Peace in Our Time?

Janice Shaw Crouse

1/22/2011 12:01:00 AM - Janice Shaw Crouse

"Can we all get along?"

-Rodney King

In these times when irrational hatreds erupt in such terrifying tragedy, Rodney King’s nearly 20-year-old question re-echoes. Hard experience answers: No, not really. Not in this fallen world. Neither in ancient times (Hebrews and Philistines, Athens and Sparta), nor recent times (Korea, Viet Nam, Iran and Iraq). Not between semi-literate tribes (Hutus and Tutsis), nor among highly educated countries (England, Germany, and France). Certainly not between liberals (Bill Maher) and conservatives (Ann Coulter). Not even members of the same family (Cain and Abel). Nothing in mankind’s recorded history says we can all get along. But why not?

According to one school of thought, we hate simply because we are taught to hate. In the bitter, despairing words of one of the songs of the 1949 Broadway musical, South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are 6 or 7 or 8

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

If hate exists solely because it is passed along from one generation to the next, who taught Cain to hate and murder his brother Abel? Adam and Eve? Who taught them? And who, pray tell, teaches furious toddlers — presumed by romantics to be innocent of all evil inclinations — to scream “I hate you” to their parents on occasions when they are unable to get their own way?

Still, there is one aspect of the song from South Pacific that is worth pondering. Anger and fear are often reflexive, spontaneous emotional responses which normally fade away over time in a healthy person. What distinguishes hatred is the added element of ratiocination involved. If properly “cultivated” by repeatedly digging up the memories of the offense, hatred can last a life time — even generation after generation. Hatred is a sort of congealed version of anger or fear; rather than just a temporary emotional state, it often is more enduring, like an attitude or disposition. One way we preserve negative emotions such as anger, fear, or envy so that they acquire an unhealthy degree of permanence is by stirring resentment into the mixture, much as we add cement to sand and gravel to make concrete.

There are, of course, instances of anger, fear, and even hatred that are functional (e.g., the fight or flight response to threats) and desirable (e.g., indignation at injustice). Scripture has numerous instances where these emotions are put in a positive light. King Solomon famously stated that there is “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). And the shepherd prophet, Amos, enjoins the people to “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate” (Amos 5:15).

Unlike anger and fear, however, there is one emotion, namely envy, which is proscribed uniformly in Scripture, from Adam and Eve’s temptation to envy God’s knowledge of good and evil to the Tenth Commandment which forbids us to covet. The tragic effects of envy curdling into hatred are nowhere more evident than in politics, past and present. The animosity of competing political groups has a long, but certainly not venerable, history. The envy of the “outs” of the power and prestige of those in leadership (whether of the opposing party or their own) often makes the effort to govern a near impossibility.

It is no use simply to call — as many voices have done in the wake of the eruption of vitriol following the Tucson massacre — for a “return” to the civility of an earlier golden age in politics, an age that never was. If there is to be a shining age of civil discourse, we shall, by the grace of God, have to invent one.

To make the positive course correction being called for, it will first be necessary to recognize the difference between the direction in which we are heading and the direction that needs to be taken. And herein lies the rub. Which party to today’s political acrimony is prepared to admit the need to change course? Certainly those who have bought into the moral relativism pushed by today’s learned thinkers can hardly be expected to abandon the position that “your truth is your truth and my truth is mine.” If there is no absolute truth, then there are no facts, no lies, no moral standards — just feelings and opinions as to which course to follow. Admitting any need to examine the factual basis for their hatred of anyone opposing their ideas would entail postmodern secularists denying their feelings; this would be, to them, an act of self-betrayal.

One fairly representative stalwart progressive (who puts her perceptions ahead of the truth of Scripture) said it this way: “What kind of person would I be if I could not react, temporarily at least, to injustice, presumption, evil, or arrogant idiocy with feelings of anger or rage? Would that not be an amputation of my emotional life?” Hmm. Since there’s no recognized moral authority, is she referring to her definition of evil or mine? And what is a more “arrogant idiocy” than the attempt to construct morality out of little more than the feeling that the only thing worthy of opprobrium is prejudice and discrimination; otherwise it’s the amorality of “do as you please,” but don’t presume to try hold me to any moral standard.

The Old Testament, on the other hand, lays down a standard and requires of its adherents, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart” (Leviticus 19:17). Christ raised the bar even higher. He taught his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Only if our people return to the hard moral precepts revealed in Scripture can we find a new course — a true course — to an age where there is any hope that we can “all get along,” one where Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom, equality, and justice can become a reality.