Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

October 3, 1999

Numbers 35:16-25a; I John 3:11-16

A NEW YORK TIMES article this past week asked, "What's So Bad About Hate?" The question seems almost rhetorical. We've seen too much in recent months of the consequences of hate. We've seen people brutally killed in ethnic and religious strife in places like Kosovo and East Timor. We've seen people discriminately, and indiscriminately, shot at and killed by men and children with guns. We know of bombings and beatings, domestic violence and acts of intimidation, by people who seem to be motivated by hate. What's so bad about hate is that it kills and mains and destroys human life and community.

A relatively new term has come into our vocabulary to speak of some of this violence. In 1985 there were 11 mentions of "hate crimes" in the national media database Nexis. By 1990 there were more than a thousand. In the first half of this year there were 7,000 (ibid.). Mention of hate crimes has become so common, and their condemnation so routine, that you would assume we all know what are talking about. But "hate" is a word that seems to have many possible meanings in our current discussion. "Hate crimes" are those crimes that seem to be motivated by prejudice, or bigotry, or bias, or some kind of generalized enmity or contempt for a particular grouping of people. Such "hate crimes" are seen as irrational, as discriminatory, as jeopardizing or disadvantaging the members of some particular social or ethnic group merely because of their membership in that group. "Hate crimes" seem worse than other crimes that may result in the same degree of harm.

"Hate crimes" are really crimes of prejudice, or bigotry, or hostility or violence toward the members some particular group. They are also crimes of hate, but hate that does not seem to be personal, hate that does not seem to have much if anything to do with the individual, unique identity of the person or persons being attacked. "Hate crimes" are perpetrated by people who seem to discriminate against persons on the basis of their group identity, rather than on the basis of those person's individual identities. Most members of our society seem to think that perpetrators of hate crimes deserve "enhanced penalties"--greater punishment, harsher sentences--than perpetrators of other crimes. For some reason it seems right to impose greater punishment on those who commit violence against others based on their group identity rather than on their individual identity.

This morning I invite you to think about hate that is more particular and more personal than the hate in "hate crimes." You see, I think the popular language of "hate crimes" is misleading. It seems to suggest that only certain crimes are crimes of hate. The fact is that most crimes of violence against other persons are not what we call "hate crimes," but these are crimes of hate nonetheless. The jealous husband who brutalizes his wife; the jilted woman who murders her ex-boyfriend; the angry citizen who assaults his neighbor; the disgruntled former employee who assassinates his boss; the enraged day-trader who slaughters his brokers; these are all persons who commit crimes of hate.

Hate comes in many forms, but in every crime of hate there seems to be the intention to harm another human being. Our Old Testament text from Numbers makes this point quite clearly: "if someone pushes another from hatred, or hurls something at another, lying in wait, and death ensues, or in enmity strikes another with the hand, and death ensues, then the one who struck the blow shall be put to death; that person is a murderer" [35:20-21]. On the other hand, "if someone pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues" [35:22-23], then the action is something short of murder and the one who caused the death of the other is to be protected from any vengeance that might follow. The presence of enmity, or the intention to do harm, makes all the difference, even though the resulting death is the same. This ancient law does not elaborate on circumstances of negligence or carelessness. It simply makes clear that without hate there may be an accident, even an unintended death, but no crime of murder. For the resulting death to be murder, there must have been enmity or hate.

When we turn to our New Testament text from I John, we find an even stronger statement about hate: "Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them" [3:14-15]. Here there is no question of the taking of life. The very hatred itself makes one a murderer. The very hatred itself makes it impossible for the one who hates to have "eternal life." This life is God's alternative to our perishing. It is, according to the Gospel of John, God's gift of love in the Son, Jesus Christ, that we might not perish. But perish we will, if we have hatred toward a brother or sister in our hearts.

And yet the Bible also has other things to say about hate. One of the most troublesome appears in Psalm 139. Right in the midst of a wonderfully poetic affirmation of God's presence in all places, the psalm declares, "O that you would kill the wicked, O God." And a verse or so later, the psalmist exclaims, "Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred" [139:19, 20-21]. Think about that: hating with perfect hatred! As though nothing could be more sublime! We should note, however, that God does not commend such hatred. This is the psalmist speaking, not God. But it makes us wonder whether there are times and circumstances in which to hate.

In Ecclesiastes there are those familiar words, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . . a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace" [3:1, 8]. And in many places God is said to hate. In Isaiah God hates robbery and wrongdoing [61:8]. In Amos God hates the empty, faithless worship of Israel [5:21]. In Jeremiah God hates the worship of other gods [44:4]. In Zechariah God hates false oaths and the ways in which human devise of harm against one another in their hearts [8:17]. In sum, what God hates is falsity and evil [cf. Amos 5:15; Romans 12:9]. God is not said in any of these places to hate those who are false and evil. The psalmist is expressing his own hatred when he hates those who hate God. What God is said to hate is not the people themselves, but their vain worship and their evildoing. It is the ways we do not honor God, and the ways we seek to harm one another, that God hates. It is our false worship and our enmity, our hatred, our intentions to harm one another, that God will not abide.

I could end my sermon right here, but I want to add a footnote that speaks to us both personally and as citizens of our society. It is our hatred for one another, and our intentions to harm one another, that God will not abide. One of the ways we show this hatred and this intention to harm is by our desire to punish wrongdoers. The desire to punish is, more often than not, mixed up with our desire to harm. It is one thing to want to stop wrongdoing, and to protect those who may be its victims, it is another thing to want to exact vengeance or retribution or punishment. As individuals and as a society we are called to speak and act against violence of all kinds. We are called to say an emphatic "no" to the harmful intentions and actions of others. We are called to protect those who are vulnerable, and help those who are victims. The need to do this can hardly be over-stated. But we are not called to punish.

"Enhanced penalties" for "hate crimes" or any other crimes of hate are not the answer to the hatred and violence in our midst. Sheer punishment does nothing but harm. We must find ways to stop the violence, the abuse, the harm, without returning it in kind. More fundamentally, we must find ways to deal with the hate that rages in the human heart. John Dewey once noted that people "do not shoot because targets exist, but they set up targets in order that throwing and shooting may be more effective and significant." Just so, people do not commit "hate crimes" because their victims somehow invite hate and harm. The victims are hardly to blame. People commit "hate crimes" and all other sorts of crimes against one another because they hate, and they seek a target for that hate. Why people hate--why we hate--is surely a complicated matter. But so long as we hate and seek to harm one another, we perish. Eternal life does not abide in us. AMEN.