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Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love

The formula is very neat: love begets love, hate begets hate, indifference begets indifference. Often this is true. Again and again, we try to mete out to others what we experience at their hands. There is much to be said for the contagion of attitudes (Thurman, 1947).i 


Howard Thurman is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement in America. As one of the first in a long line of African American intellectuals to meet with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in India, in 1936, Thurman quickly appropriated and adeptly applied the philosophy of nonviolence to the problem of racism as well as to materialism and imperialism in America. The result was a distinctively African American philosophy of nonviolent but active resistance to social injustice. Thurman claimed in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) that the teachings of Jesus held a special message and significance for “those with their backs against the wall” and can be fruitfully read as a philosopher and a social ethicist, as a pioneer in Black liberation theology and the Black social gospel movement, but also as an astute moral psychologist if not psycho-social therapist. This essay explores what Thurman called his “contagion of attitudes theory,” which includes his reflections on the psycho-social dynamics of love and hate as well as fear and deception. I wish to focus our attention primarily but not exclusively Thurman’s description of the “anatomy of hatred.” The theme of hatred is doubly timely on many fronts. And yet, Thurman admits that hatred “is a subject that is taboo unless there is some extraordinary social crisis—such as war—involving the mobilization of all the national resources of the common life to meet it.”ii Our present geopolitical moment constitutes an extraordinary social crisis: the FBI reports that hate crimes have surged to epidemic levels in America.iii  


Thurman insisted that the teachings of love in Jesus were quite simple at their core but altogether radical in their socio-ethical implications. “The religion of Jesus,” wrote Thurman, “makes the love-ethic central.”iv The love-ethic demands that we resist the near- irresistible and altogether natural tendency to become angry, to hate, to retaliate, or to exact revenge; it also entreats us to love our enemies. Years later, still brooding over the same nest of problems, Thurman would say: “Love, as critical as it is, must possess a deep understanding of hatred.” Thurman implies that we have been too sentimental in our attempts “to get rid of hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments” rather than attempting to accurately “reveal the anatomy of its development” as crucial to devising an effective antidote to fear and hatred. Thurman does for us what he attributes to Jesus: “Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy, he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”v 


The Contagion of Hatred. 


Thurman describes the anatomy and dynamic of hatred in the form of an algorithm or diagrammatic flowchart in which hatred begins its epicycle with human contact as devoid of warmth and genuine fellowship, subsequently devolves into a second psychosocial stage of “unsympathetic understanding,” by which “the first step along the road of bitterness and hatred is assured,” and eventually reaches a crucial point at which this “penetrating, incisive, cold understanding . . . tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will.” This third stage of hatred is decisive, thinks Thurman, because it is at that point that hatred and resentment or bitterness “spreads its virus by contagion.” Thurman concedes that hatred can serve as a vital psychosocial function: e.g., it can serve as “a source of validation for your personality” or “a device for rebuilding, step by perilous step, the foundation for individual significance” or the means by which “an individual seeks to protect himself against moral disintegration.”vi Thurman claims that “hate is the great insulator, making it possible for one man to deny the existence of another or will his nonexistence,” that “violence is the act through which such a will is implemented, and hate is its dynamic.”vii 


Thurman observes that hatred can sometimes serve as a survival mechanism for those “with their backs against the wall,” whether literally or metaphorically, those who are desperately yet actively and defensively asserting their right to be in the presence of those who wish to destroy them. In his 1953 sermon,viii Thurman explained it this way: “So this is what hate does, sometimes, to the man whose back is against the wall, when all resources are cut off, when there is a complete and radical denial of his persona, when the integrity of his existence begins to disintegrate, and when he feels that the moment of his annihilation is at hand, he affirms the integrity of his life by striking out blindly by asserting his right to be.” Thurman notes elsewhere that “there must be within him some guarantee against contagion by the life-negating attitude, lest he lose a sense of moral integrity in all his relationship. Hatred seems to function as such a guarantee.”ix So while Thurman carefully describes the contagion of hatred among the dispossessed and disempowered, how it is that we can become a “cripple in reverse,”x it must be admitted also that the privileged and powerful are by no means immune to the incubus of hatred. Thurman was often asked to write a companion volume to Jesus and the Disinherited, something along the lines of Jesus and ‘Inherited or Privileged and Powerful.’xi 


