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Love, Hate, and Christianity

Love, Hate, and Christianity

In In Defense of Hatred, I asserted that ἀγάπη (agape) is a form of love which is compatible with hatred, despite being incompatible with dehumanization:

Translated literally, it means “affection,” with a universal connotation, as in greeting strangers with affection. It also describes the respect and love shown to the dead. It is, then, a command to recognize the humanity and the “divine spark” in others, even in our enemies, because the English word “love”–which is much closer to the Greek philia than agape–cannot apply to the dead as dead, and is self-destructive if it applies to the stranger in the same way that it applies to our family and friends. It is an injunction to universal respect of the other as being like us, because they too are human.

As we often use the term today, “respect” means veneration and love. It means we “like” something. But respect used to mean that we recognized quality in something, whether it is a friend or an enemy. “Respect your enemy” meant to not underestimate them. “Respect nature” meant to be wary of storms and wildlife, and to understand the vastness of its power and unpredictability. In light of the original meaning of these words, “love your enemy” means you must see the humanity–the power, intelligence, memory, and in Christian theology, the divine nature–in your enemies.

Such a command is practical, spiritually powerful, and aligns with a theory of hatred which is justified in understanding one’s enemy, rather than willfully misunderstanding them. Your enemy is human. To call him a “cockroach,” a “rat,” or a “cancer” may feel empowering, but it commits the sin of misunderstanding the nature of your enemy, and precludes the possibility of either justifying your hatred or seeing that he is not, in fact, your enemy, whichever the case may be.

This recognition of likeness runs somewhat contrary to the ordinary understanding of the word ἀγάπη, which is generally understood to be both the highest form of love, and also the love of man for God, and of God for man. I feel that I did not go into adequate depth in justifying this claim in the book, so I will attempt to expand upon the concept here.

Here’s a question to start with: why does God love us?

Intuitively, we can suppose this to be the case because he created us. But he did not merely create us in the way that he created the plants and the animals and everything else; he created us in his own image.

Theology aside for a moment, it is common for us to have an attraction to people who look like us. And of course, we like things that we make, especially if we have made them well. The fact that this may sound like projection is, in fact, perfectly in line with the assertion that we are image-bearers of God: God creates us in his image, and we love things that look like ourselves. Why would God not love us because of our similarity with him?

A deeper, but relevant, question might be the following: in what sense do we resemble him?

This is difficult to pin down, and perhaps beyond our knowledge, but my guess would be that we share some part of our inward nature with him, and it is only this recognition between kinds that renders God knowable to us at all. Perhaps it has something to do with an underlying desire for the act of creation, or perhaps it has something to do with consciousness. It may have to do with something else entirely.

In any case, the love which God has for mankind appears to be related to our likeness to him, and this mirrors the love which we extend to each other in proportion to our likeness (that we love our family more than strangers, that we love members of our own race more than people from other nations, that we love humans generally more than primates, that we love mammals like cats and dogs more than we love trees, etc).

This means that my definition of  ἀγάπη as a “recognition of likeness” is not at all incompatible with the more generally held meaning, but is in fact a more precise explanation of its underlying nature. “The love of man for God, and the love of God for man” is as it is because of the likeness we behold in each other, and if we look closely, we can see this image in others too.

A cursory glance through the Old Testament–and through the history of Christianity more broadly–is enough to clear up any confusion about this interpretation requiring pacifism. But how can we hate someone if they bear the image of goodness itself? Outside the realm of theology, such questions are easily dismissed: a murderer is not only a murderer, and if he happens to work and sleep and take care of his mother, we do not condemn those aspects of him when we execute him for his crime. So too is the divine nature not the sole component of an individual. Indeed, one of the central questions of Christianity seems to be “why do any of us deserve to live at all?”

Needless to say, it is not our place to condemn anyone as completely good or evil, or even “mostly good” or “mostly evil,” since no one has final knowledge of what anyone’s life (including their own) amounts to. Nevertheless, this caution does not in any way prevent us from condemning evil as it exists in the moment. Indeed, the Bible repeatedly enjoins us to hate evil. Anyone who says that Christianity is against hate is either lying or does not know what they are talking about.

What about “love the sinner, hate the sin?”

This attitude tacitly accepts a bias in favor of the goodness of man, which is not theologically warranted as far as I can tell. I think if we were to accept this honestly, we would be equally obliged to say “love the spirit, hate the flesh.” The injunction to hate the sin apart from the sinner separates agency from the actor, and finds responsibility for the sin elsewhere. Goodness comes from God, so if people must not be hated on account of the source of their sin, neither can they be loved on account of their virtue.

Was Jesus acting out of love when he attacked the money-changers in the Temple? If so, then by all means hate with love, but the grammar seems unnecessarily tortured.

Better, I think, to simply judge in the moment; to love what is good, and to hate what is evil, and always be willing to reconcile or re-evaluate. To do so requires us to really put ourselves in the shoes of others, and to see ourselves in them. We may love what we see, or we may hate it, but the act of truly looking at the other is what is asked of us when we are called upon to love–ἀγάπη–one another.

In sophistication, in the potential for intimacy and connection, there is no higher love than truly seeing another: not eros (erotic), nor stergein (familial), nor phileos (brotherly). To truly see someone, and to see yourself and to see the image God, does not render void the injunctions to hate what is evil, nor is it incompatible with a person being evil. So the theological injunction to “love” one another is not opposed to hating, but perfectly compatible.

And of course, any stergeineros, or phileos love is not worth anything if it does not hold within it the strength of potential hatred.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I think “love the sinner, hate the sin” still applies when the sinners are actual Christians. You are right, bias in favor of the goodness of man is not theologically sound when applied to non-believers. But Christians are made new by the Holy Spirit and inherently good (the evil part of them is of the flesh and not actually “them” in a theological sense).

    “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who HATES a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”-1 John 3:14-15

    1. That is a very good point. Transformation is a pretty critical factor in determining the validity of hatred: if what you hate has ceased being what made it hateful (to use Christian theological terminology, has “died” and been “reborn”), then it may be unjustified and impractical to continue hating it generally.

      It may be worth some exploration into the original Greek used to denote “enemy.” I am not sure if they mean this in the traditional military sense; without looking, my guess would be that it’s closer to “adversary?”

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