Howard Thurman and the Apologists for Hate

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In 1949, as America was still in the afterglow of its victory in World War II, and as African-Americans endured yet another act of degradation from their government as they were denied many of the benefits the GI Bill extended to veterans of the war, Howard Thurman published a radically defiant book, Jesus and the Disinherited. In the work, Thurman—a spiritual mentor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—describes “the significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall,” and he singles out hate as “one of the hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the disinherited.” In a political moment when hate is increasingly lifted up as a tool to be used in our politics, a tactic that can be wielded and controlled to advance specific purposes, it is worth considering Thurman’s diagnosis of hate once again. 

Howard Thurman believed hate needed to be rooted out of the heart of man and of society, but he also believed that mere sentimentality was not sufficient to do so. According to Thurman, hatred had a cause and rationality that deserved to be taken seriously. He describes a kind of four-stage process in the development of hate. It often begins, Thurman wrote, “in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship.” Twitter, for instance. He explained, “…much of modern life is so impersonal that there is always opportunity for the seeds of hatred to grow unmolested.”

Then, Thurman believed that in this state of contact without fellowship, when we are constantly confronted with one another but never really in a position to bewith one another, an understanding of the other develops that is strikingly unsympathetic. We are close enough to people to observe them, but through that shallow contact we come to develop an understanding of them that is “hard, cold, minute and deadly.” This cold understanding, this ugly portrait that we form in our minds of our fellow citizen, our fellow man or woman, then tends to express itself “in the active functioning of ill will.” And fourth, when that ill will becomes such that it animates a human being, it becomes “hatred walking on earth.” 

That state of contact without fellowship is basically what social science has confirmed as the developing relationship between Americans of different political parties. We are increasingly self-segregating ideologically, so that we don’t live in community as neighbors with people who disagree with us politically. We deem shared political allegiances as essential criteria for the spouses our children will marry. We receive media through tailored sources that highlight the worst of our political opposition. And this contact without fellowship allows us to develop a cold understanding that breeds ill-will.  

This kind of hatred is cultivated in our politics today by those who hope that hatred can be channeled and used for their purposes. Because, here’s the thing, you can organize people based on common hatreds. You can raise money off of promises that you hate the same things and the same people they hate. For those who feel cheated, who feel they have been treated unjustly, Thurman writes, “every expression of intolerance, every attitude of meanness, every statute that limits and degrades, gives further justification” for hatred. 

In our political environment today everyone feels under attack. Politicians and our political infrastructure of advocacy groups, corporate interests, highly-tailored media outlets and platform-seeking personalities see to it. This is the fuel on which Donald Trump’s presidency runs, but it predates him. We were isolating ourselves and using our disdain for the other side as our primary motivator prior to 2016. We’ve long rewarded those who are the most skilled at humiliating our political opponents with witty rhetoric or by deploying pernicious devices like doxing. Regrettably, we seem to value those tactics above well-tailored policy solutions.

The tactics of beltway strategists and media conglomerates are forming voters’ political attitudes in destructive, anti-social ways. In a recent article, one woman shared with The New York Times how she was processing Trump’s role in the government shutdown:  “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said of Mr. Trump. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”

Another voter told a Reuters reporter that seeing Trump on television was like “the most negative, blackest place to find yourself…It’s like being in a bucket you can’t get yourself out of – a hand keeps pushing you back in every time you try to surface.” 

What do we do with this hate? Thurman points to Jesus. Of course, Jesus understood hatred, and it was with that understanding that Jesus said we ought to “love our enemies.” What a radical notion, as utterly scandalous today as it was then. Jesus said this, Thurman writes, because he knew that hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. It bears “deadly and bitter fruit. It is blind and non-discriminating. True, it begins by exercising specific discrimination…but once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone. The terrible truth remains. The logic of the development of hatred is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values.”

He concludes: “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.”

What the apologists for hate don’t admit is that part of them has been defeated or they lack the strength to face their opponent in an upstanding manner. Indeed, to even conceal your hatred for your political opponents,  Either way, something precious has been conceded and has compromised the entire endeavor. At some point in the process described above is a choice, a conscious or unconscious acceptance of more base means of engagement. Hatred is infectious and if it’s fought on its own terms then the best result is a Pyrrhic victory because we’ve simply agreed to become the carrier.

The Civil Rights Movement, for instance, was certainly about changing unjust systems and institutions and confronting hateful leaders with vigor and unrelenting determination. But there was a larger principle at play. The heart of the effort had to be aspirational and upright. Certainly, failing to enact legislation or disrupt prejudiced institutions was to fall short of the objective, but it wasn’t the worst outcome. The worst-case scenario was to allow your opponent to have a negative impact on your spirit or the spirit of the movement. For the movement to reflect its antagonist in word or deed was the ultimate failure. There is usually a destination after the confrontation, and if we arrive there filled with hatred and cynicism then we’re primed to become what we just defeated or worse.

The pseudo-catharsis of a politics of hatred, particularly in this moment, is a great temptation, but it is a temptation that must be resisted. Voters should reject appeals to their basest instincts, their instinct to wish the worst for those they view as their political enemies, and instead embrace a politics that puts forward the impulse to love, to seek the good of all who share in this project of self-governance with us, regardless of their willingness to do the same.