Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love
Psycho-Social Anatomy of Disciplined Hatred and Burden of Love: An Asian/Asian American Perspective
Dr. Wonchul Shin
We, Asian/Asian Americans living in the U.S., are devastated. On March 16, 2021, a young White gunman named Robert Aaron Long attacked and killed eight people, including six Asian American women, at three Asian-owned spas in Atlanta. We are infuriated. At the first news conference one day after the tragic shootings, a Georgia sheriff’s captain said, “yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”1 There was no mention about the investigation on hate crime, intentionally targeted violence based on a bias against the victims’ race, color, and gender. Perhaps, the captain’s words might reflect what Howard Thurman calls “a conspiracy of silence about hatred” in our society. It is “taboo” to name one’s hatred. Our society is reluctant to trace its development and reveal it fully.
Against this problematic tendency, in his lead article, Kipton Jensen identifies Howard Thurman as an “astute moral psychologist” and provides Thurman’s psycho-social dynamics of hatred and love. As an Asian/Asian American Christian ethicist, I found the descriptive account of the “anatomy of hatred” in Jensen’s article very timely and relevant given the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 In this response, I put this descriptive account in a particular case embedded in the long history of anti-Asian violence, the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings. I offer psycho-social anatomy of the white gunman’s hatred and violence against Asian American women: “disciplined hatred” by white supremacy. Although I affirm the centrality of love as the antidote against hatred, I provide a critical evaluation on Jensen’s account of love from a perspective of the disinherited, specifically the Asian/Asian American community.
Disciplined Hatred by White Supremacy
Drawing on Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Jensen offers thick descriptive languages to trace the development and effects of hatred and reveal its true nature. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman focuses on describing “the contagion of hatred among the dispossessed and disempowered.” However, Jensen rightly points out that Thurman’s descriptive account of hatred works for “the privileged and powerful” as they are not immune to the virus of hatred. The white gunman who killed the eight people, including six Asian American women, is by no means immune to the deadly virus of hatred. The white gunman’s hatred is not an arbitrary emotion but “disciplined hatred” by white supremacy.3 He has been thoroughly trained and disciplined in hatred under the white supremacist moral system.
There are various ways to define white supremacy. However, in this response, I define it as a particular deceptive moral system that establishes the sense of the moral superiority of the white race group over other racialized groups.4 For the case of the white gunman, his white supremacist moral system is particularly architected in white evangelical purity culture, what Samuel Perry defines as “sexual exceptionalism”—reducing entire spiritual/moral life into sexual life and lusting for exceptional/superior sexual purity.5 The sense of superior sexual purity is the bedrock for affirming the gunman’s white identity, particularly the moral superiority over other racialized groups. In short, being sexually pure is the guarantee for assuring his white moral power over others.
Although it is hard to trace the process of how he had lost this sense of moral superiority given the lack of information, the white gunman defined himself as “a sex addict” during the investigation. In other words, he identified himself as “the victim of sexual temptation.” Here is why I defined white supremacy as a deceptive moral system. This moral system deceives the white gunman that he is inherently entitled to the moral superiority—the exceptional sexual purity—but deprived of this inherent privilege and power. This false sense of deprivation and victimhood is the key motivating force in the disciplined hatred by white supremacy.
With this false sense of victimhood, the white gunman became “hatred walking on the earth.”6 He executed the deadly weaponized violence of hatred for “rebuilding, step by perilous step, the foundation for individual significance”—morally superior, sexually pure.7 He claimed to see the Asian-owned spas as “a temptation…that he wanted to eliminate.” Another dimension of white supremacy, the long toxic legacy of anti-Asian violence—specifically, the myth of the Yellow Peril and fetishization of Asian women—disciplined the white gunman to dehumanize the Asian American women as a “threat” or “temptation” that dismantles the fundamental bedrock of the white moral superiority.8 In other words, the disciplined hatred by white supremacy targeted at a racialized and gendered object. By exercising the weaponized power of hatred, he sought to “protect himself against moral disintegration.”9 Moreover, this sense of moral dis/integration is falsely and wrongly shaped by the deceptive white supremacist moral system. The white gunman’s disciplined hatred by white supremacy produced only “the illusion of righteousness.”10 And, the noble lives of the eight victims were violently and unjustly consumed in this toxic illusion. As Jensen rightly declares, the hatred, precisely the disciplined hatred by white supremacy, “remains essentially and ultimately destructive.”
Burden of Love on the Disinherited
As Jesus rejected hatred, we should reject and condemn the disciplined hatred by white supremacy. Then, we must ask how we overcome the disciplined hatred and guard our true selves from the contagion of this deadly hatred. For this question, I concur with Jensen’s argument that “the antidote or vaccine against hatred” is “the experience of love.” According to Thurman, to hate means reducing persons into the abstract, the object, the resource for rebuilding the hater’s significance. However, to love means acknowledging other person’s inherent dignity, worth, and value. In other words, love means “a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value” rather than unilateral exploitation.11
Even though I endorse the experience of love as the antidote against hatred, as a member of the Asian/Asian American community, I must declare that love our enemy is “too great a burden to bear” for us. This resonates with Thurman’s warning that it “may be hazardous” for the disinherited to love their enemy.12 Thurman emphasized that love is “possibly only between two freed spirits.”13 In other words, love is possible only when each party’s inherent dignity, worth, and value is affirmed. However, our sisters, mothers, and grandmothers were brutally killed by the weaponized violence of disciplined hatred. Their dignity as human beings was rejected and denied. Their noble lives were consumed on the altar of white supremacy. In this unjust case, it is morally wrong to put a significant burden on us to love our enemy.
We, Asian/Asian Americans, calls for space where we experience and practice loving one another so that we first internally heal from the devastating trauma and wounding of disciplined hatred.14 This transformative space of self-love and internal healing can be created through the practices of righteous indignation and communal lament. We gather together and vent our anger at the evil of white supremacy. This anger should not be confused with our uncontrolled desire for retaliation against the disciplined haters. Rather, this anger reflects our moral judgment against the root cause of the disciplined hatred—white supremacy. We gather together and mourn the victims of the disciplined hatred. This communal lament is our decent but powerful action to proclaim and reaffirm the victims’ inalienable dignity grounded on the image of God. Unless we adequately express our anger and lament, unless we experience this transformative self-love, there should be no burden on us to love our enemy.
2 According to the Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the U.S., the total 6,603 hate incidents have been reported to its center increased significantly from 3,795 to 6,603 during March 2021. For more information, visit https://stopaapihate.org/national-report-through-march-2021/
3 Thurman points out the disciplined nature of hatred. See Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, Beacon Press, 1976): 73.
4 Jeannie Hill Fletcher also points out the moral superiority as one of the key features of Christian white supremacy. See Jeannie Hill Fletcher, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America (New York: Orbis Books, 2017): 20-21.
5 For more discussion on white evangelicals’ sexual exceptionalism and its relevance to the Atlanta shootings, see Perry’s interview published in Time. https://time.com/5948362/atlanta-shootings-sex-addiction/
6 Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 68.
7 Ibid., 71.
8 Christine Hong rightly points out the close tie between sexual purity theologies and white supremacy. See https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/purity-culture-anti-asian-racism-intersect-white-evangelical-circles-rcna765
9 Ibid., 72.
11 Ibid., 88.
12 Despite of this warning, Thurman claims that “you [the disinherited] must do it [love of enemy].” See Ibid., 90.
13 Ibid., 91.
14 Mitzi J. Smith, “Howard Thurman and the Religion of Jesus: Survival of the Disinherited and Womanist Wisdom,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 17 (2019): 290.