21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:21-24 NRSV)
As I have said already, people who believe the Bible presents to us the truth of God nevertheless read two different Bibles, by which I mean they read the same Bible in two radically different ways which produce divergent and often clashing witnesses to the faith. Some read what I call the vindictive Bible, others the salvific Bible. The two contain the same books, same verses, and same words, although the two groups of readers may select different passages to keep rereading to bolster and guide their faith. That, after decades of studying the Bible, I am compelled to read it as salvific should be no secret to those who read this blog or those who heard me preach during my forty years of pastoral ministry – compelled and not merely persuaded, because I read the entire Bible through the lens of the gospel, the good news announcement, of Jesus.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Whoa, what is this? Are we not hearing the very kind of religious passions that drive zealots to cruelty, torture, murder, terrorism, warfare, and genocide? Do these two verses from Psalm 139 not express in self-congratulating tones the sentiments of religious bigotry? We have stained human history red with the blood of piety’s victims killed without remorse because they had been named by the faithful as enemies of God. Just what every religion needs: more “perfect hatred” to teach its own children and inflict upon our strife-torn world! Would we not do better to edit such evil-sounding verses out of our bibles so they can add no more stinking fuel to the fires of bigotry and hatred? No, we need to keep and strive to understand them, for they offer us a kind of mirror into which we need to look and see ourselves.
I suspect that many who come to faith and then keep growing in it so that faith becomes the impelling force in their lives must pass through a phase of zealotry in some degree. From early childhood, we define ourselves, not only by who we are and with whom we belong, but also by who we are not and with whom we do not belong. We identify insiders (people like us, our kind) and outsiders (people not like us, not our kind), and both the positive and the negative shape us. Negative self-identification forms prejudices but also protects our values and sometimes keeps us safe, especially when we are children. Admittedly, this process is dangerous to the human soul and the human community but also necessary and, even if not absolutely necessary, inevitable. The question soon becomes, however, “What is my attitude toward those who are what – because of my beliefs, commitments, and values – I choose not be?” That question may lead to another: “Are they truly so different from me as I imagine them?” And so on: “What do we share as human beings?” and, “Who are they to God?” As empathy develops (if it is permitted to develop), so does compassion. If empathy does not develop, contempt will grow where compassion rightfully belongs, and those who stay religious will imagine the people for whom they feel contempt to be God’s enemies. Then, to guard themselves from guilt, the religious may choose to imagine, “If they will only repent and change their ways (and perhaps even their identities), they will become like us (our in-group), and I will accept them because then God will accept them.” This feigned mercy is a self-delusion that pretends to grace without compassion, for compassion requires entering with respect and sympathy into another’s suffering and in some sense sharing in it. Compassion does not say, “Become as I am, and then I will respect you and accept our shared humanity,” but moves to stand with the other before God and says, “Have mercy on us.”
What do we do with that zealous phase of hating God’s enemies? It would be too easy because too right too soon to quote Jesus’ telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who despise and even harm us. We’ll get there, I hope, but neither easily nor quickly. In a matter so visceral and so interwoven into our very identities as persons, quick-and-easy must surely mean superficial and false.
The great Jewish philosopher and teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said that the world does not need more people who love justice as a concept, an ideal, but remain conveniently undisturbed by the specific injustices done to other people as long as those injustices do not touch them or those they love. He declared, very helpfully I find, that we need more people who cannot abide those specific injustices done to others. So, we need to hate what is hurtful, and in that sense we need to “hate” (oppose, choose against, rather than tolerate) those doing the harm to the vulnerable and likely unpopular. Biblically, “hate” and “love” can be words used to express choices against or for someone or something in a specific context, rather than deep-seated and enduring emotional ill will toward some person or group.
Empathy and its resulting compassion, if allowed, will lead us toward the intolerance for injustices done to others for which Heschel calls. I believe compassion will lead us also toward the deliberate actions of love for our enemies to which Jesus calls. We will learn to pray for people even as we oppose their unjust, exploitive actions. We will continue to oppose them, but our opposition will evolve into a different spirit far less prone to self-righteousness and cruelty.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked [hurtful] way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
For me, this closing prayer points toward the redemption of the zeal that would take pride in hating, especially when I follow the alternative translation where the NRSV uses “wicked” but notes the word can also mean “hurtful.” I much prefer hurtful because it is more clearly relational and, therefore, truer to the biblical way of thinking, speaking, and regarding life.
As it is true that I cannot fully know the mind of God (surely the understatement of the day!), it is true also that I cannot fully know my own thoughts, motives, and will. I judge myself wrongly, so that I am ready and willing to take pride in what should shame me and just as ready to take the speck out of the other person’s eye while ignoring the log in my own, or I may be ready to blame myself where God does not blame me. I need this kind of prayer and its attitude, and I dare not presume that simply praying it will be enough, as though the devotional act would shield me magically from presumption and spiritual arrogance. For throughout this life, I see myself only as in a mirror darkly (I Corinthians 13:12). But I am fully known – known through and through by the God who will not leave me even if I run and try to hide, the God who will go with me wherever I wander or get dragged, the God who won’t stop caring until I let myself be loved.