Thurman reminds us that “periods of national crisis [make] it seemingly necessary to discipline men in hatred of other human beings” and “during times of war, hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism.”xii We consciously or subconsciously debase and dehumanize the enemy in our hearts and minds as a rationalization for inhumane behavior. The alternative is moral disintegration. Our capacity to deceive ourselves about the relative worthlessness of our enemies poses a genuine threat to mutual recognition and respect if not also reconciliation. In what I take to be an allusion to Thurman, construed here as a psychiatrist, King explains in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community that “hate is too great a burden to bear”: 


Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate. This why the psychiatrists say, “Love or Perish.” I have seen that expressed in the countenances of too many Mississippi and Alabama sheriffs to advise the Negro to sink to this miserable level. Hate is too great a burden to bear. . . . For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our militant efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid our nation of the incubus of racial injustice. But we need not in the process relinquish our privilege and obligation to love.xiii  


Thurman shifts his analysis from diagnosis to treatment with a bitter prognosis for those who give themselves over to hatred, even when it operates within what Thurman calls “the illusion of righteousness”xiv And while hatred can under certain circumstances play a relatively positive role in consolidating or galvanizing the disparate or disintegrated parts of personal identity, it remains essentially and ultimately destructive. “Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. It blinds the individual to all values of worth, even as they apply to himself and his fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit.”xv  


Above all else, warns Thurman, “it must be borne in mind that hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought” and the “urgent needs of the personality for creative expression are starved to death.” In short, admonishes Thurman, “Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with the Father.”xvi Beyond diagnosing the malady, what Kierkegaard called the “source of all our sorrows,” in addition to describing the mechanism by which hatred spreads like a cancer or contagion, Thurman also provides a lifelong treatment if not an immediate antidote. “The first step toward love,” and away from hatred and fear, claims Thurman, “is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value.”xvii Thurman suggests that the essential message of Jesus for the disinherited is that “you must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God.” Moreover: “You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. . . . Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy that you may be children of your father who is in heaven.” Thurman was convinced that “the logic of the development of hatred is the death of spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values.”  


The Contagion of Love as an Antidote. 


Although there is something unsettling if not disturbing about Thurman’s description of hatred, he wishes to understand its anatomy in order to overcome it and to reverse its crippling effects. Thurman’s analysis of hatred fits within a larger theory of emotions and attitudes: 


There are moments in every man’s life when he tries to give as good or as bad as he gets. But this presupposes that the relation between human beings is somehow mechanical, as if each person is utterly and completely separated. This is far from the truth . . . Here is a mystery: If sweeping through the door of my heart there moves continually a genuine love for you, it bypasses all your hate and all your indifference and gets through to you at your center. . . . This is no easy sentimentality, but it is the very essence of the vitality of being. The word that love is stronger than hate and goes beyond death is the great disclosure to one who has found that when he keeps open the door of his heart, it matters not how many doors are closed against him.”xviii 


The antidote or vaccine against hatred as well as fear and hypocrisy, “the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited,” is  the experience of love. For Thurman: “The experience of love is either a necessity or a luxury. If it be a luxury, it is expendable; if it be a necessity, then to deny it is to perish. So simple is the reality, and so terrifying.”xix The treatment that Thurman prescribes is neither quick nor easy. While waiting for the antidote to take effect, which is sure to require booster shots, certain steps can be taken in order to protect ourselves as well as one another against the risk of becoming infected by hatred. But rather than social distancing and masks, which make sense with other forms of contagious disease, Thurman prescribes social proximity and the removal of masks that protect us.xx 


