Sometimes the headlines scream off the page. Almost every day, one of our tabloids attacks, ridicules and defames someone who according to the editors has no reason to exist. They want the public to hound and destroy the ‘culprit’ even though they have not yet stood trial. In the journalistic court, everyone whom the editors say are guilty should never be considered innocent. It could be an alleged child molester, a cop or a person of color, but if the editors deem him or her guilty, then it is ok to hate them. In fact, it is laudable to write them off! In essence, you have the editor’s permission to hate.
Now, I am aware that some of these people are in fact guilty. But should they not be presumed innocent until proven guilty? And even so, can’t anyone who is in fact guilty as charged, change and repent?
When we are confronted with especially heinous crimes or sins, the issue gets very complicated. Child abuse, rape or murder causes revulsion in most good people. Often the reaction to one who commits these crimes is hatred and fear. But does the critical faculty of judging stop there? Are we condemned to accept and act upon our first impressions? This is classically called ‘prejudice’ for we pre-judge someone before we have all the facts and evidence.
Even if we slow down the judging machine in our heads, there are still two principles that we must always try to remember: the first is to separate the sin from the sinner. Yes, those who commit these crimes must pay for them; but someone who committed rape is not the same as saying that he or she is a rapist forever. We are never allowed as Christians to hate and write off someone, no matter what they have done. We must certainly and strongly hate the sin; but the sinner can never be considered a lost cause. With the proper conscientious approach on the part of the individual and the grace of God, a person can repent and change his or her life around. Our faith is built on this possibility. Jesus began His preaching with the words, “Repent and believe the Good News”. Why would Jesus preach to change if it were not possible?
It’s just that many of us consciously or unconsciously believe that people can’t change. We think that the changes that people go through are merely cosmetic. But to say that someone who is a criminal, or worse, is capable of moral conversion puts some people on edge: can we ever trust someone who is guilty of something that is truly evil?
While psychologically we are uncomfortable with that possibility, we have to admit that in Christ all things are possible. Continuing to hate someone would be something that Jesus would not stand for. In fact, He would forbid it.
The second principle to note is that often, if not always, we do not know the full picture. There may have been many factors, biological, environmental, historical, that help us understand the person who commits these terrible things. So we have to approach this area of judging with great humility.
I remember a great scene from a movie by Francois Truffaut called “Day for Night”. On a movie set, an aging actress is doing an emotional scene and getting everything wrong: the doorbell rings and she opens the window, etc. Everyone laughs at her and her obvious drunkenness. Then there is a pause in filming. One character comments to another asking what is the problem with her. The other answers that she has a young son of 18 who is dying in Paris and because of her contract she cannot be there. The scene in the movie within the movie is played again, this time no one is laughing, neither the actors on the screen nor the people in the theater with me. Tears welled up in my eyes as compassion for her enveloped me. Perhaps we too can find compassion for the murderer if we knew what he or she was living with. It does not excuse their actions, of course, but it helps us not to hate them.
Compassion is the antidote to hatred if only we have the courage to be open and humble enough to see things more like God sees them.
No one can give us permission to hate anyone. Only Christ gives us the wisdom and strength to still hope that God triumphs in the life of the most hardened sinner.