From the Dean: Deconstructing Hate Speech

April 1, 2016

In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of talk about the cultural impact of what many are calling “hate speech.” Intemperate comments have made by presidential contenders and people angered by attempts to thaw the frozen relationships with Cuba and Iran have reached critical mass. defines such talk as “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group.”   Hate speech dances along the edge of every culture, especially those undergoing massive change especially when that change upsets the balance of those who hold privilege and see their positions threatened by other groups or classes.

What concerns me most about hate speech is that it is that it so easily floats into “enemy speech,” form of speech that is related but more systematic—focused not on marginalizing a threat, but exterminating it.  Enemy speech creates an integrated narrative of depersonalization that liberates the human conscience to speak of certain groups of people as if they were less than human.  By reducing enemies to sub-humans, we can more easily destroy others without creating moral problems for ourselves or corrupting our self-perception as good people.  

Enemy speech is writ large and small in our culture, and no political party or individual corners the market on using it.  Such speech creeps into our conversations quite naturally, too naturally in fact, but it is most obvious in political discourse.  We have recently been reminded with the death of Nancy Reagan that created a consistent narrative of the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire.” George W. Bush did the same thing during the invasion of Iraq, and many criticized Barack Obama during the 2010 election cycle when he tried to motivate Latino voters to go to the polls in a Univision interview referring to the Republicans as “enemies.” In the past few months, there have been two high-level efforts in international politics to deescalate and deconstruct “enemy speech,” in an attempt for hostile nations to relate to one another in a more constructive fashion. After 56 years of isolating Cuba, the U.S. recently lifted key sanctions. We extended a similar olive branch to Iran, concluding 37 years of hyper tense relationships. It remains to be seen if these high stake efforts at peacemaking will work.

History shows that “us” vs. “the enemy” rhetoric has seductive short-term value, which is one of the reasons it is so attractive. When it comes to dealing with the vexing problems facing the world and our societies, it is far easier to hate than understand, to speak out than to listen up, and to act rashly than to respond with careful, deliberate, and measured focus and calm. Enemy speech is efficient. It brings meaning to our lives by defining who we are through who we are not, what we believe by decrying what we do not believe, and what we value in condemnation of what others value. What’s right, and good and true becomes surprisingly clear and differentiated from what’s wrong, bad and false; this binary thinking of enemy speech clarifying complex problems so we can employ simple solutions. When we are caught in the throes of enemy speech we can quickly separate the sheep from the goats, and can eliminate concern about the possible errors we may make in understanding, discernment and judgment. Enemy speech is custom fit for our age of sound bites.

In my office I have a drawing in my office of two men kicking a soccer ball. The piece of art comes from the National Football Museum in England and depicts a British and a German soldier vying for control of a ball during the famous 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I.  It is a memorable image because one day prior to the game, and presumably one day after it, the two men had the job of trying to kill each other. (Photo source:

The Christmas truce game occurred in so-called “no man’s land,” a slice of muddy, uneven field between two trenches that divided mortal enemies. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict – Germany and Great Britain – had “dug” themselves into holes and trenches to prevent the opposing army from gaining any ground. The trench fighting strategy resulted in years of stalemated killing, maiming, dismemberment, and neurological damage from a new form of warfare using chemical agents. At the peak of the four-year war, the trench system extended for 475 miles, from the North Sea through Belgium and northern France into the Swiss frontier, and many men had spent months and even years in the squalor of those trenches. One of them was my great-uncle, Roger, who used to intrigue the young boys in the family with his tales of his experiences and the friends who died at his side.  

Most of the 10 million military fatalities in this so-called “war to end all wars” occurred in these wretched, foul-smelling honeycombs of mud, blood, unwashed men, and rotting body parts blown apart by recently invented technologies of war. The war proved that the human race had turned a page on our potential for inhumanity, and set in motion a century that rivaled no other for death and destruction. First-hand accounts of the war and its aftermath suggest something “other-worldly” in its horror, the kind of experience that is fabricated in end times scenarios from religious apocalyptic imagery and mythologies, or Hollywood horror films.  

You would never guess that the soccer players in my drawing had emerged from muddy holes a short time earlier, or that they had each other fixed in the sites of their rifles. They look like two friends playing a game together, sharing one of those precious moments when we realize with others that despite all appearances, we are not solitary atoms in a cold universe, but creatures that share similar hopes and dreams, with lives that are nourished by love not hate, and kindness, not vengeance.  

