I have been deeply saddened by the events that have unfolded in both Charlottesville, Virginia and in my own country, Kenya this past weekend. I think the concurrence of hate’s tendency to fester like an infected wound was made apparent to me in a different way. Hatred is universal, and while I live in America, I am Kenyan. Being far away from my country, I am not removed from the root cause of racism[s] (in America’s case) and tribalism[s] (in Kenya’s case). Ethnocentrism is the biggest moral dilemma of our age, and to keep silent about our failure to thrive pluralistically, is to bury our heads in the sand. We cannot run away from this.
We can choose a different way.
However, I realize that while this is true, I cannot lay the blame solely on the socializations and acculturations that have made the world this way. That makes it too easy! Folks will throw up their hands and say that nothing can be done. I refuse to believe that. I also realize that the responsibility lies primarily with an individual’s ability to choose. Free will – a gift given by God has today become a curse.
Deliberation and choice is often perceived as a private matter. One may consult, question, do some research, but it is a lonely thing to come to a decision. So what happens when folks disagree? When does agency take shape? When does a decision materialize into an action?
What motivates our choices? Fear and belonging.
The hierarchizations and assemblages humanity has constructed are founded on the fear of “the other”, fear of “the unknown” and fear of what “cannot be understood”. We become afraid of what we think we cannot control. Thus we are instinctively drawn to those who look like us, speak like us, live by us etc. because we are convinced that they are safer than what lies “out there”. It is human; [a fight or flight response if you will] and we are slaves to it in the most prosaic way. We thrive on glorifying difference, because difference provides us a false sense of belonging –a community of sameness.
However, if we think about it, what is it that really constitutes ‘difference’ in human beings? Is it personality? Gender? Ability? Race? Socioeconomic status? Sexual orientation? Indeed, the longer the list grows, the more difference can be created. Isn’t there more to divide us than there is to bring us together? Furthermore, if sameness is to be lauded and difference is to be shunned; what happens to everything else in between? Friends, that is perhaps where the extremes lie: tribalism, factionalism, racism and bigotry all live here. If same and different function as paradigms of their own making (and their own undoing), they perhaps will always bear traces of one another, but choose to be outside of each other.
Fear is instinctual, hate is learned.
As an ethicist, it is my business to think about why people act in a particular way. So the bigger question for me is how much responsibility is placed on choice when it comes to moral action? In this case, when does hatred become a matter of responsibility versus choice? Isn’t everyone justified to think however they want and permitted to do whatever they want? When one makes a certain moral choice, she must be justified based on past experience, upbringing, environmental conditioning etc. Right? I believe that the more crucial moral responsibility is to choose what is good and right even when it isn’t the popular opinion.
Hatred is a learned behavior just like love is. Stephen R. Covey, a leadership guru, is known to have said that “[People] see the world, not as it is, but as they are — or, as they are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms…”, whether they are true or not. Hatred and Bigotry are not demonic on their own, they aren’t ethereal forces that climb onto an unsuspecting person’s back. They are given power by people who have chosen to carry them along in their heart. This is why a 20-year-old man would drive into a crowd of people who think differently from him in a fit of rage. Hatred has no recourse; it will always choose death and destruction. Exercising choice, on the other hand, is difficult. It may not be a fluid transition from deliberation to compassion because of that moving sermon one heard last Sunday. It might be violent and painful to go against every fiber of one’s being. It is Christianity.
Love is loud. Love is risky.
I personally recoil from any Christianity, which wants me to believe that love is composed of hugs, kisses and cute cherubs with little bows and arrows. “Love each other as I have loved you” is a command to action, to place one’s body in harm’s way like the counter-protesters did in Charlottesville. How has Christ loved us? To the point of death. Love is a choice to bleed, to die, to be condemned, to be excluded from our communities of sameness for the sake of justice. Like Heather Heyer did. To give up a position of privilege is to physically demonstrate the choice one has made. And that friends, is the hardest thing to do . It is easy to hate, or alternatively to love in the shadows. Make your choice public so it can cultivate justice. As the famous Edward Burke quote goes: “evil triumphs when good people do nothing”. In other words: “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” I push it one step further: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s enemy and/or for a stranger” If this sounds ridiculous, it is because it is. Possibly, just as ridiculous as it was for Christ to die for you and me. If we can believe that, then we can believe that to give up our “rights” in order for all the world to be free, is not that great a sacrifice.
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