It is becoming more evident with every turn of our collective experience just how toxic the public conversation and its consequent actions have become.
What happened to the wisdom that once guided leaders and would-be leaders to appeal to a commitment to the common good?
A national Hatfield and McCoy feud plays out daily between factions that have brought any semblance of effective governance and reasonable deliberation to a standstill.
What we have learned from watching our political and media process for the past few years is how easily fear and prejudice can be massaged by the right commentary into anger, and how easily that anger can be directed toward specific targets and morphed into a focused hatred that becomes a lens through which everything is seen.
We’ve been here before. Those with slightly longer memories can remember the vicious racism that accompanied the long struggle toward desegregation and civil rights legislation.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s vivid words spoke of racist leaders “with lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification,” who inspired those threatened by change to engage in all manner of vicious and violent response.
I remember well two signs along the highway in the neighboring county where my grandparents lived.
One was homemade, warning members of a race who fit the sign’s first epithet not to “let the sun set on you” in that particular county.
The other was a more officially funded billboard calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court, which had ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Hatred doesn’t seem to be a natural expression of the human spirit, but prejudice (in the sense of a limited perspective) and fear (in response to a challenge to that limited perspective) do seem to be something we all experience in the growth process of our journey.
Fear and prejudice can be exploited and moved toward anger, which then can be focused on a chosen “enemy” and refined into a hatred that becomes so narrow a tunnel vision that any alternative way of thinking is mentally ruled out of order before even being considered.
Frequent reminders tell us that the real damage of hatred is not to the designated object, but to the one who has allowed hatred to become a guiding principle for thought and action.
The humorous observation, “Hatred is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die,” is to the point.
I wonder if, beyond this personal impact, the context that allows itself to become an arena for the exercise of focused hatred, where the objects chosen can be any number of “threatening others,” can have its entire worldview poisoned by the encouragement of contempt and disrespect.
This subtle power and influence on a worldview seem to lie in the way hatred – like racism, materialism, idolatry and a host of other cultural infections – can weave itself into the fabric of a society and affect communication and relationships among people who would not normally engage in overt racist, materialist or idolatrous behavior.
Genuine human community is probably always vulnerable to those who would benefit from its fragmentation, and that fragmentation is always well served by the alienation – natural or contrived – that encourages people to see “others” in simplistic and threatening ways.
The Jewish context of the gospel’s origins was characterized by clear differences of perspective and volatile opposition, as Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots offered their different perspectives on the relation of the covenant faith to the government of the Roman Empire and to the values of the surrounding Greek culture.
In and to that context, Jesus offered an appeal to a higher ground of perspective that transcended the issues that defined the parties of Judaism.
If history teaches us anything, it is the lesson that life lived as a contest where hatred is a player is a contest that nobody wins.
It is ironic that the followers of Jesus seem to be as vulnerable as anyone else to being drawn into that contest.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.