The following is a reflection on something that happened to me recently, and why I feel it is a moment to learn and to teach.
I was taking part in an online discussion about the mass murder of nine black people in a Charleston church, the Confederate flag and its meaning, and the rhetoric and symbols of racism. (I'll have to bracket for another discussion why I feel it is important for intellectuals to participate in social media discussions, since many Americans no longer read books.)
In response to some racist and homophobic commentary, couched as it often is in religious values, followed by an admonishment that I should be "tolerant" of such views if I wanted to be tolerated as a "liberal" and a "homosexual," I exploded: Why should I be tolerant?! I wouldn't object if racists were "rounded up and exterminated en masse."
Yes, I said it. But even as I did so, I instantly recoiled from my keyboard. I felt somehow guilty. To be clear, my broader argument was that responsibility for the Charleston shootings went far beyond the young man who pulled the trigger. People who defend racist rhetoric and symbols are complicit in the resulting racist violence. They may as well own that. Neither the Confederate flag nor racist rhetoric -- overt or covert -- killed nine people in Charleston, but symbols and rhetoric created the environment in which it was possible, indeed likely. Defenders of the racist structure cosseted Roof, the killer, and lent him the emotional support he needed. They prop up an environment in which he can be a hero or a good soldier or a good Christian or just one of the good old boys. I made these same points in my last book, The End of Straight Supremacy, about homophobic propaganda.
Even so, to wish for death, even if only imaginarily, as the consequence for racist behavior seemed too awful. It made me uneasy with myself. It clearly made other commenters on that post uneasy. My first reaction was to insist to myself that I hadn't meant it. But, actually, I had meant it, at least in theory -- and even if I wouldn't have the guts to actually do it. From every conceivable angle of contemplation, a world without racists seems like a better world to me. And I can say this without having to explain here how racism and sexism and homophobia are all bound up together. So now what? Where does one go from the realization that fantasizing the destruction of people is something that one has the capacity not to regret? Also, why the instant regret in the first place?
The answer to the latter question is simply that I was brought up in a Bible-believing South. The "golden rule" was ingrained in me since childhood. It wasn't until I became a born again atheist and avid reader of Gore Vidal that I found out that treating others the way you would like to be treated was actually a Confucian principle, formulated five hundred years before Christ! (Only our Lord could have said that!) Read Vidal's Creation. It's a great short course on the history of religions. In any event, the golden rule and turning the other cheek were part of my education. It's a hard thing to move away from. But once it's done, it's done. One looks for explanations and for support.
The Christian perspective, particularly the evangelical tradition, is so totalizing in this country that one forgets that it is not the only source for reflection on the battle between good and evil, forgiveness and hate. A February 2003 First Things essay by Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, The Virtue of Hate, defends hate as an acceptable response to one's enemies as a principle of the religious tradition of which Christianity is an eschatological riff: Judaism. Soloveichik gives the story of Samson as an example:
So the Philistines seized [Samson] and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles... They made him stand between the pillars... Then Samson called to the Lord and said, "Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes."
And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested... [and] then Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines." He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.
Another example: Samuel hacks to death the Amalekite king Agag.
Then Samuel said, "Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me." And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is past." But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
Or one of my personal favorites from the Bible -- favorite because it is one of the few occasions in which a woman exercises any personality or voice -- the book of Esther culminates with Esther arranging the destruction of her enemies. Unlike Jezebel, for whom I also always had a soft spot, Esther was a "righteous woman."
Rabbi Soloveichik, reflecting on Simon Wiesenthal's classic Holocaust text, The Sunflower, concludes that:
A theological chasm remains between the Jewish and Christian viewpoints on the matter. As we can see from Samson's rage, Judaism believes that while forgiveness is often a virtue, hate can be virtuous when one is dealing with the frightfully wicked. Rather than forgive, we can wish ill; rather than hope for repentance, we can instead hope that our enemies experience the wrath of God.
Perhaps Soloveichik concedes too much. After all, the Christian tradition is not so distinct from the Jewish one. Everything Christianity is it has expropriated from Judaism -- expropriated and embellished. If Christians are free to pick and choose at whim from among Levitical abominations (homosexuality is wrong, while eating pork is not), then why shouldn't they also feel free to choose hatred over forgiveness for the unrepentantly wicked?
Since I am an atheist, my point is not that this particular spiritual dilemma matters to me, but rather that Christianity exhibits a deep contradiction within itself. As Soloveichik explains, "Regarding a rasha, a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso -- one is obligated to hate him." And the Old Testament is full of stories of razed cities and extinguished populations. I suppose Christians would say that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, changed his mind (an inexplicable thing for a God who is never wrong to do). But why exactly should Christians be entitled to a monopoly on the definition of virtue? The fact that the Christian families of those assassinated in Charleston virtually leapt to forgive the assassin doesn't mean that the rest of us should feel badly if we don't.
Of course, there are practical problems with extending a Tanakh-style "hewing" of our enemies to real life. The Bible is just a story in which right ultimately always prevails. In real life, deciding who should be on the receiving end is not so easy -- especially for minorities. At what point does a righteous slaughter of the Philistines turn into the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust? This may be a point at which the conventional liberal argument against actually doing anything in the world -- the slippery slope -- gets some traction. But practical problems notwithstanding, I don't think any of us should necessarily be racked with guilt or tortured by the self-serving judgment of others just for fantasizing about--or even hoping for--the peril of our enemies. None of us -- not atheists, nor even theists. The impulse to hate those who work evil in the world is not immoral. It may well be illiberal, but liberalism is not my project. Liberals' general squeamishness about actual change is someone else's tragedy to defend, or, to continue the theme, cross to bear.
A trusted colleague and mentor of mine, obviously troubled by my sentiments, admonished me that "we should always be an example to our students, even on social media." Perhaps so. But the salient question remains: Who (and whose traditions and experiences) gets to decide what the right example is? Maybe forgiveness and tolerance for all points of view, no matter how dangerous or despicable, are the options for you. But maybe those of us who live our lives daily in the prisons of racism and homophobia should be able to indulge in some righteous hatred for our enemies because too often we have, as James Baldwin once put it, "seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come."