Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Howard Thurman reflects on the nature and power of hatred--and how to overcome it.

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., ahead of the weekend that honors him and the recollection of his leadership for civil rights, and ahead of the 2nd inauguration of Barack Obama, our first African-American President, it seems fitting to me to reflect on grappling with and ending hatred that lingers after all these years.

I have not read a more descriptive exegesis and diagnosis of hatred than what Howard Thurman writes below.  His simplicity and insight is profound. When he died in 1981, Thurman was Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, though most of his ministry was in San Francisco. He authored more than twenty books. The African-American Quaker’s work is becoming more readily available through online resources. The following meditation comes from his book, The Growing Edge (1956, Friends United Press, Richmond, Indiana) in the section titled, “Concerning Enemies.”

TAKING ROOT. “Hatred has its own morality, its own private life, its own source of nurture, its own evolution. Sometimes it begins in a quiet shimmer of resentment, just a quiver that moves through the spirit as one faces something that does violence to his inner sensibility. But it grows. It begins to establish its root system and its trunk system until it takes the form of hostility…”

REINFORCING SOURCE. “Hatred is an organism. It cannot be exorcised by generous quotation, by wooing the love of another. For hatred, again and again, in individual life and in the collective life of man, becomes one of the very terrifying sources for reinforcing and validating the personality.”

SOURCE OF SIGNIFICANCE. “It serves often to support the sagging self-respect that an individual has when he finds himself in an environment that is overwhelming, and against which he has no protection. He retreats within himself; burrows out a hole in which to live, and takes cover; his hatred, bitter and terrible, gives him endurance. It puts cunning in his mind. It explores hidden resources of his personality. It affirms his significance, the clues to which had been obliterated by the evil with which he was trying to cope.”

SOURCE OF SELF-RESPECT. “In this evolutionary process, hatred becomes one of the sources of our pride when all other sources have disappeared. It becomes a source of self-respect when no amount of projection can locate any other spot upon which self-respect may land and be nurtured and sustained. This is an important act in the drama of human life. What can we do about it?"

POSITIVELY DESTRUCTIVE. “There is a most important similarity between hate and love. Both are positive; but hatred is positive and destructive, while love is positive and creative…”

SEEK THE CAUSE. “One has to deal with hatred. First, I must seek to discover the kind of gentle wisdom that enables me to see my hatred in a causal perspective… The hated one is ever a victim of the predicament of his life. This does not excuse him, but it helps me understand him."

MYSELF. “Second, I recognize that I am not without guilt. The vision of God enables me to see that the roots of the hatred are in me also. When I look into the eyes of a violent man, I see myself. The moment I do this, a miracle takes place. The first fruit of hatred is isolation, and now my isolation is broken. Once more both my enemy and I stand in immediate candidacy to become members of the family."

POISONED SOUL. “Hatred is destructive but positive. If hatred finally destroys the individual, it is because an evil that operated on the outside shifts its basis of operation from outside to inside. When that happens, the soul of man is poisoned. May God have mercy on his predicament."

SOUL-SEARCHING. Thurman might have been describing the journey of a person (or a people) seeking to move beyond hatred to love in relationship to civil rights. But he might as well be talking to us today about the current individual or collective focus of hatred--on a terrorist or mass murderer or partisan ideology or group. Who do you hate?

A few questions to consider:

1. Does Thurman's description of the evolution of hatred apply today and to the object(s) of our hatred? 

2. Are we and our leaders taking the soul-searching steps to put a face on our enemy and identify our own violence?  Dare we ignore this process and simply de-face and destroy our enemies?

3. In doing so, will what we have done bring an end--or significant measurable reduction--to hatred and violence to ourselves or to our world?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:54 PM

    For anyone interested, there is a very insightful lecture/podcast by Taylor Branch, who spent much of his life studying the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It is entitled “MLK's Nonviolence: Asleep After 40 Year?”

    It can be accessed at


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