But how might we love our neighbor, really, even our enemies? “For lack of a better term,” claims Thurman, “an ‘unscrambling’ process is required” in order to foster reconciliation and “to re-establish a relationship.”xxi As Thurman puts it: “To love means dealing with persons in the concrete rather than the abstract” (1984: 191). This poses a genuine challenge to our under-exercised imaginations. In order to find common ground, to meet you at your center, “I must be able, somehow, to strip you of your classification.” Thurman captures this phenomenon nicely when he writes that “love of enemy means that a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status.” Thurman insists that “a person’s fact includes more than his plight, predicament, or need at a particular moment in time. It is something total which must include awareness of the person’s potential. This, too, is part of the person’s fact. This is why love always sees more than is in evidence at any moment of viewing.”xxii 


Thurman was convinced that we can always find – and that we should never quit seeking – our own center somewhere toward the center of the other, where “our two centers can meet.” An intrinsic interest in another person is impossible “apart from a sense of fact where other persons are concerned—this sense of fact means that the other person is dealt with as he is in the light of the details of his life.”xxiii For Thurman, “love is the experience of dealing with a person at a point in him or her that is beyond all his faults and all his virtues. Love means to deal totally with a person. And you can’t do this without a disciplined and sensitized imagination.” This is what Thurman describes in his Apostles of Sensitiveness as “loving a person from the other side.” Thurman confesses: “I can’t do this of myself, regardless of my best intentions; and if I think that I can, I deceive myself.” As a pastor, Thurman prescribed steadfast prayer for those who seek to love their neighbor if not also their enemy. As a preacher, Thurman rehearsed the parable of the good Samaritan.xxiv As an activist contemplative, or social activist mystic, to use Pollard’s category, Thurman believed—as Albert Raboteau puts it—“that true social change must be grounded in spiritual experience and personal transformation.”xxv  


In his Strength to Love, Martin Luther King defines love as a “creative, understanding good will for all men.” This is the sort of love, claims King, “that refuses to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”xxvi Beyond the working definitions of love, Thurman tried to describe the labor of love—which I belabor here—and its dynamic potential to inoculate us against the contagions of hatred as well as fear and deception. As Thurman expressed it in Disciplines of the Spirit: 


Behold the miracle! Love has no awareness of merit or demerit; it has no scale by which its portion may be weighed or measured. It does not seek to balance giving and receiving. Love loves; this is its nature. This does not mean that it is blind, naïve, or pretentious, but rather that love holds its object securely in its grasp, calling all that it sees by its true name but surrounding all with a wisdom born both of its passion and its understanding. Here is no traffic in sentimentality, no catering either to weakness or to strength. Instead, there is robust vitality that quickens the roots of personality, creating an unfolding of the self that redefines, reshapes, and makes all things new (1963: 123). 


In Disciplines of the Spirit, in the throes of the nonviolent civil rights movement, Thurman advised that “the spirit of retaliation must be relaxed and overcome. Here again the reconciliation must go on in a man’s spirit before he can be at one with the technique of nonviolence he employs as an instrument for social change.”xxvii Thurman encourages us to simply “meet them where they are, mean, distorted, sometimes vicious, full of hate, and to deal with them there, so as to free them and yourself as well as others affected by hate.” We may fail again and again. We might be mistaken. Our only responsibility is to love, claims Thurman, to earnestly work at it, and never give up; whether reciprocated or not, whether productive in ways that we can measure or not, that is not our ultimate concern.  


