We don’t defeat hatred with more hatred

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001

We are all still reeling from the shooting of Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen in Yorkshire. She was shot outside the library in the town of Birstall where she had been meeting constituents. She is the first sitting MP to be killed since 1990.

Her death by shooting comes four days after 49 people were killed and 53 wounded at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. This was the latest in a series of mass shootings in the United States; there have been nine in the past ten years.

These horrific events take place around the world, though we hear in particular about those in Europe or the US, those in places that feel close or familiar. The death of Jo Cox of course feels very close indeed.

Why do people plan and carry out these evil acts?

What could possibly lead someone to shoot a young mother, a popular local MP who has been praised by representatives of all parties for her commitment to her constituents, and her campaigning for refugees and overseas development?

Why did Omar Mateen, the alleged shooter in Orlando, carry out these horrific actions? Was he operating alone, or with accomplices? If, as some have suggested, he himself was gay, what was going on in him?

We may never to have clear answers to these questions. But we still want to try to find answers.

We can see these terrible actions either as a separate type of human behaviour from anything the great majority would do. Or we can see them as the most extreme expressions of behaviour on a spectrum that starts with angry words.

We have seen angry words move to violence intended to inflict serious harm in the recent Euro soccer violence.

We have seen angry words about ideas and principles turn to angry words aimed to make personal attacks in political confrontations on both sides of the Atlantic.

We may even have experienced what seems to me an increase in angry or demeaning responses by people to one another in normal social contexts.

There seems a simmering readiness to turn to violence in words and actions – evident in the abuse people receive through social media.

How people respond to one another they profoundly disagree with, or regard as threateningly different, will either fuel that anger or reduce it. Sustained anger, unaddressed, turns to hatred.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, connects anger and hatred this way: “The angry man wishes the object of his anger to suffer in return; hatred wishes its object did not exist.”

In Christian teaching anger and murder are on the same continuum. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

There is a warning in those words. If people do not deal with their anger it will turn into something far worse. What happens then? People treat one another as less than human, less worth than a human being, and that makes violence of whatever form easier.

While we do not contemplate killing, our colloquialisms can give away our feelings (“I could murder so-and-so for doing that”). We are not strangers to anger, even hatred.

So how can we respond to the evil of Jo Cox’s killing and the Orlando shootings? How can we join Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband’s challenge to “fight against the hatred that killed her.”

We don’t know where the next deadly attack on a public figure or a group of people in a bar, a school or a shopping centre will come from.

But we can play our part by not contributing to the spiral of behaviour that starts with thinking angry thoughts to speaking angry words, turning to hatred and then violence.

The Christian answer is to resist that. We don’t defeat hatred with more hatred. We do instead by treating those who disagree with or attack us with the respect due a fellow human being. In Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Love is not soft here. It’s firm and tough, resisting the trap of demeaning or discounting the other person, taking them seriously.

Love requires seeing the person as a person, however difficult or challenging they may be. It means not seeing them just as the problem, or the threat. If we all tried that, and our society became more respectful in public and personal life, the oxygen for hatred and violence will diminish.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich