A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 15, 2017
1 John 4:7-9, 18 ESV
“What drives hate?” These are the first words on the first page of the January 4, 2017, issue of the Christian Century magazine. Century editor, Peter W. Marty, shares that he had spent a day in December at the White House with rabbis, imams, and Christian clergy who had come together to learn as much as they could about the character of hate and the role that religious communities play in building a more humane world.1 By some estimates, hate crimes in the US have risen in recent months.
Well, Marty’s editorial got me to thinking about hate, and from where hate issues; what ignites and fuels it; in short, what could possibly be the root cause of hate, as well as some of the other problems of the world. If we could get to the root cause of hatred and its siblings – prejudice, bigotry, persecution, and the like – then maybe we could eradicate at least some of the hatred in the world.
A totally different, but related, article in a recent edition of The Washington Post listed some of what are projected to be the major religion stories of 2017. At the top of the list is “religious freedom.” And we know that the antithesis of religious freedom is religious prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.
So, what might be the root cause – or one of the root causes, at least – of hatred and its associates? The answer, I have decided, is in one word “fear.” Fear can lead to suspicion, prejudice, bigotry, and ultimately hatred. And as we all know, the outcome of hatred can be acts of violence.
Now, I have never been a real big fan of Christian theologian C.S. Lewis. I tried to read C.S. Lewis while in seminary, but what I read just didn’t connect with me. However, in his editorial, Peter Marty hits the nail on the head when he quotes C.S. Lewis who wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.” To paraphrase, if I don’t know you, then I may fear you. And if I fear you, then ultimately I may hate you. Such has been proven to be the case over and again in American history. A few examples:
From colonial days, there was fear of the Black man, who wanted to “rape our white women.” And such fear led to hatred of the Black man, which led to beatings and lynching, tar and feathering, and so on.
During World War II, there was fear of Japanese Americans. Such fear was at least in part related to racism, which in turn led to innocent American citizens being rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps.
Many Americans are totally ignorant about the religious beliefs and practices of those who follow Sikhism, Shintoism, Islam, Buddhism and other world religions. So if we don’t know them, we may fear them. And if we fear them, it is deemed okay to hate and persecute them.
Those who have never personally known gay, lesbian or transgender persons may fear them. And lack of knowledge and fear can lead to hatred, and hatred to acts of violence.
You see, the long and short of it is, as humans we tend to fear the unknown. And one human coping mechanism to dealing with our fears of the unknown is to suspect, demonize, and grow to hate them.
So then, if fear is one of the root causes of hatred in the world, what might be its cure? That is the million dollar question. The Christian answer is love – love is the antidote to the hate of the world. As Peter Marty says, “people of deep faith . . . [are] focused on wearing down hate-filled souls through beautiful acts of love.”1
Such is why I chose that reading from the First Letter of John. John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 ESV). Or as the Common English Bible renders it, “perfect love drives out fear.”
But before we are able to love someone who is of a different religion, nationality, ethnicity, worldview, or sexual orientation, we may need to get to know them. Getting to know someone can dissolve away fear, which can lead to love, which results in doing away with hatred.
Allow me to share another, personal example: Prior to moving to Albany, New York, we had served pretty traditional, southern, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant congregations. But moving to First Congregational Church in Albany – the capital of the state of New York and somewhat of an international city, with some 14 colleges and universities – proved to be a whole new experience. We lived in a neighborhood that had a heavy population of Catholics, Conservative Jews, diverse nationalities, and some Hasidic Jews. The lab tech who drew my blood every six months at the local hospital lab was Pakistani (and he was wonderful, by the way). The congregation included not only white Congregationalists, but a few of Indian descent, African American descent, Jewish background, a Wiccan, and a few patients from the large Psych hospital down the street from the church. But this was also our first encounter with openly gay and lesbian, same-sex couples who regularly attended church together.
Now, in my earlier years of ministry and previous congregations, I would have feared such diversity and the presence of “non-traditional” members. I would have feared for the unrest or controversy that might have ensued within the congregations because of the vast diversity. But you know what, when we got to know all those folks, we grew to love them, and all fear melted away. “Perfect love casts out fear.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” King also said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
An important American official wrote to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, affirming that “the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, [and] to persecution no assistance.” Would you care to guess when that letter was written and by whom? It was written at the end of the 18th century by President George Washington. Could it be affirmed that what Washington declared about the United States giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance has always been the case, is the case today, and will be the case in the future? Must we not confess that our nation has not always lived up to Washington’s promise? And the current prospects seem iffy at best.
In summary, I am convinced that at least one root cause of hatred and other such problems that plague our country and our world is fear; fear of the unknown. What and whom we don’t know, we fear. And what and whom we fear, we can very easily come to hate. And what and whom we come to hate, we feel justified in persecuting.
A cure for fear and hatred is getting to know. So a positive step that each of us can take toward improving relations in our community and in our world is to make a point to get to know that person who is different by race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. And when we really get to know, we may learn to love. And love will cast out fear and its resulting consequence, hatred. May it be so for us. And God grant that it may be so for America. Amen.
1Peter W. Marty, “What drives hate?” Christian Century, Jan. 4, 2017, p. 3.