It is astounding how short-lived our memory is as a nation. Political ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr believed we had much to learn from remembering our history. He once observed that history always repeats itself, although never in the same way. In our current political climate we could gain much from remembering our particular history with hatred and the moral failings and destruction that has resulted from this hatred. For example, hatred coupled with an insatiable hunger for power drove the United States to do things like commit mass genocide against native peoples and enslave Africans for a few hundred years.
I was reminded of Niebuhr’s astute observations this week as I listened to a conservative pundit lament over the ill treatment of President Trump and the hatred directed at him by the liberal left. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the cyclical nature of hatred played out upon our nation’s political stage in recent years.
Etched freshly into our national memory should be the effigies of Barack Obama during his campaign that some conservatives hung from nooses and burned across the county. Along with these effigies were signs with more hanging nooses that urged Obama to “hang in there.” Among the assortment of hateful signs from the conservative right were also signs which depicted a monkey with Obama’s face photo shopped onto the head. We must remember that it was Donald Trump who was a relentless bully and hounded Obama with outlandish birther claims. These are only a small handful of examples of the hatred that was directed toward President Obama during his campaign and presidency. These are disturbingly memorable examples, and yet the memory of the conservative base appears to be incredibly short-lived as they currently lament the treatment of President Trump as unprecedented.
In this era of hatred, no one is blameless in this ruthless void of human decency, integrity and compassion. No one’s hands are blemish free and nor should be our collective moral conscience as a nation. Neither the conservative right nor the liberal left is without guilt. And my hope is that our national weariness with hatred will cause each of us as individuals to reflect upon our own contributions to this seemingly endless cycle. If we wish to end this cycle of hatred, one place to begin is by peering into our own individual hearts and actions more deeply. Niebuhr also taught us that evil is not so often done by evil people as it is by good people who do not know themselves and who do not bother to look more deeply into their own hearts.Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also reminded us often that hate cannot drive out hate, only love can achieve this feat. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” As much as I hope for this ideal of love, my realism (or cynicism) tells me that the method of love that King envisioned may not be possible for an entire nation to embrace. However, I think it is possible for each one of us to cultivate this method of love within ourselves, within our own communities. In this era of hatred, the individual heart is likely the first place to begin this long journey to a better way; a way that could potentially result in a collective turn from hatred as our national political modus operandi.
I fundamentally disagree with Eric Trump’s recent statement to Sean Hannity that Democrats are “not even people.” Democrats are people. Republicans are people. Persons of all political persuasions are people, but it seems that we have forgotten this fact about one another. Maybe it is easier to forget this fact with the current saturation and influence of social media. As humans, it seems we become crueler at a distance. It is exceedingly more difficult to hate and to act upon that hate when we dare to look into the eyes of our opponent instead of past them.
We are all part of the human family, and as so, we are inextricably bound to one another. Whether Democrat or Republican, the humanity we honor or dishonor in each other becomes the very standard by which we come to know our own humanity. In this era of hatred, my deepest fear is that we are at risk of losing our humanity. The greatest work before us now is to regain the sacredness of what it means to be human. Let us begin this work by looking into the eyes of those we deem our enemy and recognizing that what stands before us is a human being.
Special to Patheos from Darcy Metcalfe, a Presbyterian minister serving in Coggon, Iowa, and doctoral student of ethics/bioethics in religious studies.