Theology of Hate

(Trigger warning: this post refers to sexual violence)

A woman’s 13-year old daughter is raped at knifepoint. The rapist is jailed for some years. When he is released, he passes the mother in the street and taunts her, asking how her daughter is. The mother tracks him to a bar, where she pours petrol over him and sets light to it. He dies from his injuries 11 days later.

This story has recently been circulating on social media. The rapist died back in 2005, but apparently it is only now that the mother is being imprisoned.

My focus here is not the details of the story, but how we react to it. Where I have seen it posted on Facebook, for example, the majority of reactions have been to praise the mother’s action, to deny that she should be punished and to affirm that the rapist had it coming. Frankly, that has been my feeling too.

Of course, in the cold light of day, many of us would want to nuance that response. Do we really want to foster vigilantism, or a culture of revenge? Do we really think any crime should be punished by the perpetrator being burned to death?

But perhaps what gives us most pause for thought is that we should ever endorse any action based on hatred. Without wishing to project too much on to the mother, it would hardly be surprising if she felt the most visceral hatred for the man who not only raped her daughter but then gloated over it. And hatred, however understandable, is surely always wrong?

However, I’m becoming convinced that this assumption (which in my context is largely moulded by the way Christian narratives of creation and redemption have been inflected) needs to be reconsidered. It seems to me that there are times when hatred is an entirely appropriate response to people or situations.

Why? Negatively, we know that the recommendation of love and forgiveness can easily be a ruse to get people to accept their own domination. Love never occurs in a vacuum, and often involves a certain affirmation of the order of things (‘There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother’). This love dialectically implies a hatred of what subverts that order of ‘right relationships’. So it is not as though the affirmation of ‘love’ in itself really gets us anywhere.

More positively, a focus on hatred might actually free it of this dialectical dependence on a self-serving, deluded form of ‘love’. The kind of hatred felt for those who directly dominate, despise and dehumanise us does not have to be theorised as an inverted form of love. It is an appropriate rejection of what threatens our very survival and integrity.

This is dangerous territory. There are ‘hate crimes’ and ‘hate groups’ which most, if not all, readers would want to utterly condemn. However, these crimes/groups still seem to be based on a model of inverted love: love for identity categories grouped around sexuality, gender and race/religion is supposed to be the positive basis for hate of these who do not conform or who otherwise threaten those categories.

What I am trying to reach for, very inadequately, is a hatred that presumes no such identity category, and which does not defer to the State as the Monopoly of all Hate. This would be a hatred that is ‘ungrounded’ . By that I mean, not something merely irrational, but an embodied affirmation of oneself, which assumes no founding truth or harmony, but which knows itself to be against the dominating other. Hatred in this sense would not simply be a privation of good, but a constituent part of the singularity of every created being. Taking it seriously would mean philosophising and theologising in a world where struggle and opposition are not merely contingent. And naming and valuing it as such might allow us to be more discriminating about hate, where it comes from, where it should be directed, and how it gets captured for the purposes of others. However fraught this may be, it at least seems to me more worthwhile and realistic than living a fantasy that ‘all we need is love’.

17 thoughts on “Theology of Hate

  1. This relates to something that we were discussing in my Islam class yesterday, in connection with some surahs of the Qur’an discussing war and violence. We contrasted the Islamic view, which seems to accept that violence and injustice is a fact of life and that sometimes one must forcefully intervene, with the Christian emphasis on “turning the other cheek,” etc. At one point, to defamiliarize those familiar sentiments, I summarized Jesus as follows: “If someone is doing something incompatible with divine justice, you should not only let them get away with it, but actively facilitate it. And then good things will somehow result.”

  2. Adam, thanks – my obscure sense was that Islam would have resources for handling this differently, though my ignorance prevented me from stating it as such. There might be something here about why, for the Christianised capitalism of the West, Islam either has to be domesticated as a (lesser) version of the gospel of peace, or vilified as a ‘religion of hate’ (ironically becoming the target for the most intense hatred itself).

  3. Before thinking about the general point of justified hate, my first response to a story like this would be to try and get at as objective a picture as what happened as possible. As framed in the opening paragraph, the story provokes an instinctual sympathy with the mother. On re-reading that paragraph, I think that’s less about the crime, than about the detail of the “taunting”.

