Should We Love Bashar al-Assad?

Recently, Victor Reppert and I have been having one of our occasional slugfests, er, polite discussions. Actually, our exchanges are quite polite compared to the flaming displays of “Internet courage” all too often seen in this medium. Anyway, the point at issue concerns the claim by Christians to be able to love the sinner while hating the sin. For instance, when accused of homophobia, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell replied that, while he loathed the sin of homosexuality, he loved and sought the salvation of the individual gay or lesbian person. Now, I think that Falwell was a hypocrite who plainly despised gay people. This is not the issue between me and Victor. He agrees that Falwell’s other words and actions belied his sanctimonious asseverations.

The issue between us arose over my further claim that the ideal of loving the sinner and hating he sin is (a) psychologically impossible and (b) wrong. Concerning (a) I maintain that the injunction to love the sinner while hating the sin is a typical example of the sort of pernicious moral acrobatics that Christian casuists have often required of believers. Another example would St. Augustine’s insistence that even married couples should discipline themselves mentally so that their intent in engaging in intercourse is focused entirely upon the admirable aim of procreation rather than the base one of satisfying the appetites. “That which cannot be done without lust should not be done because of lust,” Augustine helpfully commented (see Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s classic Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven). Now, the demand that people engage in such emotional fine-tuning and moral high wire balancing is much more likely to produce a neurotic or a hypocrite than a simply good and decent person.

In other words, I claim that no one, or at least no one less than a saint, can consistently maintain the mental discipline and emotional adroitness to hate the sin while loving the sinner. Everyone, or at least the vast majority, will wind up like the Rev. Falwell—i.e. a squalid hypocrite who endorses an ideal that he fails to uphold while deceiving himself and attempting to deceive others about his true feelings. The reason simply is that some sinners are such incredibly, egregiously rotten persons. Consider Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. This individual is currently involved in acts of massacre against his own people because they have had the temerity to demand that he step down from his self-appointed role of president for life and permit democratic reform. His response has been to employ artillery to shell peaceful communities and to send death squads house-to-house to murder unarmed civilians.

Now Christians are told that they should be outraged at Assad’s atrocious actions, but should continue to love Assad the man. Yet this demand requires that we mentally split what in reality is a cohesive whole. Actions are not free-floating entities somehow detachable from the person who commits them. Actions that are cruel, callous, vindictive, hateful, vicious, and selfish typically arise from characters that are cruel, callous, vindictive, hateful, vicious, and selfish. If you are required to despise the one, how do you refrain from despising the other? The demand appears to be that you have two opposite attitudes towards two things fundamentally alike and integrally associated—bad actions and the thoroughly rotten person who committed them. Or is the person somehow distinguishable from his character? What, precisely, are you supposed to love when you love persons like Assad?

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that there can be a few saints who can achieve the mental discipline to love the sinner while hating the sin. Should they? Is such an attitudinal bifurcation a good thing? Clearly not. The proper, the moral attitude to have towards really rotten persons, like Bashar al-Assad, is one of outraged contempt. The true moral monsters—e.g. dictators, torturers, sexual predators, drug cartel kingpins, serial killers, traffickers in sexual slavery, conmen who cheat the elderly out of their life savings—deserve our most stringent rejection and condemnation. Any other attitude is inappropriate, indeed, wrong. Any other attitude implies some degree of acceptance or tolerance or exculpation for such a person, and this is wrong.

Again, though, some will say that the attitude of condemnation and rejection should apply to the actions, not to the person. They will point to paradigms such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s saintly Uncle Tom, who, with his last breath, blesses the henchmen of his beastly master as they beat him to death. According to the story, the henchmen are so moved by Tom’s display of charity that they become Christians. Now such scenes had deep, visceral appeal for our mid-Nineteenth Century forebears (who were much less abashed by open displays of corny sentiment than we are), yet there is something fundamentally deranged about such a scenario (small wonder militant black activists in the ‘60’s began to refer to more collaborative African-Americans as “Uncle Toms”). To refrain from despising those whom we recognize as genuinely despicable is to fail to have the courage to live up to our most honest and trustworthy moral judgments. It is a weakness that may be excusable in certain circumstances, but should not be praised.

My comments so far will certainly elicit objections. Here are some anticipated objections and my responses.

OBJECTION: You completely misunderstand the concept of agapē love. Agapē love is the kind of love that holds despite what is deserved. This is the kind of love that God has for us. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to redeem us. It is not that we deserved his love; far from it. We deserve hell, but God loves us anyway, to the extent of having died a torturous death for our sakes. It is this kind of love that we are expected to have even towards even the most despicable, because God has shown such love to us, and in his eyes we are ALL despicable, not just the worst among us.

