The Healing Potential of Hatred

By Tommy Airey

Four years ago this month, Lindsay and I found ourselves, for a short time, living in Bend, a rapidly developing whitopia in Central Oregon where the Great Basin Desert meets the Cascade Mountains. While we waited for the birth of our nephew Milo Brooks, my brother-in-law and I spent several nights bonding over the Portland Trailblazers, who boasted a backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, two smaller guards who played at obscure division one colleges. Lillard, who reps the number 0 to honor Oakland – his hometown – was and is the face of the franchise. His signature celebration is what fans affectionately refer to as “Dame Time.” After a big shot, he lifts up his left hand to the crowd and taps the invisible watch on his wrist. It’s not just game time. It’s Dame time.

In the first round of the 2019 playoffs, Dame and the Blazers were pitted against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook, the all-star point guard from L.A. who also wears 0. When Russ does something spectacular, he brings his hands together and rocks back and forth, like he is cradling an invisible baby. When smaller opponents (like Dame) try to guard him, Russ treats them like little babies. Lillard carries himself with a quiet confidence energized by who he is for (the team, the city, his family, his hometown). Russ stays locked in on who is out to get him (real or imagined). While Dame Time taps into self-love, Westbrook’s trademark gesture is a taunt. His staring, glaring brand of bully ball is dead-set on diminishing others. Russ was (and is) so easy to root against.

The playoff match-up highlighted Westbrook’s petulant behavior and the series swiveled back-and-forth until the final twelve seconds of game five. The Blazers were up 3-1 in the seven-game series and the score was tied. Dame dribbled out the clock, side-stepped like a cricket, and launched from thirty-seven feet. The buzzer sounded. Splash. Series over. Dame walked down the court, away from the action. The crowd roared. But Dame did not tap his wrist. He looked over his shoulder and waved goodbye to Russ and the Thunder. Right before his teammates dogpiled him. In that stunning moment, I felt a sense of relief for Dame and the Blazers. But even more, I reveled in the fact that Russ got his heart ripped out of his chest. Because I hated his unbridled intensity and penchant for taking everything so personally. This particular ending felt profoundly just.

*          *          *

Four years ago, I was dealing with Russell Westbrooks off the court too. The Christo-fascists commenting on my Facebook posts. They weren’t rocking invisible babies, but they came online with a rage that belittled and scolded and patronized and provoked with passive-aggressive verve. The fundies were even quoting Dr. King out of context, castigating me for bringing up race because “only love drives out hate.” They created MLK in their own image, claiming that he focused solely on “the content of our character” (not the color of our skin). Almost every one of my trollers were white men who I grew up with or worked with at one time. They still believed all the things I did when I was a teenager. The Christian supremacy. The American exceptionalism. The greatness and innocence of Whiteness. They hoodwinked me into having arguments on their terms. I hated them for it.

My problems, however, were more pervasive. A few weeks after Dame waved goodbye, I was on a phone call with my old friend Charles, who lives in a tiny-ass apartment in Hollywood and takes contract jobs so he has the time flexibility to work on political campaigns. I trust Charles because he does not give a flying flock about what people with power and popularity think of him. He is covenanted to the truth and what the world might look like if love and justice reigned for just a few minutes. On that call, Charles told me that fascism is not only a political stance, but also a way of relating with others. He lamented that leaders on the left can be fascistic too. Because privilege and power breed pathology. These gate-keepers and individual influencers treat relationships like hostage situations. Their insulated fiefdoms function on their terms. While they work against oppressive policies, they perpetuate pedestals and pecking orders. The very things Black feminists warned against fifty years ago.

For the past four years, I’ve been wrestling with the strong feelings I have for the Russell Westbrooks in my life – on the right and the left. Whiteness and middle-class sensibilities have trained me to repress hate and anger, and replace them with civility, niceness and non-judgmentalism. American culture is pro-war – and anti-conflict. We are endlessly pressured to forego strong feelings and just let bygones be bygones, no matter how much we are harmed in the process. This repression serves to perpetuate an oppressive status quo. On my journey, I am discovering that strong feelings, like anger and hate, are not speedbumps on the road to working for a transformed world. They are signs from Spirit – and they contain massive potential for healing and liberation.

