m a Methodist, I’m a family man, I’m a true blooded American! As Kathryn Shultz’s book title implies, because most of our beliefs are constructed from relatively scant information, and because we weigh new information based on how well it agrees with our existing beliefs, we end up traversing our lives in a blissfully ignorant and comfortably happy state of error. Therefore, when we want someone to accept and appreciate us, what is it that we are wanting? Usually, our desire is to feel glorified through the affirmation of our views; we want others to agree with our opinions and, even more, we want them to benefit from our wisdom. What this necessarily implies, though, is that we are asking others, who may have different viewpoints, to set aside their own belief structures, and accept the superiority (or at least equality) of our imperfect beliefs. In affect, we are asking others to change their identity–something that we, ourselves, rarely do unless instigated by particularly traumatic events.
How often did Christ caution against pride and extol humility? Many are willing to accept His advice on inconsequential matters, but it is an altogether different story when it necessitates the acceptance of the faulty foundations of our own identity or the cooperation with those whom we perceive as being in error.
In the introduction, I made a distinction between a collective hatred towards some societal group and a personal hatred towards one or more individuals. Both have similar roots and both are worthy of introspection, but for the remainder of this post, I’ll focus the discussion on the type of personal hatred that arises when diverse people are called upon to live or work together.
The local church is primed for such rivalries, particularly when it is time for discussions on church direction, fund-raising strategies, music selection and, at times, basic theology. Any business or company with more than two workers will face similar challenges. Hatred can erupt within us, the moment someone else makes a decision that thwarts a vision, goal, or strategy we’ve had for the organization and our place in it. At that moment, we feel devalued, and we know who is to blame.
Over time, most good Christians muster the compassion to forgive the offender, our willingness to do so serving to affirm, to ourselves, our own good nature, thereby restoring much needed stability to our own identities. But how often are we willing to accept the validity of the other’s actions? To accept that, given their personality style, cultural belief system, experience, educational background, faults and foibles, their decision may have been reasonable? How often are we willing to accept that we may no longer be a fit for an organization? A paradox of the church (and any other organization), is that success comes through the unified efforts of the members, but success implies growth, and growth implies ever more people and ever more diversity of views which, over time, will create contention over what those unified efforts should be. How can we avoid bitter hatred when the inevitable happens? When we find that our vision is no longer a valued component of this unity?
The answer comes from the mouth of Christ. Love your enemies. Teenagers think of love as a feeling, maturity leads us to realize that love has a verb component, implying the service and caring for others. Agape love, implies even more. Is it possible to love something that you don’t know? In order to extend full agape love to another, we need to do the impossible and that is to recognize the imperfect nature of our own worldview and take time to understand the worldview of our enemy. Moreover, we need to seek value in their contributions, and through that, develop acceptance, as we finally understand that we all have value in spite of our imperfection. The empathetic HR manager needs to learn to see the value in the calculating visionary leader, the football coach needs to see value in the homosexual artist, and the rock musician needs to see value in the pipe organist. This is the essence of the point the Apostle Paul made in 1 Corinthians 12, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
But how can we do this? How can we humble ourselves and admit the frailty of our constructed belief system? How can we accept the decisions that harm us, made by people suffering from their own sinful nature and poorly constructed worldviews? How can we sidestep that inclination to push away all sense of compassion and lounge in that comfortable recliner of loathing? We can do this as we do all things, through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
As we trust in Christ and lean on his strength as we struggle through the exercise of overcoming our hatred, we will find that our eyes will open to the splendor of His love, and to the splendor within those that He created. We will learn to marvel at the beauty that is contained within all of us, and marvel with sadness, that we hadn’t noticed it so fully before. We cannot overcome our hatred without undergoing some level of transformation; our identities will no longer be what they were before, but will instead be a little closer to Christ’s. And of course, this is the catch. Christ was willing to sacrifice everything, except our free will. He has left us with choice and letting go of our old identities has always been the choice that must be made for salvation. Will you make the choice?