I spent much of my adult life living in and around Pittsburgh, both before and after going to the seminary. Through a combination of willingness, osmosis, brainwashing, and intimidation, this non-sports-following child of Southern California turned into a Black and Gold wearing fanatic. If you look in my closet, just to the right of the many black shirts, black pants and a black few suits (which this Priest wears with Steeler Pride!) is a Hines Ward jersey and Terrible Towels folded neatly on the shelf. When it was my first birthday in Grand Rapids, my choice for my birthday lunch was Kosciuszko Hall, where many of our Polish Brethren hailing from the city of the Three Rivers gather on Fall Sundays to watch their beloved Steelers.
And now that our team is out of the running and the Super Bowl will be contested between two arch rivals (the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles–names which I just cringed while typing), I really couldn’t care less about the Big Game. I’ll be happy to see either one lose. And while this is almost all in fun, it hints at something serious.
What should just be friendly rivalry in sports can bring effects that spill over into real life. And it’s not just sports but also includes figures in entertainment or politics. We live in a digitally-connected world where we spend not a small amount of time with distant figures, not only right in our living rooms on television, but now everywhere we go through our so-called “smart” phones. We spend a lot of time “getting to know” political figures and even fictional characters from shows we habitually watch. We see their faces, hear their voices, and distant strangers can seem to us to be people we’ve known forever. So let’s be honest: It is so easy to practice a lot of hate.
It would be easy to brush this off since these aren’t, after all, real relationships. We rationally know that we don’t know these people. The problem is that in the deep recesses of our brain–and even deeper in the depths of our hearts, we don’t always recognize that. The thoughts are real. The emotions are real. The reaction is real. And with the amount of time we spend in front of our screens, we can unintentionally practice a lot of hate. I think we saw an example of this a few days ago.
On the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March, this past weekend marches were again held and hundreds of thousands–and by some estimates, millions around the globe—gathered in protest. These rallies were held ostensibly to call attention to women’s issues in today’s world. But no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, all agree that just slightly below the surface (and often right on top) was not a “pro-women’s rights” message, but one that was clearly anti-Trump. The political disagreement doesn’t bother me; that’s a good thing. We can and even at times should be angry with the choices others make, including our political leaders. What I think we should all note with caution, however, is the personal nature of the anger and even hatred that we can display. I don’t know many people that have ever met our current president, and I don’t know any who know him well. But I know a LOT of people who hate him. Not just disagree with him or are angry with his choices or views, but hate him.
To be sure, this is nothing new: Engendering hatred goes back long before the digital age. Our American revolutionaries drew caricatures of King George III of England in newspapers and political tracts which fomented the Colonists of the New World into a willingness to declare independence. And even they weren’t the first to use this method. So there’s nothing new with an attempt to personalize one’s enemies.
Where I think the danger lies is the combination of this age-old tactic with something new: namely the amount of time we have seeing people we are encouraged to hate, hearing them, and being led into an illusion of knowing them enough to hate them. To use the politically-divisive figure of Donald Trump as an example, when you see his face or hear his voice, chances are you don’t encounter him with an emotional neutrality: Politically divisive figures like Trump or his predecessor, Barack Obama, tend to evoke not simply a political or intellectual reaction to seeing or hearing them. We tend to react with at least a measure of love or hate, if not being pulled all the way to the extreme. It’s personal. If you don’t think it is, I have two things to say to you: First, I’m a little jealous, and second, you must not be on social media at all. Talk about an echo chamber of hatred.
And if we think none of that transfers into what we label “real life” we are fooling ourselves. How many of us can say that it’s not an effort to have real love and compassion for the people driving in front or behind us, our next-door neighbors, our co-workers, let alone our family and friends. If we’re honest, we have enough practice at anger and disdain with the people that really are a part of our lives, let alone the ones that we only imagine we know.
So I think we all need to be careful that we don’t practice what can easily move from anger to hatred, in a world where relationships can seem real and personal, but just aren’t. Let’s limit the amount of time we spend in the virtual world of politics, sports, and entertainment. And when we do encounter that world, let’s not allow it be a practice session, where we only grow in our capacity to judge, humiliate, disparage, and yes, hate people that we don’t even know, but are led to believe we know enough to hate.
And let’s take our newfound “free time” and practice virtue. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the exercise regimes of choice for Orthodox Christians, working to eliminate sin in our lives and grow virtue. We improve at whatever we practice. The upcoming season of Great Lent is the “school of repentance”. It’s a season of training, working to eliminate the pervasive sin in our lives and grow the too-often-absent attitudes and actions of love. In Lent and always, let’s practice love, not hate.