In his book The Communism of Love (2020) – published a year after Dame sent Russ packing – Richard Gilman-Opalsky proposes that the opposite of love is not hate, but narrow self-interest and passive indifference. Gilman-Opalsky prescribes a form of hatred towards enemies that is grounded in love. In a world scripted by supremacy stories, feelings of hate, in fact, are an appropriate fuel, a required response, a necessary spark, an initial motivating passion that can lead to political and cultural transformation. Hate is actually the seed that can cultivate a love revolution that subverts the destructive ways that human worth is equated with exchange value in our capitalist society.

Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies. He also said that unless folks hate their mother, father, spouse, children – and even their own life – no one can become his disciple. We cannot get on the discipleship path until we detest the destructive practices, postures and perspectives patterned in us, from an early age, by our family systems. Becoming a real adult requires that we break the cycle. Unfortunately, white male bible commentators have watered down the hate language of Jesus in the Gospel story. They have turned hate (Greek miseo) into a head game. They make it about a moral choice, about hating one option more than another.

I call bullshit. I believe that Jesus gave people permission to feel their feelings. Because Jesus felt these feelings too. Jesus knew that feelings warn us when something is wrong, oppressive or unjust – with another person, ourselves, or both. Jesus knew that feelings help us find the way to freedom. Feelings are not sinful. Feelings possess a spiritual power that goes beyond head knowledge and critical study. Feelings are opportunities for personal inventory. What’s going on? Is my hatred aimed at something legitimate? Or is it misdirected?  The reality is that when we sideline feelings, they will inevitably come out sideways – in addictions, anxiety, depression, disease, rage ruts and/or more.

*          *          *

A few weeks after Dame waved goodbye to Russ, I started attending 12-step recovery meetings again. I needed to get serious about getting free from the ways I was relating codependently with the Russell Westbrooks in my life: the bullies, branders, trollers and narcissists. My repressed feelings were finding other targets. Like my spouse – and myself. In these recovery meetings, I was learning that if I am not part of the problem, then there are no solutions. I was processing my resentment, rooted in my overcommitment, the unrealistic expectations I had for others and the unhealthy ways I was seeking approval from those deemed “important” for whatever reason. I was learning how to stop looking for love from people who have no love to give.

In Al-Anon, I’ve discovered the spiritual practice of “detachment.” It is a technique designed to separate myself emotionally and spiritually from the Russell Westbrooks in my life. When I get stuck obsessing over them, resentful feelings come up. The goal is to feel them, to notice them and name them – and then to intentionally detach the target of my hate from the disease, which is alcoholism in my 12-step program. The disease, however, is bigger than alcoholism. Anne Wilson Schaef called it “the White Male System” or “the Addictive System.” Whatever we call it, addicts and narcissists are hurting – and because they cannot or will not heal, they are acting out symptoms of the system, not to mention their own unmetabolized trauma. They are not bad people. They are sick people. They do not suck. They are stuck.

Detachment frees me up to cultivate compassion. It offers a way out of either unfeeling distancing, or compulsive involvement. Detachment composts hatred into love. But I believe the process of healing starts with hate. When people are emotionally abusive, when they gaslight you, when they ghost you, when they troll you, when they drown you out with their own destructive entitlement, feeling hatred towards that person is the only appropriate initial response. This is true interpersonally and politically.

We should hate right-wing moralizing that masks misogyny, racism and homophobia.

We should also hate liberal sentimentality that perpetuates white supremacist violence and oppression coming from powerful institutions like police, prisons, Wall Street, corporations and the military-industrial-complex.

We should absolutely hate what both major political parties have done (and are doing) to El Salvador, Palestine, Pine Ridge, Flint, Detroit, Jackson, Mississippi and many other contexts.

