Hatred is Lethal, Part 2

We are unable to contain the toxin of hatred in us, it will spread.

“Hate is another of the hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the disinherited.” -Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.

Hatred is a funny thing.

Not ha-ha funny, of course.

More like, slippery-like-mercury funny. You think you’ve got it figured out, nailed down, predicted and controlled.

Then woooooop! Maybe not.

On initial consideration we instinctively repel from the idea of and word “hatred.” Ashamed at its existence.

Yet in the right contexts, like when we feel justified in our hatred, it can take on a sort of positive quality about it.

Sometimes hatred repulses us. Other times we nurse and defend it.

The other day I read a scalpel-precise critique of any attempts to hold on to hatred as a legitimate path for anyone who’s stated goal is a life of peace (either within themselves and/or in the world).

It got right up in my kitchen and is making me rethink the ways I “allow” myself to feel hatred.

Jesus and the Disinherited

Howard Thurman (1900-1981) wrote “Jesus and the Disinherited” in 1949, not long after the end of WWII. Its insights and power held for decades, eventually helping to shape and fuel the Civil Rights Movement (in fact, it was Thurman who helped Martin Luther King Jr see the value in non-violence).

A friend of mine gave me a copy years ago and it forever changed me. Reading it, for the first time I understood the mission of Jesus as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.

Here’s what the back of the book says,

“Thurman argues that within Jesus’ life of suffering, pain, and overwhelming love is the solution that will prevent our descent into moral nihilism. For although scorned and forced to live outside society, Jesus advocated a love of self and others that defeats fear and the hatred that decays our souls and the world around us.”

Chapter four is titled “Hate,” and to continue my theme from last week (also about Hatred) I want to share a few nuggets here, hoping that you might be challenged, inspired, and (like I was) convicted.

When Hatred Becomes Respectable

“During times of war hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism.” pg 74

The chapter opens with a story of Thurman in a cab ride shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Unprovoked, the driver said, “Who do they think they are? Those little yellow dogs think they can do that to white men and get away with it!”

During intense times of unrest, like war, Thurman states that hatred becomes respectable. Especially when it is authorized or validated by the powers that be. When someone (or some groups of people) is officially labeled as the “enemy” our usual timidity around feeling (and expressing) hatred mysteriously falls away.

Thurman writes, “Hating is something of which to be ashamed unless it provides for us a form of validation and prestige. If either is provided, then the immoral or amoral character of the hatred is transformed into positive violence.”

When we succeed in demonizing someone and making them our enemy then our hatred toward them becomes transformed (in our minds, at least) into positive violence.

Scary, right?

Hatred Flows Both Ways

“In many analyses of hatred it is customary to apply it only to the attitude of the strong towards the weak.” pg 78

One of the themes of the book at large is how the life and teachings of Jesus can empower the weak—by which he means, the poor/marginalized/oppressed/disinherited—to not just endure the oppression of the strong, but embody what Vincent Harding calls  an “emancipatory way of being... a fundamentally unchained life that is available to all.. especially those who stand with their backs against the wall.”

After all, that was who Jesus was: poor, oppressed, disinherited, with his back against the wall.

When Thurman writes of hatred, he acknowledges how mostly we think of the hatred the strong have for the weak. The disgust and disdain oppressors have for those they oppress. Which is all very true, of course, but we also tend to neglect (or worse, deny) that the weak can and do harbor hatred for the strong.

While hatred that flows from the strong to the weak might be more obvious to identify (oppression, systemic injustice, racism, etc), it does not mean the capacity for the weak to hate the strong is any less real. Such hatred, Thurman writes, is “born out of great bitterness—a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment.” 

While such hatred might serve initially as a device for self-realization (as I’ll get to next), its toxicity will ultimately leak out and destroy all it touches.

Hatred Hammers out Self-Realization

“Hatred makes [a] profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.” pg 82

Thurman acknowledges that the hatred the weak (understandably) have toward the strong stems from their being victims of systematic denials of rights and privileges. In this way, their hatred can provide dynamic energy toward self-realization.

As such, you could argue that hatred is a useful tool in the hands of the oppressed for not only withstanding their oppression, but reclaiming their worth and dignity as well.

An oppressive world says to the disinherited, you do no matter.
Worse, you deserve what you get.

Tragically, in response, the disinherited might choose to accept this judgment, thereby endorsing their oppressors view. But such acceptance of their being despised will inevitably lead to their despising of themselves.