    If the story was simply: rapist spends several years in jail, on release is burned alive by mother of victim, we would respond differently. It’s the fact that even after doing his time, he was still allegedly taunting the victim’s family that pushes him wholly beyond human sympathy and makes him a fit object of hatred – it even overclouds the horrendous detail that she burned him alive. I haven’t researched the story before making this comment, but I’m interested in the framing of the story, the centrality of the taunting and its essentialness to justify the horrific act. Before beginning to exonerate the mother in this case, I’d insist on detail and an exploration of the taunting incident.

  4. I find myself torn about the rhetoric surrounding ISIS. On the one hand, no, I of course would never want to suggest that ISIS is an authentic or promising form of Islam. On the other hand, though, I’m not sure it makes much sense for Barack Obama (or George Bush or Tony Blair…) to be adjudicating what authentic Islam is — particularly when it turns out that authentic Islam is always the most submissive kind. The “religion of peace” envisioned by Western powers doesn’t quite cut it somehow. Indeed, what’s appealling to me as I study Islam is precisely that it’s not a “religion of peace” in the sense desired by contemporary Western leaders.

  5. Steven, I like what you are reaching for here. How would you distinguish this hatred from indignation?

    I distinguish indignation from anger by understanding that anger is more of a personal attitude in reaction to the ill will someone expresses toward you, while indignation is more of a moral attitude in reaction to ill will expressed toward others or ill will expressed toward you if it is expressed toward you in so far as you are an instance or symbol of a group or humans more generally.

    In these terms I can see the mother in your case experiencing anger and moral indignation. How would we define her hatred?

  6. Ballsy post, thanks.
    Maybe preach Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 dialectically: Hate Babylon / Pray for Babylon. The latter prevents the former from becoming the shibboleth of your hate groups; the former prevents the latter from becoming an apology for Stockholm syndrome.

  7. It seems all the more realistic that our collective & individual responses should emerge from some cobblestone collection of love, hate, calculation, indifference … and possibly a spectrum of others. The problem with the ideology of love, as I see it, is that it is so single-minded. Much the same w/ that of that of hate. Cobblestones, though, are trickier to negotiate – they often come loose & trip you up. But they also seem to weather quite well if you maintain them.

  8. Jeremy, there seems to me to be something colder about hatred, at least in the form I am interested in. In your take on indignation as a moral attitude, there is something like a holding to account going on (‘how dare you act like that’). Hatred is more: you should not exist.

  9. I agree with your assessment: it’s the taunting that makes the rapist’s continued existence intolerable and that makes me initially accept the mother’s actions with no serious question.

  10. In an abstract, and thus all the more horrific way, his public taunting made all the more real the private taunting she surely already felt when he was released in the first place. Perhaps there is something to be said for the ancient system of familial revenge, wherein they have a set period of time to pursue a proportional response — and the guilty the freedom to flee for sanctuary & refuge elsewhere.

  11. Macalaster Bell’s recent Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt makes a pretty strong case for the moral legitimacy, and in some cases the moral necessity, of contempt, which is a near-relative of what’s characterized here as “hatred.” One of her central claims is that “we ought to hold people accountable for who they are as well as for what they’ve done, and an ethic of contempt [thus] offers the best way of answering a range of vices” (10). It’s a provocative yet careful, serious book, and one that might be helpful in thinking through a “theology of hatred.” For what it’s worth.

  12. Thanks Steven. Here’s an attempt at another formulation. Anger is interpersonal. Moral indignation is social/normative. Hatred is existential, i.e., my existence exists opposed to your existing.

  13. I may be missing something obvious here, but isn’t there some point in taking seriously the Christian line about loving the sinner and hating the sin? The drift of discussion in this post and its thread seems to make no distinction between a person and their actions — by which I mean, it’s as if it is a given that acting badly ‘makes you a bad person’ — that is abjects or homo-sacers you into a place where the rest of us can vent our own anger and violent impulses by torturing and killing you (pouring petrol over you and setting you alight) without feeling bad. But surely the Christian perspective is that a person is not the merely the sum of their actions; even of their bad actions. A person is always something beyond what they do, and that something-beyond is always valuable.

  14. Well, it seems to me that whether or not one believes in eternal damnation ‘theologically’ (as it were), eternal damnation as a rationale for social policy and penology (and let’s not forget: foreign policy — or are the foreign Others really to be punished for eternity after 9-11?) is not a very good idea.

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