Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love
There’s A Thin Line Between Love and Hate
Rev. Jameson Collier
Contact, without fellowship, is understanding that is unsympathetic.
Unsympathetic understanding, breeds will that is ill and
ill-will dramatized in man is Hate walking on the earth.
Contact, with fellowship, is understanding that is sympathetic.
Sympathetic understanding breeds will that is good, and
good-will dramatized in man is Love walking on the earth.i
In his lead essay, Kipton Jensen orients us to Howard Thurman and Thurman’s conceptualization of the contagion of hatred and the antidote of love, most notably in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) and in Thurman’s later published works and sermon series. Thurman’s writing and speaking on love and hate evolved. Thurman begins his public thinking on love and hate in 1935 with “Good News for the Underprivileged.” In September 1937 during the Canadian Student Christian Movement annual conference at YMCA Park at Lake Couchiching, he reflected more broadly on these themes in a lecture series on “the Significance of Jesus.” Jesus and the Disinherited was published in 1949 and Thurman returned to these topics a decade later in the Spring of 1959 in a sermon series on “Jesus and the Disinherited” as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University. A close reading of Thurman’s papers and listen to Thurman’s recorded sermons and lectures reveal a thin line between love and hate in Thurman’s discourse. This thin line becomes a through line facilitated by Thurman’s exploration of the good news of the gospel for “the poor, disinherited, and dispossessed.”
In this response, I will augment Jensen’s fitting metaphor of the contagion of hate and the antidote of love by applying it to Thurman’s experience and interactions with dogs. During my sojourn with the Howard Thurman Papers Project and then the Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman Archival Research Project, I had regular contact with Thurman’s correspondence, writings, and audio recordings. Given my proximity to the inner workings of Thurman’s personal and professional life I developed an appreciation for Thurman’s fellowship with pets. Thurman shared his experiences with dogs in sermons and lectures and even included specific anecdotes in his autobiography, With Head and Heart.
Perhaps surprisingly—though, given the explosion in dog adoptions over this latest pandemic, also perhaps fittingly—I want to connect Thurman’s ideas about love and hate to dogs and dog ownership. In my experience, people either love or hate dogs, and most dogs can smell the difference. People who have enjoyed contact with fellowship when interacting with dogs love them. Those who have encountered dogs without fellowship hate them. I, too, adopted a dog during the latest pandemic. In my time as a dog owner, I have observed the thin lines between love and hate in my interactions with other dog owners.
Imagine walking your dog along the same route each day. During your walk, you encounter several people, dogs and dog owners. People see you but only acknowledge and greet your dog. The other pet owners may or may not allow the dogs to greet but still without acknowledging you. Over time, people know your dog by name and even develop a love for your dog while you remain anonymous as the dog owner. This dog walking experience is a prime example of Thurman’s understanding of how contact with and without fellowship either breeds good will (love) or ill will (hate). The thin line and determining factor in the interaction is whether there is sympathetic or unsympathetic understanding.
For Thurman, sympathy is less about pity and sorrow, and more about mutuality and reciprocity. Imagine I have a dog named Will. When I walk Will, he comes into contact with dogs and people alike. If Will sits when approached by people and relaxes the canine impulse to jump or kindly sniffs and greets other dogs with good energy, I affirm him with a “Good, Will.” If, on the other hand, he embraces his canine instincts and jumps, barks, and pulls when approaching people and other dogs, I redirect him with a “Bad Will.” On the one hand, contact with fellowship is filled with sympathetic, mutual, reciprocal understanding. This breeds good-will, and eventually grows into love. On the other hand, contact without fellowship is unsympathetic understanding which breeds ill-will. Overtime, ill-will grows into hatred.
As Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited,
In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness. Of course, it must be borne in mind that there can be an abundance of sentimentality masquerading under the cloak of fellowshipii
Thurman had a love-hate relationship with dogs that evolved over time.
In With Head and Heart, he describes early encounters without fellowship. In one instance, a dog took a ferocious bite out of his leg when he was a youth. Thurman described another occasion when a dog was chasing him and a childhood friend down the street when Thurman tripped, fell into a ditch, and broke his arm. Additionally, a neighborhood dog lived at the end of Thurman’s street in deeply segregated Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman’s hometown. Thurman could always hear this stray dog coming down the street because it would yelp as it passed particular yards. The boys in the neighborhood would threaten to throw something at the dog, and the dog would yelp in fear. At some point, the dog had associated the ill-will of violence, pain, and harm with a raised arm. These encounters did not lead to an ultimate hatred for dogs. Instead, Thurman developed a mutual love and affection for the joys of man’s best friend as his contact with dogs became more characterized by fellowship.
