Hatred and True Religion

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

There is a statement, generally attributed to G.K. Chesterton, which runs something like this: Catholicism is the most hated of all religions, that’s why I know that it’s the right one. That’s an intriguing comment, but it needs a lot of qualification.

In our present world, extremist Islam (not to be identified with mainstream Islam) is probably the most hated of all religions. But is that a criterion of authenticity?

Hatred is not all of one piece. We hate for different reasons. Moreover, hatred, as we know, is not the opposite of love, indifference is. Hatred is love gone sour, love grown jealous. We can only hate someone whom we love.

Jesus was hated and was the object of bitter jealousy. He was crucified because of that. But why was he hated? Why were people jealous of him?

Jesus was hated because of his inclusivity, because of the indiscriminate, seemingly careless, character of his embrace. He reached out and embraced sinners and those deemed unworthy and he cleansed the temple in a way that was meant to show that people no longer had to go through the established intermediaries to get to God. He made God and his love as accessible as the nearest water tap and took control of that away from the established political, social, and religious authorities. He was hated because he challenged the normal exclusivities that surround God and religion.

And people were jealous of him because of his goodness, because of his virtue, because he radiated the kind of love that, paradoxically but invariably, spawns envy and jealousy until the person carrying it has either died or been killed. They were jealous of Jesus because he was good and could find it in his heart to love everyone.

Extremist Islam is hated for mostly the opposite reasons. It is hated for its exclusivity, for the narrow character of its embrace, for the rigid boundaries it sets around God and religion, and for the seeming ease with which, in God’s name, it can bracket love, goodness, and human compassion in favor of violence and lack of mercy. Like Jesus, it is hated, but for different reasons.

So we must be careful not to uncritically lean on Chesterton’s little axiom when we find ourselves hated or the object of jealousy, especially if we are hated because of our religion or our moral stance on some issue. Saints are often hated, but so too are dictators and mean-spirited people. But saints are hated in a different way than are dictators, just as authentic religion is hated in a different way than is false religion.

The hatred directed at a saint is real, real enough sometimes to lead to murder and crucifixion, as it did in Jesus’ case and in the case of many martyrs. But once the object of that hatred has died or been killed, once the hatred has had its cathartic release, the spirit that flows out of the person who was once hated often changes the hearts of the very persons who did the crucifixion - They looked upon the one whom they had pierced. This happened after Jesus’ death and it happens in less dramatic ways in our own lives.

Have you ever had the experience of knowing a person who for all kinds of reasons irritated you and triggered a certain inchoate mix of irritation, frustration, hate, and envy inside of you which you had difficulty both in describing and accepting; then, after that person dies, in the light of her going away, the irritation, hate, and envy wash clean and you are left with a clear sense of the goodness and integrity of her life, along with a certain sorrow and regret about how you reacted to her during her life? Your hatred and envy have turned into respect and you realize you are a better person for having known this person you once hated.

After the death of every person, we receive his or her spirit in a way that was not possible before he or she died. This was true too of Jesus, and that is why he tells us that he must first go away before he can send the Holy Spirit. Only after Jesus died did his followers understand fully who he was - as did some of the people who crucified him. The spirit that we receive after the death of someone clarifies the quality of his or her life in a way that we were never able to perceive before he or she died, when for every kind of reason, we reacted to him or her with admiration or irritation, graciousness or frustration, love or hatred, or various combinations of all of these.

It’s the same with the resistance and hatred that people sometimes feel towards us as they look at our religious and moral lives. Their feeling towards us, hatred or admiration, doesn’t determine whether we are good or bad, saint or fanatic. Only the spirit we leave behind will eventually determine that.