The perpetuation of these destructive political dynamics is rooted in the widespread repression of our hatred and anger towards them. We have learned that when we express our anger and hatred, it makes white folk and middle-class people uncomfortable. Because these strong feelings threaten the status quo and its eternal sunlight of opportunity. We pivot instead towards more palatable postures, like niceness and non-judgmentalism, so we can stay respectable in our social circles. The repression of our strong feelings, however, keeps us in an extremely unhealthy codependent relationship with addictive systems. It is dehumanizing the hell out of us. Literally.

The practice of detachment, whether interpersonal or political, is the opposite of going along to get along. It is the opposite of enabling the abuse and oppression. Sometimes, this means waving goodbye to our Russell Westbrooks. To be healthy in a world hinged to unhealed hetero-patriarchy, whiteness and capitalism, we must learn to love some people (perhaps a lot of people) from a distance. I can only really love certain folks by ending my active participation in these relationships and by turning them over to a God of love known for composting Something Else out of the rotting elements of our lives. I believe that we are confronted with far more of these relational challenges today. In addition to epidemics of narcissism and addiction, American culture is far more fragmented that ever. We lack a common language and practices to deal with our conflicts and abusive situations.

Please do not misread or misrepresent what I – a cis het white man – am proposing. I am not advocating for hate as a lifestyle. I wholeheartedly agree with Howard Thurman, who dedicated an entire chapter in his classic Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), warning against a hatred that, when bottled up, “tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater.” Thurman wrote to oppressed people, particularly Black people. The temptation for Americans, in every age, who live with their backs against the wall, is to be consumed with hatred towards their oppressors.

I am writing seventy-five years later, to an audience of white folk and middle-class people, those who are taught, from the earliest age – in our families, schools and, yes, churches – that our primary source of value and identity is aspiring to greatness, not conspiring with others. Our individual aspirations are aided by apathy, cynicism and indifference to injustice. Not seeing the pain and suffering allows us to stay on our aspirational paths. When we repent and reorient our lives – from aspiring to conspiring – our comfortable lives will be rearranged. We will see the suffering and inevitably feel anger and hate towards the white institutions that destroy the communities that Dr. King called “the other America.” This seeing and feeling has never been a part of middle-class America’s aspirational program – and it’s a major spiritual problem. 

I also understand that there is an epidemic of domesticated white dudes unhinged by their hatred and anger. But here’s the thing: white men are trained to be hot heads and haters – or to be nice, safe, passive providers. Toxic masculinity is a two-sided coin. Our healing and liberation are bound up with breaking rank with this destructive dualism. The alternative is found in a third way: an anti-capitalist conspiracy animated by tenderness, truth-telling, transparency, nurture, awe, wonder, curiosity, creative expression, presence, playfulness, humility and open-heartedness. I do not believe that it’s possible for white men (or anyone else) to get to this promised land by repressing the passion that dwells deep within us.

Dame’s 37-foot dagger was Russell Westbrook’s final play in an Oklahoma City Thunder uniform. Get this: in the four years that have passed since Dame waved goodbye, Russell Westbrook has been paid a total of $150 million to play for four different NBA franchises. Teams just kept giving him another chance, with very little accountability for his behavior and body language. At the end of his short stint with the Lakers this season, team officials compared Westbrook’s presence in the locker room to that of a “vampire.” This is more than a silly sports story. It is a parable for our time – and we should hate it.

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay. He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

One thought on “The Healing Potential of Hatred

  1. I don’t pity MAGAt Republicans for being stuck in their hatred of “woke” folk. I openly hate them for enjoying being the assholes they are. If they did not enjoy hating, they would not hate. I do not enjoy hating, but I’ll be damned if I will let them sit comfortably in their little boxes without knowing their actions are hurting other people.
    Will that heal me? I doubt it. But I don’t let that bother me. My father tried to teach me to hate. From him I learned how to love.

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