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Responding to Hate in the Aftermath of the Charlottesville Rally (Petra Turner)

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Although I have called Charlottesville home for many years, as fate would have it, I wasn’t there when white supremacists and neo-Nazis came to town. That remove only seemed to make the disconnect between the town I knew and the events unfolding more profound.  The surrealism I felt as I watched the videos of events warred with the gut-wrenching disgust that insisted this was real.   The videos of the Lawn—a place where I have walked barefoot countless time, where I have read, and where I have taught classes—populated by men carrying torches, their chants born of racism and anti-Semitism, felt like a defilement. And it was meant to. It was meant to provoke, to taunt, to push against what they see as the misguided values of the majority of the American populace, and to thereby lay claim to territory in the public square.  For those of us who object to the overt racism and anti-Semitism (among other things) of the alt-right, these tactics enrage and frighten, leaving one vulnerable to unthinking reaction instead of reasoned and effective response.

In the days after the tragic events in Charlottesville, I have pondered how Christians should respond to the evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism in a way that neither glosses over the issues at hand, nor acts without charity.  How do we effectively “hate the sin and love the sinner,” as Augustine urges Christians to do? This is a pertinent question in these circumstances because, while we must unequivocally call out the evils of racism and anti-Semitism, recognizing, lamenting, and addressing the injuries these ideologies have caused, we must also seek to remove such evils from the world.  To do both requires a balance of love and justice.

Thinking with Aquinas

In determining the nature of this balance, Aquinas’ examinations of hatred and anger are useful.  For this section, Keith Green’s “Hating Sin in Summa II-II.Q34.A3 and I-II.Q23.A1” (Sophia 52:601-623) was incredibly helpful in refining my thoughts. Both hatred and anger are natural passions, and are therefore in themselves morally neutral. Natural hatred, according to Aquinas, is the opposite of natural love, and both encompass a far larger range of states than contemporary notions of these terms (605). As Aquinas notes:

Love consists in a certain agreement of the lover with the object loved, while hatred consists in a certain disagreement or dissonance. Now we should consider in each thing, what agrees with it, before that which disagrees: since a thing disagrees with another, through destroying or hindering that which agrees with it. Consequently love must needs precede hatred; and nothing is hated, save through being contrary to a suitable thing which is loved. And hence it is that every hatred is caused by love. (ST I-II.Q29.A1)

As Aquinas notes here, hatred arises from love, because whatever a person loves, she will hate its contrary, like a passional form of magnetic repulsion (ST I-II.Q29.A2).  Just as an individual who seeks something perceives it as a good, even if it is not actually so, hatred perceives its object as an evil, even if it is not actually evil.   To employ a benign example, a person with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease generally views wheat products as inimical to their well-being, and in that sense, she could be said to hate these items.   Following Aquinas’ understanding, just because this individual finds wheat products as a whole “evil” because they harm her, it does not mean that wheat products are in themselves evil. Moreover, this “natural” hatred does not generally manifest in said individual destroying the bread in the grocery aisle. In short, it does not rise to the level of what Green dubs “emotional” hatred (617).

For Aquinas, hatred enters the realm of morality when it becomes voluntary, and in becoming voluntary, begins to involve itself in the love of God and neighbor (or lack thereof) (ST II-II.Q34).  For Aquinas, “love is due our neighbor in respect of what he holds from God, i.e. in respect of nature and grace, but not in respect of” the neighbor’s sins, and there are actions that hurt the neighbor more than hatred, “e.g. theft, murder adultery,” etc. (ST II-II.Q34.A4), and these actions are not necessarily done through hatred. Nonetheless, when a person acts hurtfully toward a person whom he hates, these actions are “all to be traced through his inward hatred” (Ibid.), and this inward hatred determines the sinfulness of the actions committed.

Immoral hatred toward others thus arises when the individual is repulsed by her neighbor’s nature or any graces bestowed upon that same person. Several scholars have argued that, taken in a modern context, hating a person in this way could include hatred of her gender, race, orientation, or religion. Just like the repulsion of natural hatred, such hatred detests elements of the neighbor’s nature universally, such that hatred directed toward a particular person is but an instance of the hatred the individual bears toward all who possess such elements.

Anger differs from hatred, for Aquinas, in part because it is grounded in the particular (ST II-II.Q34.A6). It is a passion directed toward vengeance—retribution for harm done—and this vengeance can be ordinate or inordinate in relation to the harm committed:

If one desire revenge to be taken in accordance with the order of reason, the desire of anger is praiseworthy. . . On the other hand, if one desire the taking of vengeance in any way whatever contrary to the order of reason, for instance if he desire the punishment of one who has not deserved it, or beyond his deserts, or again contrary to the order prescribed by law, or not for the due end, namely the maintaining of justice and the correction of defaults, then the desire of anger will be sinful. (ST II-II.Q158.A2)

Justice thus measures the propriety of anger, because for Aquinas, justice hinges on giving each person his or her due, i.e. what she or he deserves. Anger can therefore be justified when the retribution remains in sync with what is due, and this for Aquinas constitutes righteous anger, and provides the content for St. Paul’s gloss on Psalms 4:4: “Be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26).

Because anger, in its proper exercise, uses punishment as a means to justice, anger has a limit. When the retribution is justly accomplished, the anger should subsequently cease (if it is governed by reason).  But anger, as Aquinas indicates, can often get out of hand, and thus anger for a particular wrong can escalate to hatred: “through the continuance of anger, man goes so far as absolutely to desire his neighbor’s evil, which desire is part of hatred” (ST II-II.Q34.A6). This shift from seeking harm to the neighbor under the auspices of justice, to seeking the neighbor’s harm for itself, without limit, indicates how hatred and anger can be related, and also why immoral hatred so often looks like excessive anger.