My drawing may seem like an odd accoutrement for an office in a school of theology and ministry. However, it is easy to forget the carnage humans are capable of doing to each other, and the effect such violence causes directly and indirectly as it ripples across societies and down four or five generations. This year the United Kingdom has many memorial activities for World War I, and although the nation is a century removed from the losses, it still has effects in its family systems. My picture reminds me to not forget about this generational price tag of dealing with “enemies.”  It also helps me stay centered on our potential as humans to rise above the challenge and despair of any given era and connect at a deeper level with those my nation may deem to be enemies, just as those two soldiers did on that cold morning in December in 1914. I don’t want to ever forget the miracle of this human capacity. But I also do not want to forget the fact that hate speech gives way to enemy speech, which can lead to war and the unleashing of horrendous violence.  A school such of theology and ministry must resist the temptation to make things called enemies and serve as one of the antidotes to this human tendency of self-destruction that can live like poison in our blood.

It is no secret that religions have contributed more than our share to enemy speech over the centuries. Much of the sacred literature of the world is filled with the horrible things that God will do to enemies. The toxic mix of religious ideals distorted to respond to immediate concerns about real or perceived enemies allows enemy speech to reach a new level. In the hands of a person professing religious faith: our enemies become God’s enemies, and my retaliatory action—even my unrestrained violent action—resets the cosmic scales of righteousness through me.  It is not my hand meting out justice, but the wrathful hand of God. Finding ways to make sense of the presence of such heartless theologies in the midst of religious traditions, and to expunge them once and for all, has been some of the most important theological work on the past 125 years.

World War I is a classic example of the terrifying result of blending enemy speech with the motivational force of religious language and imagery. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became A Religious Crusade, by American historian Philip Jenkins, outlines in great detail an early 20th century process of putting theology in service of eradicating a nationally identified enemy. In this mixture of secular goals and religious motivation, faith traditions get corrupted to their core.  

Another interesting example of this corruption from the World War I era is Lyman Abbott’s article, “To Love Is to Hate,” which flips a central message of the Christian tradition to love one’s enemies, to its exact opposite meaning—such is the power of enemy speech. Abbott, a prominent Congregational minister in the early 20th century, claimed in the essay that it was a Christian duty to hate imperial Germany – all it stands for, and all it produces. As Jenkins tracks the religious imagery, words and rituals that supported the rationale for the war, the author concludes that the Great War was, in fact, as much a “holy crusade” as the Crusades of the Middle Ages.  

Fortunately, despite the many challenges of our times, more and more humans are catching on to the political sleight of hand that has corrupted religious traditions and imagination throughout history.  Perhaps it is not a surprise that some of the most persuasive exposures of these hidden dynamics come through the arts. One such exposer of the lie of enemy speech is the American folk musician, John McCutcheon. Many years ago, McCutcheon, an artist-activist, wrote a stirring song about the common humanity that broke out on the fields of war-torn Europe in World War I that is celebrated in my drawing.  The song, “Christmas in the Trenches,” is a fictitious story that has inspired many peace activists throughout the world, and proved a healing testimony to some of the men who lived in those trenches like my great-uncle, Roger. McCutcheon wrote “Christmas in the Trenches” in just a few minutes of inspiration after he first heard the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce, and has gone on to sing it all over the world. See: 

Another artist who has helped to unpack enemy speech is award-winning cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973). Kelly wrote the comic strip, Pogo, a band of talking animals living in Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border in the southeastern United States. His animal characters and lushly illustrated cartoons made funny observations about the human condition, often laced with sophisticated social and political satire. Kelly’s most famous cartoon first appeared on April 22, 1970, the first observance of Earth Day.  In the cartoon, Pogo, a possum, is standing with a burlap bag and a stick, about to clean up the garbage humans have strewn over his home in the Okefenokee Swamp.  As he stands in front of the refuse, he looks out at the reader and says: 

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

As Pogo so aptly put it: The key to deconstructing enemy speech is to realize the real enemy lives inside us. We can never find peace with the enemies that are outside of us, until we first make a truce with the enemies within.  Pogo is not alone in this insightful realization. The Brazilian poet and artist, Floriano Martins describes his path to this insight this way: “The deeper I go into myself the more I realize that I am my own enemy.”  Meanwhile, Vietnamese Buddhist mystic, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests another path to enlightenment about enemy speech: “When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.” Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to destroy my enemies it to make them my friends, which Martin Luther King Jr. suggests in his famous sermon, Loving Your Enemies, can begin by noticing that “within the worst of us, there is some good.” Additionally, Pope Francis has asked the world’s Catholics to spend a whole year thinking about mercy, believing that mercy opens the door to reconciliation in the world, and deconstructs the way our enemy-making propensities disfigure our interiority.

I keep the Christmas Truce drawing in my office because it reminds me that we are programmed to make enemies and go to war, and a School of Theology is one place that should dedicate itself to bringing this destructive cycle to an end, beginning within our own mind and heart.  But, the drawing also reminds me to live in abundant hope.  Humans fighting over political, economic and religious-informed beliefs not only can break out of their narrow worldviews to embrace a deeper human grounding, but do so regularly, and the catalyst of such an awakening of empathy is sometimes as simple as kicking a round object around on the ground.  In such simple activities we can learn what the character in McCutcheon’s song learned from the Christmas Truce: “on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”