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The Education of Henry Adams (2) – Not All Hatred is Wrong

Henry Adams was from the north and his family was strongly and prominently in support of abolition. At around the age of twelve Adams travelled to Washington D.C. and witnessed slavery first-hand for the first time in his life. This is how he described the experience (note: throughout this book he refers to himself in the third-person; the “him” he refers to in this quote is himself): “Slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare; a horror; a crime; the sum of all wickedness! Contact made it only more repulsive. He wanted to escape, like the negros, to free soil. Slave states were dirty, unkept, poverty stricken, ignorant, vicious! He had not a thought but repulsion for it.”

I believe that Adams’s response to slavery is correct and it contradicts two common, but false, contemporary beliefs: that all hatred is grounded in ignorance and that all hatred is wrong.

Many people today believe that all hatred is grounded in ignorance. ‘If only we all listened to and understood one another, things would be better!’ While it is true that some, if not most, of our hatred is grounded in ignorance, this is not true of all of it. Some things are evil! When things are evil learning more about them doesn’t decrease our hatred of them, if anything it increases our hatred. This was Adams’s experience with slavery. I imagine it would be my experience towards something like the caste system if I were to ever visit a slum in India.

Not only does increased knowledge of an evil thing lead to a greater hatred of it, it is morally right that it does. This runs contrary to much modern thinking that assumes all hatred is a bad thing. For example, I am sure that many of you have seen the bumper sticker that says “hatred is not a family value.” But this is a shallow understanding of hatred. It is morally good to hate evil things. Indeed, Augustine believed it was the purpose of education to train a child to “love what is good and hate that which is evil.” I want my kids to hate abuse, domestic violence, lies and falsehood, boasting, gossip, oppression, and exploitation. To simply recognize that these things are wrong without feeling that they are ugly and hating them is an incomplete human response. Our goal should not be to train our children to have no emotional responses or only positive emotional responses, but instead to have fitting emotional responses—the correct response for each situation.

But in hating ugly things we must not confuse people and things. We are to hate ugly things, but not people. Every human being bears God’s image and so long as they walk on this earth they (from our point of view) have the potential to be redeemed. This means that we can still love someone even if we hold different points of view. Henry Adams exemplified this in his life. As a college student he was close friends with Robert E. Lee’s son. They disagreed vehemently about a number of things and both worked against the other during the Civil War. But despite their fundamental differences (and their differences were deep and important) Adams could still speak respectfully of him.

In the same way, we might think differently than our neighbors or with each other, but this should not prevent us from loving them. For example, I believe that abortion is a plague. I am confident that if I were to learn more about it I would hate it more, not less. But I still can, and should, love my neighbor that is pro-abortion. I can and should hate the thing, but I can and should love him or her that bears the image of my Creator and Redeemer.