After Saturday’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump offered this diagnosis of our cultural moment:
It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world. And something has to be done.
Indeed. All the hate is terrible. And something does have to be done. Many of us wonder if one of the first things that might be done would be for Mr. Trump to have a glance in the mirror (or his Twitter feed) and ponder some of the ways he might have contributed to “what’s going on with hate in our country,” but there is truth, however clumsily put, in what the US president says. What, then, is to be done about all this hate?
A few solutions presented themselves on my morning tour through the news feed. First, there was Trump himself who, naturally, blamed the mainstream news media for all the hate. My instinct when it comes to Trump is to not dignify his words with a response. All the panting elation and fury that accompanies his every tweet is surely what he craves and I am reticent to contribute to it. But the hypocrisy and hubris required for Trump to dismiss his own role in if not creating then certainly contributing to the culture of hatred that he condemns is breathtaking. Having said that, the media surely does play a role in the polarizing of American discourse. Division sells advertising, after all. Hatred, for all the bad press it gets, is enormously profitable.
Second, I encountered a New York Times piece bemoaning social media’s failure to get a handle on all the hate. It was a story that seemed almost laughably naïve to me. The image of Silicon Valley execs earnestly puzzling over why their latest algorithm doesn’t seem to be controlling the problem of hate seems comically absurd. Human hatred is a rather ancient problem, after all, and one that isn’t likely to be solved by tweaking and modifying platforms that
allow incentivize people to anonymously react in real time, and to congregate in like-minded echo chambers that ratchet up the worst of human scapegoating tendencies. But that doesn’t stop the social media giants from trying to solve the problem of hate (or us from expecting them to). And hard at work they remain:
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and other technology aimed at finding and removing unwanted content from their sites.
Well, that’s good. Perhaps the robots will do something about all the hate.
My third stop was at a Christian Century article about the problem of Christians focusing their critique on the incivility of “both sides” of the culture wars. While there may be some limited merit to this approach, the author says, these are desperate times and Christians can’t afford to be mealy-mouthed about things. We must call out evil unambiguously, clearly, courageously. We must name the problem and get to work. Here is what is to be done about all the hate:
Accomplishing all of that will require addressing race, class, geography, the arrangement of power, and the dysfunction of corporate media, all in the headwinds of a factionalism that demands its opponents be jailed. And that’s before we get to the hard part: undoing those same social divisions in the pews of America’s churches.
Sounds great. Except it is precisely this approach that drives many people into the grateful arms of the Trumps of the world. Those who fear the very rearrangements that the author of this article sees as our salvation from hatred will chafe at the imposition of such a social agenda. Indeed, Trump’s politics offer people so inclined a refuge from such rearrangements. And so it will go until the other side gets their turn in power. But two sides of a culture war endlessly fighting over who has the power to impose their social agenda on the other seems only destined to continue spinning fruitlessly (and hatefully and violently) on.
I made one more stop this morning, this time in the Gospel according to Luke where Jesus speaks these words:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
We would do well to pay attention to Jesus’ words here (indeed, those of us who are over-familiar with Jesus-y words should probably go back and read them again). We are experts at loving those on our team, at stroking those whose views align with our own, at speaking and acting always with an eye to what we’re going to get out of the deal, whether it’s reputation or status or the appearance of virtue, or any of the other currencies we so desperately crave. Anyone can play that game, Jesus says. It’s the easiest game in the world. You want to do something radical? Try loving an enemy. And not a generic, suitably hypothetical enemy but the actual enemy who makes your blood boil, who you find incomprehensibly stupid and quite possibly dangerous, who you think the world would, frankly, be better off without.
Can you extend mercy even to the ungrateful and the wicked? Because that’s what makes you a child of God, according to Jesus.
But surely this is just another social agenda that one group (and a religious group, no less!) would seek to impose on another, right? Perhaps. I have few illusions that the Robert Bowers of the world are suddenly going to be rerouted by a glance at a few words from the lips of Jesus or that vast swaths of the population are suddenly going to be converted to the way of Christ as the solution to all the hate in the world. And “Love your enemies” can sound about as practical as “You know, someone ought to do something about all the hate.” Both sound, well, just a little naïve. Maybe even impossible.
But I retain hope if only because Jesus’ words are inescapably and uncomfortably personal. If this is a social agenda, it is only so indirectly. “Doing something about all the hate” starts with individual human beings. How could it be otherwise? There are structural approaches to social problems that can and do ameliorate the worst inclinations of the human heart. But ultimately the “something that has to be done about hate” is profoundly personal. There is no such thing as an abstract “hate” to “do something about,” only human beings who nourish hatred in their hearts and minds and communities.
Who will we love and why? This is what Jesus asks each one of us. Will our “love” be an extension of ourselves and our own projects, nothing more? Or will we be stubbornly, scandalously merciful, as God is merciful and so demonstrate that we are his children?