You Can’t Love People and Hate Their Religion

You Can’t Love People and Hate Their Religion August 24, 2016

In the Christian polemic against Muslims a common theme emerges. A specific instance comes from pastor Steven Anderson, but it could be Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr, Tony Perkins or any of a dozen others.

  • I do not hate Muslims at all. In fact, I love Muslims and want them to be saved. Do I hate Mohammed? Yes. Do I hate the Quran? Yes, but I do not hate Muslim people at all. Many Christians do hate Muslims…I love Muslims… .  . .I only hate those who hate the Lord, (from a sermon by Steven L. Anderson, 10 and 17 May, 2015)

But this just won’t work. Nor will its variations such as “Love Hindus and hate their idolatrous worship” or (from a rather different group) “Love Jews but hate modern Israel.”

The first reason that this won’t work is that personhood cannot be separated from religious belonging. It cannot be detached from everything that has shaped an individual or community’s feelings and behavior over a lifetime. There are thousands of ways that Muhammad and the Qur’an have shaped the character of every Muslim. Just as there are a thousand ways that Jews are formed by having participated in the entire history of their people and the shaping of their collective consciousness of what it means to be a person in the world.

To say “I love you but hate your religion” misunderstands the nature of human personhood both from a contemporary perspective and a Biblical perspective.

Human personhood isn’t some kind of “core” of unchanging characteristics surrounded by incidental feelings, behaviors, and affiliations. Our sense of self is constructed as a continuous narrative in which our character is indistinguishable from the ways in which it has been shaped through engagement in relationships and is now being expressed and enacted. Try to peel back the layers of feeling, behavior, and social location and ultimately there is nothing left to love.

To think about this try a personal exercise. Do a little autopsy in which you remove one by one everything about you that is expressed only by relationship to something or someone else, (by some form of behavior, or by some attitude or emotion in relation to others or the world, or by some way of thinking about the rest of the world). What is left of you when all relationships are removed. And don’t try to cheat by saying there can be you thinking about yourself, because the very language you use to talk to yourself about yourself attaches you to the cultural background that taught you that language. If you say to yourself, “at the core I am brave,” you have to admit that the concept of bravery itself derives from relationships with others who are brave and those who taught you to label their behavior as brave.

In short you are a story that is told simultaneously by many different people, as you are part of telling their story.

Now Christians will protest that the Bible teaches that humans have a “soul,” and that this soul appears to be a “core” that can be separated from “the body” or the “works of the flesh” so that it can be saved. So, it can be reasoned, religion is a matter of “flesh” or “body”: a set of temporal associations that can be changed by the soul.

If only it were that easy to separate soul from body. In the Bible what makes a human person is the indivisible synergy of spirit and flesh. When God created the first human, according to the book of Genesis, God breathed spirit into dirt and it became a “nephesh” a person, a soul. God didn’t plant a spirit in a body. God breathed into existence something that was more than both and can never again be reduced to one or the other.

And that nephesh contained within itself human relationship. It was man and woman. And soon enough families, clans, tribes, and nations. The Bible tells us what modern psychologists and sociologists affirm; there is no me without a we. Israel, the social setting of the Bible’s long exploration of human personhood, is inseparable from its human participants as they are from Israel. As they are inseparable from God’s providential care.

Nor can Israel leave behind its own history. Even when redeemed it must remind itself of the litany (literally) of mistakes and failures that define its national identity and the identity of every individual member. Israel brings into its present as God’s people its entire history, redeemed but not discarded.

The Christian doctrine of incarnation affirms this. The “true man” Jesus can never be divided into two parts. Not even after death. Not even in eternity. Jesus embodies the great promise that the resurrection of the dead is the resurrection of whole persons who in their wholeness need to encounter God to be judged and received.  And Jesus, like Israel, indeed as a part of Israel, does not leave behind his history (as he cannot leave behind his people). The resurrected Christ bears the wounds of the cross, visible and eternal like his sacrifice.

There is this distinction. Jesus is the Son of God, who contained no imperfections, while humans are presented in the Bible as imperfect and in need of judgement. That which is imperfect needs to be removed from their souls before they can enter into God’s reign. And thus, it is argued, non-Christian religions are imperfections, stains on the soul, that need to be removed. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” as the saying goes.

But while there are obvious habits and behaviors that the Bible identifies as sins, sins that cannot be carried into God’s reign, it isn’t so obvious that non-Christian religions, scriptures, and teachers count among them. What the Bible condemns outright is idolatry and the worship of that which is less than God. The concept of “religion” as it is used today to refer to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, doesn’t emerge until the 16th century, and even today is a contested term.

So can we regard a non-Christian religion as a sinful imperfection that attaches to the soul of their believers? It is hard to find a Biblical warrant for such a sweeping generalization. Judaism is the direct precursor to Christianity, and its scripture is taken by Christians as a witness to Jesus Christ, who was a Jew. Muhammad taught that there is only one God, and condemned all forms of idolatry. He accepted all the moral injunctions of both Moses and Jesus as revelation and thus Muslims share with Christians and Jews a vast common ethic. Buddhism and Hinduism present a bigger problem, since both appear to involve the worship of idols. Yet modern Buddhists and Hindus deny that their worship is the same as the idolatry condemned in the Bible. And both share with Christianity a large body of ethnical teaching.

Perhaps most importantly all of these religions have produced good people, by which I mean people whose goodness springs directly from their participation in a religious community. These religions are not an incidental set of affiliations on the surface of people’s souls. They have shaped the souls of their followers, and often in ways that are consistent with the teaching of Christ. So what, exactly, is there to hate about them?

So to be clear: You can’t love the Muslim who gave his life for the United States and hate the religion that shaped his patriotism and willingness to sacrifice himself. You can’t love the Muslim school teacher serving an inner city school and hate the religion that gave her a passion for service to humanity. You can’t love the Muslim scientist and hate the religion that send him to the ends of the earth seeking knowledge. These good people are of a single piece that no human can divide.

And the same applies to your Jewish colleague who is an ardent Zionist and volunteer at the local nursing home. Nor – to go even further – you cannot love your friend who claims no religion but hate the deep skepticism about the existence of God that has freed her to write such brilliantly creative plays, many quite deep in their understanding of human nature.

But perhaps the problem is that Christians hate non-Christian religions because they are rivals to Christianity. One can find a parallel to the quote above in cold-war era discourse about loving the people of the Soviet Union but hating the communist ideology that was a rival to both Christianity and Western capitalism.

And this begs a couple of questions. First, are non-Christian religions really rivals with Christianity for the allegiance of individual souls? And secondly, is hatred the appropriate attitude toward a rival?

The answer to the first of these questions has to been both yes and no. There are many places in the world where Christian evangelists and teachers of other religions are vying for the allegiance of individuals to their religious beliefs and community. Christianity and non-Christian religions are offering competing and often mutually exclusive views of reality that in their turn will shape the human soul. At the same time these different religions have in common that they make people mindful that reality is deeper than the idolatrous self-worship characteristic of contemporary secularism. They are rivals only because they are engaged in the same task of freeing people from the grip of incoherent materialism and hopelessness and guiding them into humane personal and social relationships.

And for this reason it isn’t appropriate to hate them. They are rivals it is true, but they are rivals that may be drawing people toward the divine reality. And this fits with the idea running through scripture that God’s Word is eternal and universal; everywhere witnessing to the divine reality revealed fully in Christ. Wherever we find goodness, beauty, and truth we are finding Christ, even if God’s presence in the world is known by other names. So love Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and all others. But hate? There is no Christian justification for hate.

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