There’s been much talk lately about the moral purposes of history, especially from those celebrating the recent Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage. History, we hear, is on the side of ever-expanding personal freedom, and those who counter this expansion are history’s losers. This confusion of legal and cosmic victory deifies history. When exactly did everyone become a disciple of Hegel? As Robert P. George recently said, history isn’t “a judge invested with godlike powers to decide, much less dictate, who was right and who was wrong.” History isn’t God.
We are all still sorting out the profound moral lessons of the civil rights movement (and even, in some ways, of the abolition of slavery). In its wake, we have adopted various unspoken beliefs that may or may not endure, for instance that all distinctions between groups of people are always morally dangerous; that we expand our rights by defining ourselves in reference to unchanging, inborn identities; and that talk of rights is inherently morally elevating. These sorts of beliefs have become attached to the notion of being on the right side of history, but it is possible that they are historically limited propositions, ideas that seem particularly powerful now only because of our proximity to the civil rights movement. And yet, there is one force in human experience that, over the long haul, always, without fail ends up looking wrong—hate. History isn’t God, but God is, and God is love.
I am reminded of the role of hate in the history of social movements every year during the Walk for Life. The contrast between the peaceful, joyous pro-life marchers and the hateful, nasty posturing and screeching of the counter-demonstrators speaks volumes. If you want to convince the uncommitted about the evil of abortion, take them to the Walk for Life. Even though we humans often fail and slip into hate, ultimately we tend to identify truth with the side of love, as we should.
This accounts, in large part, for the success of the gay rights movement. Those who made and continue to make cogent, well-reasoned, loving arguments for marriage as it has been defined throughout human history continue to get branded as hateful bigots, not because they are, but because others who have opposed gay rights have been. The shameful history of the treatment of gays and lesbians, the hateful speech, violence, and exclusion from churches and other communities sits there, bearing its powerful witness, tipping the scales. Hate has stalked this population, and hate loses.
But take a look on social media: Where is the hate now? See how Christians and others standing firm, not attacking, but just stating truth in love, are being treated online. Any reason they offer and any freedom they claim is deemed a lie used to conceal foul intent and ignorance. People who continue to oppose gay marriage are being defined as bigots, and bigots are outside of polite society. They can be excluded, mocked, bullied, and fired. In my Facebook news feed this morning, I encountered rejoicing over the resignations of county clerks who couldn’t in good conscience provide marriage licenses to gay couples. No humility, no love, no efforts to help the losers save face; just triumphalist, hateful, in-your-face rejoicing: good riddance, bigots! One much-liked comment called this a win-win, gay rights and fewer Christians in government. The gay rights movement has taken much from the pages of the civil rights movement, but, tellingly, it is rejecting one of the civil rights movement’s most important (if not its most important) precepts: love your enemies.
“Love wins” has become a catch phrase of the fight for gay marriage. Love wins, yes, but it’s agape that wins, not eros. Eros can coexist with hate, but agape cannot. (Don’t know what agape is? Look to the members of the Emanuel AME church in Charleston.)
When consistently loving, humble people who clearly live for more than our culture offers are repeatedly, publicly bullied and harassed, when charities and schools are fined and marginalized, and when the good and the forgiving turn the other cheek and get slapped hard across that one too, this conversation will start to look different. If supporters of traditional marriage devolve into resentment and bitterness, they’ll lose any chance at credibility. However, if those who now find themselves on the “wrong side” love in the face of hate, the lines will start to shift, however slowly.
Over and over again, we have failed to hate the sin but love the sinner. It’s much easier either to ignore sin or to exclude sinners. It’s particularly difficult when our culture no longer recognizes the existence of sin and the need for repentance, or when sin and personal identity are conjoined. In fact, it’s probably impossible apart from God, but then the kind of love that has real power always is.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?