As Christians continue the journey of Lent, and as a great many today celebrate Saint Patrick’s day in a tumultuous, fearful, and sometimes even hateful political and social context, I’d like to take a moment and reflect on the problem of hate. Of course that’s a huge issue, and it has many important facets, but I’d like to focus on the question of what “counts” as hate, and on whose authority hate can be named as such.
The problem as I see it is this: a significant amount of work has been done identifying systemic and institutional aspects of evils often associated with hate (one illuminative example would be Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s work Racism Without Racists), but when speaking of particular actions and opinions that buttress such evil, the word hate can be perceived as simply a method of name-calling rather than a moral indictment. “I don’t hate you; I just disagree with you,” is a line of defense that shows up in innumerable forms, nearly always with the goal of insulating an opinion or action from moral interrogation.
Before continuing, we should note that such resistance to being labeled hateful is not always illegitimate. Disagreement is indeed not the same thing as hate. However, disagreement, like nearly all ways of relating, does not ever remain as a purely intellectual position. Disagreement manifests itself in actions (or inactions) that support or resist embodied structures of human reality, and in so doing ultimately have an embodied impact on the lives of one’s neighbors. This is why it is important to ask the question of who has authority in naming hate—the ones whom hate infects, or the ones whom hate affects.
A brief detour into the thought of Søren Kierkegaard can throw additional light on the issue. In his book The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard struggles with what it means to be infected by sin, and to live in the despair that is one of sin’s main symptoms. He describes at least four distinct strains of despair, but as he does so, he continually returns to a central twofold claim about the nature of despair: those who despair very often do not realize they are despairing, and because of this invisibility, despair can become incurable—it is the sickness unto death. For Kierkegaard, despair is essentially the loss of one’s life as it should be, to live as less or other than God has called one to live. It has little or nothing to do with any particular emotional state; it is a way of living, a posture one adopts toward oneself and the world.
This is the connection to the issue of hate. Hate, like Kierkegaard’s idea of despair, need not be thought of as primarily an emotion or a visceral reaction to a state of affairs (though it can be that as well). It is instead a posture, a starting point out of which grows a great and adaptable diversity of evils. Hate, like despair, can often be invisible to the one it infects, so it often needs an outside source to identify it.
It can get tricky being a Christian in this case, because in the face of the moral charge of hate, the Christian’s first response should not be defense (or offense), but discernment. This is because while Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is primarily centered one one’s self, the issue of hate is primarily centered on how one’s opinions and actions affect others. Love of neighbor is the operative theological category here, and as Matthew 25 reminds us, it is in the neighbor in need that we meet Christ. Therefore, it is the neighbor in need whose voice is most likely to be Christ’s when it calls Christians out of hate.
This might sound all well and good, but it carries particular social and political consequences. “I don’t hate the poor, but we should administer drug tests to those receiving government assistance” is a dangerous line of thinking for the Christian who is called to see Christ in the poor. “I don’t hate refugees, but I love my friends and family here and need to protect them from possible violence” is a dangerous line of thinking for the Christian who is called to welcome Christ in the stranger. “I don’t hate the sick, but healthcare is not a right” is a dangerous line of thinking for the Christian who is called to visit Christ in the sick. The examples could go on— disagreement is not the same as hate, but hate is not simply an emotion; it is an approach to the world.
I don’t really know how to end this on a positive note, but sometimes seeing the need for repentance (even and especially my own) is more important than remaining positive. It is Saint Patrick’s Day today, but it is also Lent, a time for Christians to reckon soberly with the evils of the world and within ourselves. Hate should have no place in a Christian approach to the world, so in the face of one’s neighbor naming hate as hate, we Christians would do well to respond first with discernment and repentance, rather than indignation and defensiveness.