Despite the ease of going off the rails, hatred, like anger, can be morally good. It is right to hate sin (although we must be profoundly careful when designating sin), but in hating sin Aquinas specifies that we cannot hate the person sinning, because doing so would be to hate our neighbor.  But this distinction poses difficulties, for as many ethicists have noted, hating the sin often manifests in action as hating the sinner (Green 602-3).   But for Aquinas, hatred of sin has more kinship with anger than with hatred as such because hatred of sin, while absolute, possesses a relation to justice, and therefore to the good.  That is to say, since the actions arising from hatred of sin often take place in relation to another person or persons, these actions aim toward the good of the person involved.

Responding to Hate

After the rally in Charlottesville, people were understandably angry. The injuries caused after the car rammed into people demand justice. The hate that fueled the rally left its scars—physical and emotional—upon the city and the people.  But how do we justly respond to these things?  The car attack in itself is more straightforward, as injury committed requires recompense insofar as recompense is possible.  This falls within the Thomistic exercise of righteous anger.  What is harder is addressing the hate the led James Fields to inflict such harm.

It is so easy to hate those who participated in the rally, who beat up DeAndre Harris and still haven’t been arrested, who killed Heather Heyer, who stood outside Congregation Beth Israel during morning services with semi-automatic weapons.  And it is easy to let that hate spill over into something wrong, or helplessly to set aside the events in Charlottesville and let ourselves be distracted by the next day’s news. Both, I think, are dangerous in different ways.

How do we hate the sin, when the sin is an ideology leading to violent acts, without hating the sinner?  How do we “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute” members of our community (Matt. 5:44)?

I don’t have answers for questions that big. Sometimes all we can do is muddle through with the little light we have. But employing Aquinas’ descriptions of anger and hate can help us figure out what not to do, at least in part.

One of the responses to the events in Charlottesville that has popped up in the news is the phenomenon of doxxing—the act of giving out personally identifiable information on public internet venues in order to shame.  Anger against those who participated in the rally has led to quite a few doxxings. Individuals have identified many alt-right protesters caught on camera, and several have lost their jobs in the wake of this identification, or even received death threats. Aside from the inevitable mis-identifications that have occurred, this act of causing harm to another person, even an individual with a morally repugnant ideology, troubles me.  By exposing these men, they are effectively cutting them off from rejoining more mainstream communities. Although the loss of their jobs and the subsequent death threats could possibly cause them to distance themselves from alt-right groups, it could also push them further into their alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white-supremacist groups, and fuel their anger at those beyond them.

Such action seems to fit into Aquinas’ definition of inordinate anger: inflicting more punishment than the injury committed warrants. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely against bigotry and religious discrimination, and I think that the individuals at the rally should be called to account for their actions, probably through those outside the alt-right who know them. Nevertheless, there is a difference between doxxing people who were at the rally and doxxing the people who are more prominent in the groups that organized it.  It is true that doxxing has a certain effectiveness when aimed at unmasking alt-right bloggers and podcast hosts whose public persona is pseudonymous, and therefore might be justifiable as an action.  This type of focused doxxing disrupts and weakens the alt-right, and because these individuals are publicly broadcasting their views and teaching people hate, the extent of the harm they cause is greater.

When done to the anonymous participant at the rally, however, I would surmise that doxxing strengthens the alt-right. It reinforces their feelings of disadvantage and status anxiety, and will, most likely, perpetuate their hatred for the groups they feel are “replacing” them.  The act of doxxing also worries me from the standpoint of the doxxer and those who support unfocused doxxing.  If you look at the @YesYoureRacist Twitter feed, the number of comments indicating delight when someone doxxed loses his job is disquieting.  For Aquinas, immoral hatred wishes evil upon the one they perceive as evil, and this without limit.   Perhaps more pertinently, even if an action is morally justifiable under the auspices of appropriate retribution, it still contains sinfulness if the one handing out the “sentence,” as it were, has a personal malice toward the one being punished.  And given that individuals must know (in some way) the people they are doxxing, it does seem as if personal malice is a factor.

Perhaps people doxx because they feel they must take a stand in some way against the racism and anti-Semitism so recently visible in Charlottesville.  But if, ultimately, our hatred of sin is supposed to move the sinning individual away from that sin, I’m not sure it’s an effective means of doing so. That said, how do we love the sinner, without maintaining the evil of racism and anti-Semitism? How do we help them to unlearn their hatred of neighbor?  How, in effect, do we prove them wrong?  Mass media doesn’t work; it is too clumsy a tool for such transformations. I think it must be done on an individual basis, with attention to the particulars, and that can only occur if those who stand against unreasoning hate can extend a hand to the one that hates.

Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.

One Comment

  1. Petra, Thank you for a very thoughtful commentary. It has given me much food for thought on the matter of how we as Christians respond to evil. Evil seems to be coming at us from many angles but certainly Charlottesville was blatant and ugly “in your face” evil. As I prepare to preach on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 5:38-48 this Sunday, I am hoping to remain true to the text but also realistic as to how my sisters and brothers in the pews are feeling at the moment. We must respond to the evil but we simply cannot allow ourselves to hate our enemies; this is no easy task. Your comments are helping me to thread the moral needle between a proper response and an improper one. We can easily deceive ourselves and justify revenge in the name of justice. I always try to look to MLK’s response to evil as one that stood up to evil but attempted to follow Christ’s example in doing so. Thank you again for your courageous and humble comments. Some might misinterpret them if they don’t read them carefully enough, but whenever we attempt to speak the truth that is always a possibility.

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