On the other hand, they might reject such a judgement against them. At this point, hatred “serves as a device for rebuilding, step by perilous step, the foundation for individual significance... declaring their right to exist.”

Which can hardly be called a bad thing, right?

Hatred Justifies Immoral Behavior

“It is not difficult to see how hatred, operating in this fashion, provides for the weak a basis for moral justification.” pg 84

However, Thurman argues that when hatred serves as a device for self-realization, an illusion of righteousness is easy to create. In other words, when fueled by hatred, we suddenly might engage in types of behaviors that under normal circumstances (aka, when we don’t hate the other person/people in question) would call for serious self-condemnation.

Meaning, we’d never consider doing it.

Hatred has a way of justifying our otherwise unjustifiable actions.

(I made ^that sentence^ larger, just to make sure you didn’t skip it)

It shields us from our normally operating moral compasses.

When the weak harbor hate toward the strong, Thurman writes, “To take advantage of the strong is regarded merely as settling an account. It is open season all the time, without the operation of normal moral inhibitions. It is a form of the old lex talionis--eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Which Jesus had thoughts on, recall)

For those whom we harbor hate, we feel no sense of moral responsibility toward.

In one fascinating paragraph Thurman wrote about the challenge of preparing and sending American boys to the other side of the world to fight in World Wars I & II. Prior to the call to fight, “American boys grew up in a culture in which they absorbed certain broad attitudes of respect for human personality, and other traits characteristic of gentlemen of refinement and dignity. Therefore they are not prepared psychologically or emotionally to become human war machines, to make themselves conscious instruments of death.”

The solution?

Indoctrinate the boys into a kind of hatred for the enemy. “For if they hate the enemy, then that hatred will immunize them from a loss of moral self-respect as they do to the enemy what is demanded of them.”

When we feel no moral responsibility toward them, we essentially lose our internal governor monitoring how we treat people.

In other words, we don’t feel bad for how badly we treat people we hate.

Our hatred at once both blocks us from our conscience and justifies our unconscionable conduct.

Hatred Bears Deadly and Bitter Fruit

“Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred... [it] destroys finally the core of the life of the hater.” pg 86

One of the lessons I’ve learned through therapy is how to identify patterns of behavior in myself that I developed as a child/adolescent and that are no longer serving me well as an adult. These behaviors were survival mechanisms as I tried to navigate the complexities of my environment. Such responses made sense, and they served me well back then. But now, as an adult, they are preventing me from flourishing as a whole, connected, relational being.

As I read Thurman, I see his critique of the hatred that the weak have for the strong in a similar way.

It makes so much sense: of course those feelings of rage and bitterness would be there.

And they have served you well, helping you survive and self-realize.

And yet, might we also consider how hatred ultimately is a destroyer?

As I wrote last week (quoting Jesus, from the film, Mary Magdalene), “How does it feel to carry that hate in your heart?”

“True,” Thurman writes, “[hatred] begins by exercising specific discrimination. This it does by centering upon the persons responsible for the situations which create the reaction of resentment, bitterness, and hatred. But once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone.”

Ooof. Read that one again,

“Once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone.”

As beautiful and incredible and complex as the human species is, we simply are not capable of reserving hatred only for one slice of people. While it may start there, its infection will spread. It will work its way into our very being, leading not only to treating others with contempt (who weren’t in the original category of “people I justifiably hate”), but causing ruin to our own being as well.

Hatred “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. It is blind and nondiscriminating.”

As Howard Thurman sees it (and I would agree), the Way of Jesus is the solution.

Jesus understood the anatomy of hatred, and he lived as a weak one under the oppressive boot of the strong.

And in the face of such an environment his invitation was to, “Love your enemies.”

Hatred is death.

Death to the spirit.

Destructive of ethical and moral values.

I end now with one final quote which feels deeply, deeply true, “Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial.”


Next week I’ll continue exploring Hatred by sharing what I’m learning, how I need to change, and why only a voices like Jesus and Howard Thurman have the credibility to say these sorts of things.


Read the Entire Series

Part 1: Hatred is Lethal

Part 2: Hatred Bears Deadly Fruit

Part 3: Making Enemies Makes Hating Easy

Part 4: Admitting It's Hate that You Feel

Part 5: Confronting My Own Hatred (of Trump)

Part 6: Eliminating Hate Takes Effort

Part 7: Eliminating Hate (Step 1)

Part 8: Eliminating Hate (Step 2)