Tentative Conclusion: 


Both Thurman and King thought long and hard about the contagions of love and hate. Overcoming hatred and fear, within our own hearts and within society, was considered by them to be crucial to our spiritual charge to love our neighbor if not also our perceived enemy. This is what it means to work in earnest on behalf of the beloved community. In his December 1956 Address to the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, King claimed that the boycott and its achievements did not in themselves represent the goal of the struggle: “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption,” King said, “the end is the creation of the beloved community.” Elsewhere, King wrote that unfinished business of the beloved community would “require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” In 1966, in one of the few places he discusses the trope of the beloved community, Thurman adumbrates the difficult work involved in facilitating dynamic rather than merely token integration: “The term [viz., the beloved community] has a soft and sentimental ring. It conjures an image of tranquility, peace, and the utter absence of struggle and of all things that irritate and disturb. But my thought is far from such a utopian surmise. . . . Disagreements will be real and germane to the vast undertaking of man’s becoming at home in his world and under the eaves of his brother’s house.”xxviii For Thurman, the work of love is by no means a sentimental thing: at its core, it is a demanding “discipline of the spirit.” The practice of love and reconciliation is not, concedes Thurman, for the faint of heart. 


Thurman admits that there exists “a conspiracy of silence about hatred.” But Thurman warned us that “all the preaching in the world, Christian or otherwise, cannot deal with hatred in the human spirit without understanding its ground and organizational dynamic.” Throughout his life, Thurman believed that “the experiences of unity in human relations are more compelling than the concepts, the fears, and the prejudices, which divide.” Experiences such as these, whether in community gardens or as part of the weekly liturgy, if creatively replicated or multiplied, and over a sustained track of time, thought Thurman, would redeem the soul and reduce some of the misery in our world. Thurman asked himself incessantly, as we must ask ourselves: What is the process by which hatred infects the heart of individuals, or entire communities, what is its ground and dynamic, how does it reproduce itself, what is the anatomy of hatred in our times, and—alas—what vaccinations or treatment can be used to reduce the contagions hatred and fear as well as deception, whether among others or within ourselves, and how might we creatively and actively participate in promoting experiences of spiritual unity and dynamic integration?  

i Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness, [1947/1951] 1998: 301.

ii Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press ([1949] 1996: 75).

iii Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Hate Crime Statistics 2019.” See, e.g., https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2019-hate-crime-statistics.

iv 1949: 89.

v  Ibid., 21.

vi Ibid., 76-82.

vii Disciplines of the Spirit. New York: Harper & Row, [1963] 2003: 113.

viii “Love or Perish,” Audio. 1953A. Available via the Morehouse College, Howard Thurman website: https://www.morehouse.edu/thurman/sermons.html (November 19, 2020). Also listen to “Love Your Enemies,” Audio. 1954. Available via the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Howard Thurman Virtual Listening Room: http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/virtual-listening-room/detail?id=344230.

ix 1949: 85.

x  Thurman suggests that “[a] man’s horizon may become so completely dominated by the intense character of his hatred that there remains no creative residue in his mind and spirt to give to great ideas, to great concepts. He becomes lopsided. To use a phrase from [Nietzsche’s] Zarathustra, he becomes ‘a cripple in reverse’ (1949: 88).

xi In a letter dated 1956, when Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a woman wrote to him saying that she and her husband were “members of the privileged class, the strong and in no way can we fully understand the position of the disinherited.” But surely, she wrote, “white people in America were confronting their own fears, deceptions, and hates and were also were in dire need of having to learn how to love their enemies?”

xii 1949: 74.

xiii Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press, [1967] 2010: 67.

xiv 1949: 82.

xv 86.

xvi 88.

xvii 98.

xviii Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, ed. Walter Fluker and Catherine Tumber. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998: 301.

xix [1963] 2003: 127.

xx  In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes: “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth” ([1962] 1993: 95).

xxi 1949: 97, 92.

xxii The Inward Journey. New York: Harper & Row ([1961]1984: 192).

xxiii Ibid., 191.

xxiv Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables, ed. Gowler and Jensen. Mayknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019: pp. 47-56.

xxv Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press. (2001: 158).

xxvi Strength of Love. Fortress Press, [1963] 2010: 20

xxvii 1963: 117.

xxviii “Desegregation, Integration, and the Beloved Community” (1966). In Benjamin E. Mays: His Life, Contributions, and Legacy. Edited by Samuel D. Cook, Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House Publishers, 2009: 206.