Seeing Beyond Hate

Seeing Beyond Hate

a sermon by The Rev. Kevin Tarsa

delivered September 24, 2017

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

Grass Valley, CA

In reaction to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, with its violence and its participants’ Nazi and anti-Jewish chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” our national and private conversations in response have been focused on hate – hate groups, hate speech, hate crimes, hate violence, and fear of the same.

A bipartisan congressional resolution against hate, signed by the President, recognizes “the growing prevalence of … hate groups in the United States” and urges the president “to improve the reporting of hate crimes.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has long monitored and fought against groups listed in their Hate Watch and noted on their Hate Map  (917 groups currently, two near here) Their Ten Ways to Fight Hate document is available online for free download – all good and important work by the SPLC. (

And though I appreciate and commend the ten kinds of action they recommend to make a difference, holding up HATE as the focus never sits well with me, even to rail against it.

[PHOTO of “I hate hate” T-shirt]

In the march and rally in Sacramento to Stand in Solidarity with Charlottesville, the anti-hate chants and slogans did not ring true to me, though I knew they were coming from well meaning persons.

My discomfort comes, in part, from a belief and my experience that often what we resist persists, or as our mission renewal workshop facilitator, Linda Laskowski, put it yesterday when she was speaking of Appreciative Inquiry, “We become what we focus on.” We energize and shore up those things we focus on, even to oppose them. (Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. –  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

My discomfort with focusing on hate comes also from my long-time study of George Lakoff’s ideas about framing – the notion that the language and metaphors we use shape what and how we think, shape what we believe needs to be done, and shape what we can imagine as possible.

If we define hate as “the problem,” then our questions and our solutions will orbit around a particular set of ideas and expectations deeply associated with hate. And this is a misplaced focus, a distracting focus that prevents us from seeing what we really need to see and address.

Drawing on the work of Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski in their book, Considering Hate, I want to take issue with the popular focus on hate, for the sake of our political, our emotional and our spiritual health and well-being, and I want to invite us to invest, long term, in more productive and helpful focal points and framings that are anchored in our UU faith tradition.

[photo of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at and spat upon by white segregationists]

When I first saw photos like this years ago, of someone radiating rage at another human being for no reason that I could see, I struggled to understand it. Such rage, such hatred, was not something I had experienced at that point.

Have you ever felt that kind of hate, that intense hostility within you?

Have you ever felt that kind of hate directed at you?

One day, I received a small inkling of the experience of hatred from the inside. It’s a garden story, which may surprise some of you, but won’t surprise gardeners.

I lived in the woods and the deer ate pretty much everything we planted in the yard. I came to terms with this. The deer were there first.  This is their land. I’ll try to find plants they won’t eat. But there was one little garden area between the walkway and the house where the deer didn’t venture, and I channeled all of my landscaping and gardening energy into that space. Very carefully designed and planted, with years of future plantings in my design and imagination.

That was great for a couple years. And then one year, moles moved in under the steps. Every day, tunneled through all of my beautiful landscaping were the moles, They ate and tore out the tulips. They shredded the lily bulbs. They dug under plants exposing the roots to the air and the plants died. I’d replant and the moles would come along, making their raised tunnels and tossing the new plants to the side. The seeds I planted would all get dug up.

One day I come home and the garden is once again riddled with these mounded mole tunnels. I press. My. Foot. Down. Pressing. The. Soil. Back. Down. One. Foot width. At. A. Time. Swearing the whole time. And I look back and see the soil coming back up, inching along. Foop. Foop. Foop. Foop. Foop…

I did not think. There was not a moment in between. I took my heel and STOMPED as hard as I could where the mole was. Now you have to know, this is not like me. I’m a person who goes around lifting worms off drying sidewalks and roads. I spent summers diving in the lakes to tear the zebra mussels off of clams before the mussels prevented the clams from closing. I catch flies and spiders and wasps in the house and let them outside. (Most of the time.) Not like me. And yet…

The next time I was on the receiving end of someone’s verbal rage, at a gay pride event, the next time a saw a contorted face of hatred, I recognized something in the energy of that face and that voice, and I remembered my violent stomp on that poor mole:

That mole in my garden was just living it’s ordinary life, doing what moles do, something I could usually accept, knowing we needed to share the woods and knowing that the moles were there long before I was. But that year, that day, that mole was messing up my world, destroying my carefully crafted and beautiful world in which I had invested so much time, energy, money and imagination.

When I next saw hatred manifest in someone else, hatred directed at me, in that case, I recognized that my sheer existence, as a gay person, was messing up someone’s world. Their carefully constructed and tended world did not have room in it for people and ways of being outside the boundaries they had set, or that had been set for them.