Thurman’s’ first pet was a black and white Salomey and Collie mix. He reminded Thurman’s daughters, Olive and Anne, of a teddy bear, so they named him Bearimore. Bearimore was known all over the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., which was the epicenter of Black intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s. In With Head and Heart, Thurman tells the story of Bearimore’s daily routine with the U.S. letter carrier. As soon as Bearimore heard the postman, he would run to the fence and bark him from one end of the yard to the other. One wintery day the snowdrifts were high enough to cover the fencing. Bearimore was unaware of this fact. By the time Bearimore and the postman reached the end of the snowdrift, they were face-to-face. Since their encounters had been without fellowship, there was nothing but ill-will between them. Bearimore went running and barking in retreat.
The Thurman’s second dog was a full-bred brindle-colored Boxer. Thurman named him Kropotkin for the Russian sociologist, revolutionary, and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin lived with Thurman during his sojourn in Boston at Boston University. Although Thurman had Kropotkin as a puppy, he could never sufficiently train Kropotkin to obey simple obedience commands. Thurman enrolled Kropotkin in obedience training only for the trainer to realize Kropotkin was beyond the trainer’s ability. Kropotkin needed a dog psychologist because he thought he was a human. Kropotkin eventually found true companionship when Thurman sent Kropotkin to live with their godson in San Francisco.
Thurman spoke and wrote of three other dogs: bloodhounds named Fear, Deception, and Hatred. featured in Jesus and the Disinherited. Collectively, Thurman named them the “Hounds of Hell.” These hounds lived on the thin line between love and hate. They loved their owners while hating the hunted. Thurman describes how these “hounds of hell” detected the scent of the disinherited, oppressed, and discarded members of society.
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabelle Wilkerson describes how her dog began to display ill-will after her partner, who was the functional pack leader as the alpha male, left the pack. A dog behaviorist advised Wilkerson to introduce another dog to balance the energy in the pack. Alpha, beta, gamma, and omega are positions in a pack. Alphas exhibit the calm-assertive energy that allows for fellowship within the pack. Although omegas are the lowest in the social order, they play a central role in stabilizing the energy within the pack. Thurman’s love-ethic is the alpha in the pack of Fear, Deception, and Hatred, which asserts and facilitates good-will in the interactions among people.
Thurman’s love-ethic is grounded in his understanding of Jesus as a religious subject not object. Jesus’ life and teachings are the model for Christian action and not merely the object of Christian worship. As such, Thurman examines the life and teachings of “the Master” in search of their implications for “those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.”iii Thurman’s quest begins with the facts of Jesus’s existence, Jesus of Nazareth was a poor, Palestinian, Jew, living as an ethnic minority in the Graeco-Roman world. From the beginning, Jesus lived in this context always with his back against the wall until the end when his back was against the tree.
For Thurman, Jesus captures the essence of human experience through his proximity to human suffering. Jesus’ love-ethic is significant because love was chosen in the presence of fear, deception, and hatred. To live as a racial, ethnic, cultural minority under an oppressive regime is to experience these hounds of hell firsthand. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, wrestles with the application of this love-ethic in the interactions between Jews, Gentiles, and even Romans.
The Gospel narrative of Jesus’s encounter with a woman of mixed ethnicity, “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origins” is a pertinent example of the thin line of love and hate between Jews and Gentiles (Mark 7.26). This anonymous woman wanted her daughter to be healed. As Thurman notes, she would not allow the destructive histories between Jews and Gentiles to prevent her from making her request. Jesus responds to her request with unsympathetic understanding in suggesting it is inappropriate to take the food reserved for the children (of Israel) and throw it to the dogs. The Syrophoenician woman’s reply is full of the good will characteristic of the sympathetic understanding a dog owner develops for their pet as many dog owners allow their pets to eat the crumbs that fall underneath the table.
Jensen highlights Thurman’s emphasis on love as the antidote for the contagion of hatred. As any new dog owner will soon discover, dogs are susceptible to contagious infections. Vaccines are required within the first year of life and in subsequent years to prevent certain diseases from spreading. Love and the love-ethic are the antidotes to the contagion of hatred onset by fear and deception. With contact characterized by fellowship, society develops an immunity to hatred.
[i] Howard Thurman, Untitled, The California School Employee 19, no. 8, (1949).
[ii] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 75
[iii] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 11.