So, yesterday, I started to attempt to answer the question of why people hate. The key takeway, if you don’t want to read the whole post, is that there may not be a universal answer, but that hate, to be expressed, must have a social context, and we can do a lot to make it hard for hate to be expressed.
But that doesn’t explain, exactly, why we hate in the first place.
So, here are some incomplete answers:
- We seek scapegoats to carry our anger away. In the Bible (Leviticus 16), the priest symbolically places the sins of the people on a goat, then sends it into the wilderness, where it will die, to carry those sins away. The goat has nothing to do with the sins. The symbolic transfer of sins to the goat does nothing to remedy the relationships that sin breaks. The only people served by scapegoating are those who imagine that they can escape the consequences of their own sins by blaming—and excluding, to the point of death—an innocent victim who has nothing to do with their sins. When we hate, we are taking our sins (our fears about the security of our future, our sense of entitlement, our false sense of being victimized by others) and projecting them on others, then punishing them for what we’ve done wrong. Hate, in this form, is a way of not dealing with our own shit. People who are emotionally and spiritually well do not hate, because they are able to take responsibility for themselves.
- We hate because peace is hard and hate is easier. Peace requires negotiating a complex social world and working with people who see it differently than we do. Think about your relationship with your siblings: they share your genes and your upbringing (both nature and nurture), and yet there are probably times when you’ve wondered if they weren’t from a different planet. Well, you actually have more than 7 billion siblings, and sharing Earth with them can be hard. It’s easier to denigrate them and thus dismiss their concerns rather than to treat them seriously.
- We hate because hate unifies us. Sure, love is sweet—but have you every enjoyed sharing an enemy with someone else? What makes office gossip fun is that we like sharing a target for common criticism; it bonds us to each other. Scale that up, and eventually you get to Klansmen roaming the countryside looking for black families to terrorize. Hate unites us. It affirms our moral boundaries (My people are good, but those people are bad.), and allows us to join others in policing them. When a woman is stoned for adultery or a black man lynched in response to the accusation of rape, the people doing the stoning and lynching aren’t sad. They aren’t just happy in the torture (though some of them are happy about that, too); they are happy in the process of joining with others to reaffirm their righteousness and exert it over others. Not surprisingly, hate is more violent when more people join in it.
- We hate because we love the wrong things: our people, our land, our nation, our stuff, our self-perception. These are things that our culture tells us to love. “America First” resonates with people not familiar with its terrifying history because we are told that loving our country is a good thing. Our most noble loves are invoked to justify hate. Love, not hate, is the core motivation of white supremacy—though this kind of love is no kind of love at all.
- We hate because we are selfish and afraid. We have invented hates to justify policies that are really defenses of our own privilege. If African slaves couldn’t have been used in Southern agriculture, racism wouldn’t have taken the form it did in the US. (This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been here, but it would have looked different—because it wouldn’t have included slavery.) If indigenous people weren’t sitting on land white colonizers wanted, racism against indigenous people would have taken a different form, one that didn’t include forcible removal. In other words, hate defends privilege, and those of us who have privilege tend to want to keep it and are afraid of losing it. Selfishness and fear of loss (power, money) inspire hate.
All of these speak to our emotions: denial of our own sins, laziness, the pleasure of companionship, the affirmation we get from defending our “good” values, selfishness, fear.
Above, William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, one of two paintings he produced on the theme.
The reasons why hate has no place within Christianity isn’t merely because we are explicitly commanded to reject it (though this is important, too). We are to avoid hate because the feelings that give rise to hate—denial, laziness, a wrong connection to others, wrong priorities, selfishness, and fear—also give rise to a variety of other sins that break our communities.
Denial of our own sins. God tells us to confess our sins, and when we do that, we won’t be placing them on a scapegoat to carry.
Laziness. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. When we do the work of making peace, we can achieve it—not always, but often. Then, hate becomes less appealing.
A wrong connection to others. The Spirit calls us into community, and when we are in healthy community, we don’t band together to attack others.
Wrong priorities. Jesus calls us to reject everything that isn’t loving God and loving others. This is hard call, and Christianity really messes it up. But Jesus is clear: we are to give up everything, leaving the plow in the field, leaving the dead unburied. He means that even the things good people tell us are important—family, nation, and even religion—must never get in the way of obeying God. And obeying God means that we love each other. If anything—even something we think of as good—hurts another person, it is a bad thing.
Selfishness. This isn’t just sinful—it rarely ends well. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” means that you lose when you’re selfish. Sure, you often get to retain wealth and power, but what you sacrifice to maintain them does injury not just to others but to yourself.
Fear. It’s the most frequent command in the Bible: Be not afraid. We’re not to be afraid because, when we are, we are more susceptible to hate.
Notice that you don’t have to be a Christian to benefit from this wisdom: master your feelings to make yourself less vulnerable to the hate that can arise from those feelings. Then, if the culture you are in makes hate possible, for you, it is unthinkable.