Accepting my presence would call into question and so genuinely jeopardize their entire way of seeing and understanding the world. As one person explained it to me, making an exception like, even for a person they thought was a nice person,  that would risk making a crack in the foundation of their beliefs, and they feared that their entire belief system might come crashing down eventually if they started to question any part of it. They could not risk that possibility.

Especially after serving in the South, when I see something like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, I see that group of angry, yelling faces through that lens. I see people whose internal sense of the world is indeed in jeopardy, challenged by all the changes in our nation and our culture.

After the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, a commentator on American Public Radio noted that a number of her friends were lamenting to her that the white nationalist rally and its violence were so un-American, they couldn’t understand how it could happen.

She explained to them that what happened in Charlottesville was, on the contrary, thoroughly American, rooted in a history of violence from the very beginning, “a violent history of erasure,” as Mishuana Goeman puts it (Whitlock and Bronski 141) that has been “accepted, even celebrated,” violence based on the promoted superiority of one group over another, violence that ensures the power of one group over another, violence against anyone whose behavior or full presence might mess up or jeopardize that world of superiority and domination it has been constructed in our nation.

Here’s the point:

Hate is a servant of the current power order. Hate speech and hate violence serve to keep things the way they are by keeping people in line, by keeping people in their places. But hate is a consequence of that order, not the cause of it. Hate is not THE problem. Hate is evidence of the problem. As Whitlock & Bronski write, “Hate violence is a visible eruption of longstanding injustice (17).”

It is no accident, I think, that white nationalist groups and a president whose chastisement of them comes with a wink are manifesting visibly now, as the order of things is challenged by the changing demographics of the nation and eventually, perhaps, by the growing inequality in wealth.

Thinking that hate is the issue, obscures the realities we need to see beneath or behind hate.

[NASA photo of the recent solar eclipse at totality.]

In the midst of all the excitement and publicity around the recent eclipse, I learned that the solar eclipse is an occultation  “an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer . . . when an object in the foreground blocks from view (occults) an object in the background.”

I would name this morning three of the ways that a focus on hate comes between us and what we need to see.

First – Whitlock & Bronski point out that in the U.S. we tend to think of hate as an attribute of individuals – a “personal prejudice held and perpetrated by individual extremists, loners, and misfits (11-13).” Even when people are in groups, as in Charlottesville, we are likely to think of them as collection of individually hate-possessed people in need of individual reform.

This is especially true when white people are categorizing white people. When Timothy McVeigh bombs the Federal building in Oklahoma, or when a young white man shoots people in a school or theater or church, the public conversation is mostly about the troubled young man and why HE is troubled, The conversation is typically not about why Christians are bombing buildings or why white people or young people are going on shooting rampages.

But if we treat hate as the malady of an individual, we won’t see the systemic nature of the violence behind that hate, the language, the stories, the movies and images, the laws and policies and sanctioned behaviors that reinforce status quo relationships of superiority in ways that generate hate violence as an enforcement mechanism.

You may know the song from the musical South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught…to hate and fear”. This may be true, and people may learn, one at a time, to hate, but the unequal power relationships that are kept in place by violence in our nation, ensure that hate will be taught, even if we reform individual teachers. The teachers aren’t the issue. The entire culture will continue to create teachers of hate until we address the status quo that requires them.

Second – We tend to believe that hate is something that resides in other people – not us. Especially we progressive folks, say Whitlock and Bronski, like to believe that hate is an attribute exclusive to ignorant bigots (119).

This is a brilliant tactic on the part of the system for disguising hate.

Though as human beings we may have to be taught to hate in particular ways, we all have the capacity for hate, for intense animosity, for stomping when our world is in jeopardy.

Our Unitarian heritage can get in the way here. Our ancestors worked so hard to move away from the Calvinist notion that human beings are inherently depraved and to promote the idea that human beings are inherently good, that we are slow to acknowledge the gaps in our goodness.

As long as we believe that we don’t personally have the capacity to hate, we are vulnerable to wielding hate unawares. We won’t see the subtle ways in which our behaviors perpetrate racism, or violence against women or immigrant others. We will not see our micro-aggressions and how they keep relationships of superiority in place.

Whitlock and Bronski claim that we “legitimize violence and hate by ascribing them to ‘monsters (107),’” out of the ordinary “thems”, but “ordinary people can commit demonic acts,” they remind us (109). Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan were filled with ordinary people.

If we can acknowledge our own capacity to hate, we will be less vulnerable to its wiles and we will see more of what we need to see behind the veil in our society.

Whitlock and Bronski note that most of us experience ourselves “not as haters, but as the hated. When we do express hate,” they say, “it is inevitably in response to being hated (2).”  Feeling hated triggers and justifies in us our own hatred.

And Third –  We tend to believe that “hate violence is considered unacceptable to respectable society [in America] (13).” Though that notion is being challenged these days.

