A student of mine once asked me: “Have you ever believed in something so completely that you think people who don’t agree with you are completely crazy?”
“Yes, of course!” I was quick to answer.
But I realized as I answered that the question came from just such a person—a student so different from me that I was not likely to respect him or his views.
Yes, I am a hater.
Perhaps I am not on par with other famous haters—like Westboro Baptist’s Fred Phelps, who reportedly lies near death in a Topeka, Kansas, hospice after being excommunicated from the church he founded in 1955. But I remain a hater.
The student who asked me this question had revealed a lot about himself the first day he wheeled into class. He was what we community college types call a “non-traditional student,” an older, grizzled, white-bearded Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair (I later learned his amputations came after a round of neglected diabetes, not enemy bombs).
On that first day he asked me if I had ever heard of a religious movement known as “Christian Identity.” I scanned my Wikipedia-like mental database and realized that, yes, I did know that particular sect.
“It’s a white supremacist group, if I remember correctly,” I said cautiously.
“Well,” he said with a slight smile, “we like to call it a nationalist socialist group.”
I was alarmed, a feeling that only grew when I later asked the class for examples of rituals and his immediate response was, “lighting a cross!”
Now, I’ve had peculiar students before. One, over a summer course, was a young man who brought his Bible to class every day, and would open it and begin reading whenever we talked of any religion that was not Christianity.
Once, during a film about Hinduism, I watched as he leaned close to his open Bible and began kissing it, beginning at the left-hand side of the page all the way to right-hand edge. Imagine my surprise when this same, Bible-snogging student gave a very fair and balanced presentation on Islam as his final project. (A teaching success story, if ever there was one!)
The Vietnam vet would also surprise me as the semester unfolded. I expected nothing but trouble from him, but my worries abated a bit after I witnessed a conversation he had with a black woman in the class. He told her he had gone to a black Baptist church once because the Ku Klux Klan taught that blacks had no souls. He wanted to see for himself. “The hairs stood up on my arms,” he told the woman, “because in that moment, I realized the Klan was wrong.”
“Wrong” would be an understatement, but it was something.
He began to make it a custom to stay after class and talk to me, giving me some weird tracts and finally asking me, straight out (as it were): “So, you’re not straight, are you?”
I told him I was not. And then he shocked me once again when he said, “Y’know, I didn’t want to take this class, because I don’t care about religion. But, when I came in here on that first day, I thought, ‘Great, a damn religion class taught by dyke.'”
I laughed out loud —and a new, if still uneasy, friendship began to take root. After that, he stayed more often after class, one day whipping out his phone to show me a photo of a white supremacist leader standing up in a convertible during what was obviously a white pride parade.
The red-faced, fist waving man in the picture was flanked by two little girls sitting in the back seat, arms crossed with very pronounced frowns on their faces.
“They don’t look all that happy,” I remarked to my student.
“Those are my daughters,” he said with fatherly pride in his eyes. “They weren’t happy because the haters were along the sidewalk, yelling at us.”
That’s when it hit me. The haters. In his world, that would be people like me. I could have easily been standing alongside that route all those years ago, hating on him and his group.
“Funny thing,” I told my student, “that’s what we call people like you who picket gay pride parades. Haters.”
“I guess it’s all a matter of perspective,” he chuckled.
As Fred Phelps lies dying, rejected and abandoned by the very people he taught to hate, I can’t help but reflect on my own penchant for hating.
Which brings me back to my student’s question: “Have you ever believed in something so thoroughly that you think people who don’t see the world like you do are completely crazy?”
Absolutely. I think Phelps is crazy. I think this student is crazy—and immoral—for hating people with a different skin color or sexuality.
But I think the same way about people who can’t see that it’s not just common decency, but true morality, to grant gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people full and equal rights in both society and the church. It’s easy to think of these folks as crazy—and it’s fairly easy to begin to hate them, not just for their opinions, but for how hard they fight against us.
Certainly, I can’t morally equate my view of the world with Phelps’ or my student’s. The LGBT equal rights agenda does not wish to wipe anyone from the face of the earth. We do seek, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, to “win the double victory” and make our enemies into our allies one day.
So as I hear about Phelps (via this page, among others) I find that I wish to renounce my hater status. Instead, if I had the chance to be in the presence of Fred Phelps, I would treat him just as I did this student, with candor and respect—for his humanity, if nothing else.
“I don’t feel any animosity from you,” my student once remarked during one of our after-class chats.
“Why would you?” I asked him. “You’re a human being just like me. We disagree on a lot of things, but that’s no reason for me to hate you.”
Likewise, I now find myself unable to feel true animosity for Phelps. His, and my student’s, politics and past actions are abhorrent to me, but I don’t want to simply, reflexively hate. Instead I want to become a “hater” who models grace, a “hater” who makes my enemy think twice about whom he might exclude from his perfect world.