Christians presently have a complicated relationship with the concept of hate. During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the zeitgeist turned against hate and secularists chagrined hate as primitive and thuggish, but since the 2016 election, hate has become fashionable again and forgiveness is thought naïve and regressive. During the decades when hate was unpopular, many conservative Christians stood up for hate and pointed to the obvious: What of genocide? What of torture? Are such evils not worthy of hatred? What is more, conservatives noted an uncritical dismissal of hate muddied the concept of love, as well. How could we love rightly if we did not also hate what the beloved hated— or, at very least, hate whatever hated the beloved?
When hate was unfashionable, secularists were apt to co-opt the proverb, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” to which Christians hastily retorted, “That’s not in the Bible.” Which is true, however, it is all over the writings of the Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine, and especially in the City of God, which is a very fine book that no one reads slowly enough (as a classical Christian educator, I am amazed by how many teachers claim to have read the City of God, yet cannot remember anything in it, cannot quote it, and look puzzled when the juicier ideas in the book are referenced). Nevertheless, when Christians debated secularists on the subject of hate, they were apt to bring up many far-flung and extreme examples of terrible acts “deserving hate.” Is it not right to hate Hitler? Is it not right to hate Stalin?
Allow me to suggest there are two kinds of hatred, then: hatred of abstractions and hatred of human beings. The hatred of abstractions (like the hatred of “child abusers everywhere”, the hatred of Hitler, the hatred of Harry Weinstein) is a formal position, an emotional-bureaucratic procedure, a stone monument erected by a disinterested committee at the request of voters. The hatred of abstractions plays a real, but small role in the human psyche.
For my present purposes, I feel no need to clarify whether such hatred is good or bad, biblical or unbiblical, in defiance or accordance with the command to love enemies. My real concern is the hatred of human beings, which is not a formal position, but a living and active emotional state directed toward known persons like mothers or fathers, neighbors, coworkers, teachers, students, pastors, priests, and so forth. The hatred of Hitler, Stalin, and child abusers everywhere has precious little in common with hatred for an arrogant priest (whose parish you no longer attend), or hatred for a sister-in-law who insults you every Christmas, or hatred for a spouse who has sexually embarrassed you. The hatred of actual human beings is a debilitative spiritual disease.
The hatred of real human beings rarely spills out into actual violence, but carries on primarily in our hearts, where we fantasize about the clever and cutting things we would like to say to those we hate, the vast audiences we would like present to hear these embarrassing things, and the deep shame those we hate would feel upon hearing our entirely fair and unbiased assessments of their wickedness. In some recessed corner of these fantasies, we speciously tell ourselves that what we really want is for the people we hate to repent, but this is not true, for we never pray for them to repent. Hatred is frequently masked as a concern for justice, a concern that “other innocent people not be treated the way I was treated,” but at the end of the day, hatred is the unsatisfying, unfulfilled desire to see another human being humiliated before others.
Given the role of fantasy in hate, it bears a striking similarity to lust. Lust is not simply the recognition that another person is beautiful, nor is lust the factual acknowledgement that one could sleep with another. Lust is the prolonged, indulged enjoyment of the thought of sexual sin. So, too, hate is not simply the acknowledgement that another person is cruel, nor the realization that another person has escaped justice, and neither is hate the acknowledgement that another person deserves to be punished for their crimes. Rather, hate is the prolonged, indulged enjoyment of the thought of another being insulted and degraded. As the one who lusts does not consider the benefit of the one lusted after, neither does the one who hates give thought to the good of the hated one.
I write as one who has observed the hatred of others, but also observed the hatred in my own heart. There are two human beings whom I hate. I have not seen them for many years, nor have I heard of them or from them. They have almost no online presence whatsoever, which means I do not know if they are doing well, if they are happy or healthy. I do not know if they feel remorse for the things they said and did to me. Hatred is an illness, but not like kidney disease or stomach cancer. Hatred is the kind of disease which flares up, often out of nowhere. I have to confess my sin of hatred a few times every year. On a twenty-minute drive across town, my mind sometimes wanders to the occasions in which I have been wronged, I find myself suddenly angry, then growl and snap at my children in the backseat, even when they have done absolutely nothing wrong. A good day might suddenly sour when I have ten minutes to myself, nothing in particular to think about, and thus begin reviewing my record of wrongs. Then I return home in a foul mood.
In observing myself and others in the grip of hatred, I have reached the conclusion that hatred makes people behave stupidly. Often enough, those who hate others do not know how obvious their hatred is, because they think their hatred cleverly and politely masked. The jokes that haters make about the ones they hate are tasteless, vulgar, though the hater rarely senses this. Because such hatred is irrational, haters mention those they hate at random times and in unexplainable ways. The critiques they make of those they hate are astoundingly petty, nit-picky. The hated person can do nothing of value, nothing of merit, at least so far as the one who hates is concerned, and thus, at the very mention of the hated person, the hater comes off as an unpleasable tyrant. In the same way lust reduces human beings to objects, so does hate.
Presently, hate has not simply become acceptable. Hate has become an important political tool and a source of political power. Thousand-year jail terms betray our frustration that others only have one life to lose. We are discontent with the idea of sending those we hate to hell. We want to go to hell, too, so we can enjoy the spectacle of their suffering. Perhaps some people never leave hell because they enjoy the sight of other people suffering too much to tear themselves away.
The aesthetic appeal of hate is obvious. Hate is sleek, simple, monochromatic. Because hate makes objects of human beings, it skims off all the difficult, vexing, trying, conflicted, bifurcated, contradictory, Byznatine, ornate, uninterpretable, effervescent qualities of human life and refashions man as monolith. Anything north of hate becomes complicated and requires reflection, but hate is sub-intellectual, pure power. Hate acts quickly. God as Trinity is hard to grasp and renders a man self-aware, but the god of hate is a monad. Hate is nirvana-like, not self-forgetfulness but self-annihilation. Hate is the god of laziness and Modern man is lazy as hell.
Paradoxically, the balm which soothes the hellishness of hatred is the recollection of our own sins. We fault others for treating us with contempt, for loopholing us and lying to us, for defaming us and abusing our goodwill and generosity, and yet no man has mistreated another as badly as I have mistreated God. In order to give my own sins to God, I must set down the sins of others. For this reason, an era of cheap grace and “Not perfect, just forgiven” will necessarily be an era of hate. Only the painful recollection of one’s own crimes can calm the destructive passion for other people’s crimes.