Hate the Hate, Love the Hater - by Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker

In Romans 12, Paul expresses a nice sentiment. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” he writes. “Do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Good thing he slipped in that practical proviso – “if it is possible” – to give us the free pass we seem to need for such a fractious time as ours. If ever there were a moment when peaceable living was not possible, wouldn’t it be now?

Getting Beyond Excuses

I mean, I can’t possibly live at peace with people who want to erase my neighbors’ identity or my own, can I? I can’t possibly extend courtesies to people who want to consign my allies or me to unequal treatment – even death – under the law, can I? I can’t possibly be civil to people who cheat and lie to win in political battle, can I?

Actually, I can. In the following ways:

Think first about what Paul’s teaching does not compel. Nothing in it suggests that people ought to withdraw from struggles for justice, to “just go along” with corrupt authorities or agendas. Indeed, Christians and all people of good will are called to do the opposite, knowing there can be no real and enduring peace until there is justice for all.

Note that in his exhortations to the fledgling Roman church Paul is calling on the people to live at peace with everyone, not everything. There is no prohibition against Christ followers opposing harmful ideas and bad practices.In truth, we know they must fight against that which is evil and harmful – through their power as citizens and the example they set as individuals and church communities.

As citizens of 21st-century America, we can understand this concept better, and start to visualize its implementation, by unpacking an often misunderstood and poorly practiced principle at the heart of our most rancorous political differences: the principle of tolerance and inclusion.

How Many Chairs?

One way of understanding our present political dynamic is to examine citizens’ divergent responses to the growing inclusion we see in American society. The table was once reserved for men, largely – men who were white, straight, and Christian. They ran the show and reaped the rewards. But in recent decades, different people have been showing up and rightfully expecting to be seated: people of color, people from other countries, female people, LGBTQ people, Muslim people, nonreligious people, and so on.

Do you embrace that social change? A person’s answer goes a long way toward revealing which side he or she is on in today’s culture battle.

But putting this in practice is no easy task. To hear it from many conservatives, liberals are nothing but hypocrites when it comes to tolerance and inclusion. This is made gallingly apparent, the critics charge, the moment that tolerance promoters encounter anyone who disagrees with them on gay rights or equal treatment of women, for instance.

It’s true that the champions of tolerance mangle their cherished principle when they condemn, as a person, the baker who won’t bake or the photographer who won’t photograph for a gay wedding. Or when progressives demand the shunning of anyone who, at some point in the recent or not so recent past, has done or said something offensive against a group that has been too long excluded.

But overreactions of this sort do not change the larger truth. Tolerance is a worthy principle that should remain at the heart of the progressive creed. To blithely ignore or accept acts of exclusion would make a mockery of this commitment. Those committed to tolerance cannot abide racist acts committed by their leaders and political foes. They cannot stay quiet about sexual abuse committed by men who misuse their positions of power and authority, or accept any other acts of exclusion and dehumanization. These are in the category of what should not be tolerated: that which constitutes intolerance.

Shunning Ideas, Not People

But how then are advocates of tolerance supposed to treat the people who commit acts of hate and exclusion?

I suggest we build on the kernel of wisdom found in a popular aphorism that evangelical Christians are known to use, one that finds its origins in Augustine: “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” as it’s popularly phrased. Though its credibility was damaged years ago by abuse by Christian Right political figures, the insight it carries remains potent: Instead of reflexively shunning people with whom we disagree on important and divisive issues, we can shun harmful ideas. Instead of automatically condemning those with different positions and philosophies, we can reserve scorn for bad actions, bad behavior.

We can hate the hate, but love the hater.

Space must always be left open for “offenders” to join the community of inclusion, the community of philanthropic love and acceptance. The redemptive potential of simple human encounter has to be respected, protected, risked. It’s not as impossible, not as naïve, as it sounds.

Crossing the Border

Consider the African-American blues musician who has made it his life’s work to engage with, and befriend, members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dubbed the “KKK whisperer” by CNN, Daryl Davis has been talking with – mainly listening to – Klansmen for decades. He was at it again last August in Charlottesville, during the ugly, convulsive weekend of white supremacist rallies. The driving force behind Davis’ idealistic initiative is a question he’s been putting to racists for decades: “Why do you hate me? You don’t even know me.”1

Daryl Davis has a closet full of Ku Klux Klan robes. They were given to him by Klansmen who quit the imperial order after their encounters with him.

In his interactions with those Klansmen, the “KKK whisperer” hated the hate, but not the hater. And in more than a few instances, the interaction changed those men, changed the equation.

Not all of us have the constitution for this kind of radical border crossing. Some will deem it unsafe. A straight white writer (like yours truly) should not deign to tell people from embattled groups how to engage their oppressors.

Yet we can all be moved by the insight and inspiration. We can all appreciate the exemplars in history who refused to hate their haters. Martin Luther King Jr. propagated this insight. So did Jesus. If we truly want to break our present impasse, we can each find our own border to cross.

Tom Krattenmaker, communications director at Yale Divinity School, is an author and columnist specializing in religion in public life. His latest book is Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergent, 2016).


  1. Mallory Simon and Sara Sidner, “What happened when a Klansman met a black man in Charlottesville,” CNN.com, Dec. 16, 2017.