I hear this question a lot of late with reference to the current attacks occurring in the so-called Holy Land as well as in the Ukraine and the Sudan. "How can they hate each other so?"
While I won’t pretend to have a lot of answers to such a frequently posed question, I do have a couple thoughts perhaps worth sharing more from a psycho-social perspective befitting my years of training and practice.
One of the hardest of all human conditions throughout recorded history is the pain of being victims of social injustice. This helps explain why peace itself is such an uncommon occurrence amongst the annals of human history.
Chris Hedges, in his 2003 book, “What Everyone Should Know About War,” noted that, “of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” Needless to add, the number of years we’ve been at peace since his publication is, well, zero.
So lets consider how this could be, and what role victims of social injustice may play in what amounts, undeniably, to perpetual warfare: roughly 3152 years out of the last 3420 in recorded history.
Sometimes it is easier to track human behavior more on the micro level where individuals are concerned rather than on a macro scale where tribes and nations act out. My own commentary here, by way of disclaimer, is far more theoretical and anecdotal than it is scientific. I’m offering no real data here in this blog for you to take to the bank. At best, I’m giving you educated guesses and some 4 plus decades of experience working with crime and abuse victims.
Victims of social injustice generally react in fairly predictable ways. Some emotional trauma occurs in which one experiences danger and the pain and fear that comes with it. Fear becomes the basis for what then amounts to survival behavior. The brain’s limbic system activates our body’s stress hormones empowering our fight or flight behavior.
If we break down the result of a social action against an individual that produces such emotional trauma, we can see where on a personal, individual level, we are more inclined to choose flight than fight. An individual is outnumbered and overpowered by his/her own social aggressor. For example, an individual child is overpowered by an older child or larger adult. Female individuals may be overpowered by male individuals and male-dominated societies. Marginalized individuals are up against privileged systems. So, our survival instincts point us personally more in directions of flight than fight given the reality of one against the many, or of the small against the larger.
However, where we take flight to becomes extremely important in then triggering a series of consequential reactions. In my experience, most victims of injustice flee into what is often called “a rescue fantasy.” Put simply, we run to someone / something bigger or stronger or more powerful.
Rescue fantasies we initiate on a personal level predictably extend into social characterization along the lines of Superman, Batman, and even my own favorite action hero of childhood, Popeye the Sailor Man. Such fantasized “rescuers” of individuals in distress will always find a ready market of children who, sadly, bear the largest share of emotional trauma as victims of painful injustice.
Unfortunately, child victims grow to realize these action heroes of screen and paper lack the flesh & blood powers to fight their battles for them. So our flight as adults takes us in new directions and into what amounts to grown-up rescue fantasies. Flesh & blood characters like autocratic politicians who promise deliverance from our enemies. Or aggressive social groupings come into play or display with a superpower authority to “fight our battles” for us against our abusers (take, for example, the American MAGA movement or the Palestinian HAMAS). For the beleaguered German victims of the World War I Treaty of Versailles, Adolph Hitler became a flesh & blood “rescue” figure extending our own fantasized Superman, Batman, or Popeye the Sailor Man.
By now I’m far enough out into the weeds that I can veer in any number of different directions, most of which wouldn’t help anyone figure out anything about “how they can hate each other so.” So let’s back up far enough to say, simply, that personal victims of social injustice survive by flight into rescue fantasies that invite flesh & blood action heroes to fight on their behalf to destroy those perpetrators of such injustice. Such heroes then start wars against those perpetrators and such wars then create the next round of personal victims from the social injustice of war itself. A round we dismissively call "collateral damage."
Which leads us to this latest war in the Holy Land, where victims abound and rescue fantasies flourish and action heroes such as HAMAS and ISF are poised to create even more victims who hate each other and even more rescue fantasies ad infinitum.
From a psycho-social perspective, that is the ultimate “bad news” story of humanity that explains our human pain, fear, hatred and flight into kingdoms of dominant aggression / violence. Hatred is passed back and forth not so different from a family virus that circulates from school to child to parent to child to school and back again in vicious cycles.
And now for the “good news.”
Turning the bill of my Social Worker cap around to become Pastor Dan, the only flesh & blood real-life action hero I know about who is capable of breaking apart this vicious cycle of hatred and war that has plagued humanity for all but 268 out of the last 3,420 years is the ancient Galilean Jew named Jesus of Nazareth (Circa 4 BCE – 29 CE) in……would you believe?…..the same Holy Land where today’s mutual injustice, terror, and hatred is again on display. If you can think of a better hero yourself, please inform and introduce me.
It is my belief that Jesus understood all about "how they can hate each other so." He lived in a time and place of bitter foreign occupation, the Romans essentially colonizing the Jews in the same location as the Jews have now colonized the Arab Palestinians. His own Jewish people were being traumatized emotionally by the Romans. He was surrounded by personal victims of social injustice, and he understood their unified rescue fantasy. It involved an Israeli insurgency against Rome led by a Messianic warrior king in the lineage of David. Fortunately, Jesus understood also how this hatred would lead to events such as the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE (which eerily replicates the current Israeli siege of Gaza now in 2023 CE). To save his people from such a perpetual bloodbath, he offered up a different rescue plan. One I prefer to call God’s plan of salvation, or humanity’s “rescue reality.”
Rather than the common human “rescue fantasy” that leads to perpetual pain, victimization, war, and endless injustice, Jesus offers the “rescue reality” of love and forgiveness. Entirely counter-intuitive. Completely drawn by love instead of driven by fear. God’s love refuses to fear, refuses to punish, retaliate, seek retribution. Jesus exemplified that love which restores and reconciles in response to his own reality of victimization, evidence being a transition from excruciating crucifixion as an innocent victim into a resurrection without vengeance. Jesus proved for us the reality that the best success in response to painful injustice is not revenge but instead actual survival by means of love and forgiveness. Not a “rescue fantasy” that leads to perpetual violence, but a “rescue reality” that leads to perpetual peace (aka eternal life).
It’s not that the way of Jesus, some still today calling it Christianity, has been tried and failed. It’s that it has been found counter-intuitive and difficult, so never actually tried. We’ve preferred to go with our own rescue fantasies that, quite obviously, aren’t working out for us or bringing about different results from our same actions now at three millenia and counting. God’s rescue reality remains an available option should we ever accept God’s Kindom here on earth as it is in heaven (an acceptance our human insanity continues to resist).
I believe, based on the consistent testimony of humans who’ve been through the fires of war, that war is hell and, therefore, 92% (per our recorded history) of this past and present world is hell. I believe God’s plan of salvation through love and forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and rehabilitation in response to social injustice is the best available alternative to our failed “rescue fantasy” of this past and present world. I believe the model of Jesus is the “rescue reality” that will save us from this perpetual hell of violence.
Which raises the most difficult and infrequently answered question of them all: how can they NOT hate each other so? Perhaps that is the question upon which our human survival most depends.