November 19, 2007

The U.S. House and Senate just passed the latest example of hate crime legislation, the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. These laws have become very popular over the last decade, and their purpose is to eliminate hate by increasing punishment when a crime—usually an assault on the persons or property of ethnic groups—is motivated by hatred. The strongest opposition to these laws has come from conservative Christians. Seen from historical perspective, this is surprising, because hatred used to be considered a deadly sin, and laws criminalizing hate thus use state power to impose traditional Christian morals on all Americans. An equally counterintuitive stand has been taken by watchdog organizations, such as the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who now support hate crime laws. So in this particular case these organizations advocate an egregious breach of the wall of separation between church and state.


The usual explanation for this reversal of positions is that critics of religion support hate laws, because in everyday life these laws can be used to hinder religious condemnation of sins. There is, however, a second possible explanation that has so far not received much attention: all branches of Christianity have abandoned the task of controlling the sin of hatred, and the obvious need to do something about this emotion is now forcing politicians to expand the role of the state to fill the vacuum. Seen from this perspective, we simply have a “change of guard”: religion voluntarily gave up on controlling hate (and most other traditional sins, such as pride, envy and greed), and the state is now responding to popular demand to stop the growth of this dangerous emotion. Unfortunately, this change in duties may not be as problem-free as it appears, because a look at old Christian ideas about hatred suggests the state cannot control this emotion. In fact, efforts to eliminate hate by legislation may be counterproductive.


According to the old, religious “psychology” of hatred, people controlled by this sin are inherently quarrelsome, because they see slights everywhere. Hate-dominated individuals perceive as snubs actions in which others see nothing, for example a glance, a tone of voice or a lack of attention. Worse still, whenever hateful people believe they have been “insulted,” they regard it as an insufferable affront to their dignity that must be avenged. This thought takes over the mind, creating fantasies that magnify the "insult." These fantasies are strengthened by the pleasure hateful people feel at revenge—the infamous "sweet revenge." With time, the obsessive imaginations reinforce hatred and cause it to grow so strong that physical action to “pay back in kind” almost inevitably follows.


In traditional Christian morality, repeated thoughts of injuries and their associated delightful fantasies of revenge are not only a mortal sin. These recurring imaginations also show that one’s thinking is no longer rational, and that senseless and/or criminal behavior is likely to occur soon. The accuracy of this observation can be seen in the tapes left by the Virginia Tech mass-murderer, which fit perfectly old descriptions of hate’s psychology: the tapes present a world filled with insults and injuries that combine to “justify” the killings undertaken in revenge.


Christian moralists thus agree fully with today’s secular view that fervent hatred can produce catastrophic behavior. Furthermore, the agreement about the dangers of this emotion is based on strong evidence. Fortunately, thanks probably to “residual effect” of the long tradition of very harsh moral condemnation of hatred, this emotion rarely reaches obsessive levels in modern West. Milder forms, however, are common. How many people do you know, who see insults where others see nothing?


Hate’s obvious dangers raise the question: how to overcome this emotion? More specifically: can laws eliminate hate? After all, there is the old saying about the impossibility of legislating the heart. According to the old, Christian view, fear of punishment can prevent hate’s visible manifestations but it has no effect on the emotion “in the heart.” The “friendliness” that went no deeper than outward, observable behavior was labeled by theologians as “hypocrisy,” and regarded as very different from true Christian mortification of hatred, which eliminated the emotion and its associated fantasies from the mind. More important yet, in traditional Christian morality “friendliness” motivated by fear of punishment did not count as virtuous behavior. True friendship had to reach beyond physical actions to the deep, hidden desires of the heart.


The old psychology implies that politicians passing laws against hate are deceiving themselves. They can only control visible behavior, and this kind of control merely drives hate into hiding and postpones the explosion. In fact, political regulation is dangerous, because it creates a friendly-looking facade under which the emotion can grow freely. Following this reasoning, it would best to repeal hate crime laws. This would get rid of the hypocritical obedience and let the sin/emotion come out in the open. The ability to see how widely hatred has spread would make it possible to start applying effective, social methods to counter or defuse the emotion.


A second problem in trying to control emotions by political fiat is best illustrated by a thought experiment: in condemning hatred, Christianity checked what everybody today agrees is a dangerous emotion. This prescience suggests there may be good reasons for restraining other traditional sins/emotions. After all, recent financial scandals, such as Enron, provided ample evidence about the ability of at least greed and pride to produce destructive behavior. Following the approach now being adopted against hate, we should thus start passing laws criminalizing greed and pride. There is, however, an insurmountable obstacle to this method: imagine effective enforcement of laws giving three to four years in jail for actions motivated by a deep-seated desire for money or by an equally deep-seated yearning for power, attention, admiration and praise. Would there be enough congressmen and senators left for a quorum?


Traditional Christian psychology of hatred raises the possibility that politicians outlawing this emotion have taken on a task they cannot possibly accomplish. This observation produces an obvious suggestion: modern Western Civilization has accumulated a great deal of experience on how to deal with hate, and it might be worthwhile to take a close look at the psychological observations contained in that tradition. The old religious expertise about the sin of hatred may contain valuable insights and methods that have been lost.


There also comes to mind a second, somewhat mischievous suggestion: how about closing the breach hate crime laws have opened in the wall of separation? Re-establishing the traditional division between church and state would mean pastors taking up their long-abandoned duty to explain their parishioners how to detect and overcome the mortal sin of hatred. Politicians, on the other hand, should stop meddling with emotions and limit themselves to punishing observable actions.


Returning the task of controlling hate to pastors may have several highly beneficial side-effects, because the first step in overcoming hate is teaching people to detect this sin/emotion in themselves and in others. This is accomplished by sermons describing hatred in great detail. These sermons feel very unpleasant, because the nuanced descriptions “fit” many hearers, and both the hateful and other people in the audience notice this. Yet, pastors have to preach these sermons, irrespective of how many powerful parishioners they outrage, because only people who can detect hate can overcome it.


The first benefit from religious teaching of hate’s psychology stems from the need to describe hate’s manifestations down to their most minute nuances. These descriptions will be unpleasant but effective, because they will show that the views held by some modern Protestant denominations, particularly their attitudes toward Moslems, fit very well traditional Protestant descriptions of sinful, hate-motivated thinking. For example, one of hate’s key effects (and visible danger signals) is that it reverses instinctive emotional reactions of empathy: the hater feels that it is “natural” for him to take pleasure in the suffering of the one he hates. This calls to mind those Left Behind Dispensationalists who read with great pleasure about the agonizing death of Antichrist’s followers, and leads to an unavoidable conclusion: people who believe themselves to be saved even though they find delight in seeing other people’s (even their enemies) agonies are mistaken about their salvation. By traditional Protestant standards, these Christians themselves will certainly be among the damned, because instinctive pleasure in others’ misfortune is a sign of unmortified hatred.


A second benefit of religious teaching of hatred is indirect: the duty to point out sins/dangerous emotions applies also to other sins, such as pride, envy and greed. A combination of unfettered freedom of speech and courageous preachers describing from pulpits, in minute detail, how greed and pride manifest themselves in everyday life will produce interesting reactions not only in Washington DC but in most state capitals. Indeed, this preaching may offer the long-sought solution to the problem of how to control politicians’ ever-growing corruption and lust for power.

Mr. Kari Konkola is a theological scholar from Finland.


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