People express shock at the white nationalist rallies, but Whitlock and Bronski ask, “what if hate violence is not an aberration, what if hate violence represents community norms (37)?” As long as we believe that this couldn’t possibly be true, much hate violence will remain invisible to us. Members of Black Lives Matter have been trying to communicate this, that violence against black persons is the accepted norm in the U.S., not an unaccepted aberration, which is why so many white people don’t recognize it.

Whitlock and Bronski tell the story of Matthew Shepherd, the young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998 by two young men his age, young men addicted to methamphetamine and from a lower socio-economic class than Shepherd. It was immediately labeled a hate crime, though there was no direct evidence that Shepherd was killed because we was gay (perhaps targeted because he was gay) and though the state of Wyoming had no official “hate crime” category.

And they tell of the events that took place in Stubenville, OH in 2012, when “two high school football players were accused and later convicted of sexually assaulting a highly intoxicated 16-year-old female from a neighboring high school at a large, out of control party. Other students witnessed the assault, disseminated photos on social media and openly discussed it. The media coverage was filled with outrage but the words hate and hate crime were never used (3-4).”

Why not?

Violence against women is so common, such a community norm, that the term hate crime doesn’t get applied to it. The way we erroneously think about hate as rare and socially unacceptable in America again hides much violence that keeps in place the status quo hierarchy of domination.

Because of the subconscious ways hate is understood in America, whenever we define and focus on hate as the issue we automatically call into play an entire set of conceptions and misconceptions that get in the way of our seeing what we need to see and address.

If we know that, we can try to find our way through those occultations, but Whitlock and Bronski suggest that we stop and pause before jumping to a label of hate (82), to notice what’s behind it, where it comes from beyond the individual person, beyond the other/the monster that’s not us, beyond what we expect are acceptable societal norms, to see what we really need to see: a several hundred year culture of superiority and domination, held in place by systemic, implicitly sanctioned violence.

Framing the issue as hate obscures that.

Then, if not hate, what are we to call upon as our focus instead?

I’m afraid that that’s at least two more sermons’ worth, and I will commit to offering them eventually, but I can’t just leave you here! So to close, I will draw on Whitlock and Bronski again to try to point in the direction of hope and to connect all of this to our monthly theme of “welcome.”

Whitlock and Bronski urge us to “change our language of justice from [a language] of HATE to [a language] of public goodness (99).”

They write:

[We have] been unable to create a new societal ethic and language for encouraging empathy and goodness as options in everyday life. . . . Our society suffers from what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called maladies of the spirit . . . spiritual disorders that prevent society from thinking coherently about justice and goodness in ways that dismantle beliefs and structures rooted in an ethic of domination.

One malady upon which many other disorders rest is a lack of trust. The roots of fear and hatred are located in the absence of trust: trust in others, trust in our communities, trust in ourselves, and trust in ability to do good. And why should we trust, given our nation’s history?

A beginning might be in radically breaking from society’s preoccupation with evil and enemies.

 It would be necessary to replace this language [of enemies, evil and hate] with an expanded civic vocabulary of goodness . . .[and] to think about justice as a means of expressing compassion (97-99).

The core challenge is [to transform our] imagination.

Rather than focusing on hate, evil and enemies, lift up new ways of understanding and living Goodness and Justice, Whitlock and Bronski suggest. And they suggest a practical place to start.

“Because American society focuses on fear and exclusion,” they write, “not on the positive creation of caring and just communities,” one way to be transformatively disruptive would be to undertake “a radical and compassionate embrace of the Neighbor (137).”

“The politics of fear portrays the Neighbor as harassing and intruding,” and the idea of Neighbor has almost disappeared from “civic conscience [and] public imagination (123).”

“An ethic of public goodness demands that [we] make new efforts to increase our moral awareness of what’s happening to our Neighbor, to ask more questions, and to act in light of new awareness (138),” to move toward, rather than away from, the pain and suffering of others, especially strangers, [bringing] us closer to a real experience of shared humanity.”

This is what is asked of us in the best of each religion, this radical and compassionate embrace of the neighbor.

As we conclude this month’s theme of welcome, as we prepare to work toward new ways of understanding and living public goodness and justice, I invite us all to start nearby – with the Neighbors we encounter – neighbors and strangers who may look and act, think, behave and believe very differently than we do, with the equivalent of toes all over their face and eyeballs in their feet, maybe. (note: a reference to a “monster” in a song sung earlier in the service.)

Let’s see if we can radically and compassionately embrace the Neighbor, one neighbor, one stranger at a time, and so strengthen the foundation for shifting our collective focus toward shared responsibility and new public conceptions of goodness and justice.

That is the work before us.

May it be ours.


Sources Cited and Referenced

Southern Poverty Law Center:

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. (most recent edition 2016)

Whitlock, Kay, and Michael Bronski. Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. Beacon Press MA, 2016.