REPLY: How is it that loving someone who deserves to be despised is any more moral than despising someone who deserves to be loved? In either case we adopt an attitude that, by our deepest moral standards, is utterly inappropriate. Perhaps the response will be that agapē is not an attitude at all but a commitment to want what is good for someone, even those we regard as despicable. But if agapē amounts only to wanting what is good for someone, then it cannot be a kind of love, since it is quite consistent to want good things for people while utterly despising them. A good thing that could happen to Assad would be that he be apprehended and brought to justice before the World Court. Even better would be for the Syrian people to overthrow him, give him a fair trial, and hang him. I despise Assad yet I very much wish such good on him.

OBJECTION: So, are we to love only the lovable? Where is the merit in that? As Jesus might have said, even the gentiles do that. Love is most praiseworthy when it is long suffering and forgives again and again (seventy times seven times, Scripture metaphorically admonishes). Mentally ill persons, for instance, can be extremely irritating and exasperating (not to mention two-year-olds), yet surely it is a great thing for someone to have so much love as to be able to bear the frustration and love such persons anyway. Likewise, those like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. who could love their oppressors are to be praised and emulated, not scorned.

REPLY: Yes, we should indeed be long suffering, patient, forgiving, and charitable. We must recognize human frailty—including our own, of course—and be willing to overlook much. As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, we should tolerate abuses as long as they are at all tolerable. As long as they are at a

ll tolerable. I heard of a woman who gave her husband an unusual present for his birthday. It was very nicely gift wrapped, but when he removed the bows and festive paper, he found a doormat. She responded to his quizzical look with “Yes, I am giving you a doormat, because I refuse to be your doormat anymore.” Good for her! You can put up with a lot, but you should not be willing to be a doormat. The point is that charity, forgiveness, long-suffering, etc. are good things—up to a point. After that point is passed, they are not good things any longer.

The same reasoning applies to our judgments about personal character. When dealing with difficult people we should be slow to condemn and look for redeeming features. We might suspend judgment so long as we think that there might be a decent core that can be nurtured. On the other hand, we will encounter some who, so far as we can tell, are rotten to the core. We tell children that there are no monsters, but we lie. There are. The real monsters aren’t scaly things with claws and teeth hiding in the closet or under the bed. They are often well-groomed, well-educated, soft-spoken, “men of wealth and taste,” who are found in boardrooms and offices, dining at the country club, or sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. Others are like Aeschylus’ Clytaemnestra, consumed by an obsessive hatred that has devoured their humanity and turned them into monsters of vindictiveness. What should we feel about Clytaemnestra? Pity, yes, for the suffering that she has endured, yet loathing and horror for the monster she has made of herself. As for modern-day saints like Gandhi and M.L. King, Jr., the admonition to love your oppressor was appropriate for their circumstances. The British imperialists, for all of their arrogance and racism—and despite the outrages of the occasional psychopath, like General Reginald Dyer, who perpetrated the Amritsar massacre—had a basic sense of decency and fair play (maybe won on the playing fields at Eton). They could be cavalier, myopic, and bigoted, but they were not monsters. Loving one’s oppressor might be good if one’s oppressor is George V, but not if it is Hitler.

OBJECTION: If we are to despise the despicable, where do we stop? Won’t we wind up hating everybody? After all, as Hamlet said, (paraphrasing) if we treat everyone according to his deserts, nobody will escape a whipping. Even the best people do some rotten things, or at least wish that they could. Isn’t hatred a slippery slope and once we start down it there will be no stopping until we reach total misanthropy?

REPLY: Hmmmm. The older I get, the better misanthropy sounds. I long ago reached the point where I like cats better than most people. Really, though, the above objection, like all appeals to a slippery slope, is fallacious. There are real, significant differences between people, and those differences deserve different judgments. Yes, we all are inevitably involved, even if at some remove, from rotten stuff. For instance, I think that vegetarians probably hold the moral high ground over carnivores like me. My eating habits support factory farming which is cruel and bad for the environment (but when vegetarians get too self-righteous I remind them that their fruits and vegetable were picked by grossly exploited migrant workers). So, yeah, the rottenness inevitably gets spread around to everyone. Still, there are very real moral differences between people. Any sane and rational ethic will recognize a real difference between, say, Albert Schweitzer and Pol Pot. The former we should admire and the latter we should despise.

OBJECTION: Can you really judge what is in the human heart? What right do we have to judge anyone as a lost cause, to simply write them off (which is what you do when you classify them as “monsters”)? Have there not been cases where even the wickedest have repented and turned over a new leaf? Shouldn’t we love even the vilest humans in hopes that they will be saved?

REPLY: Judgments about human beings are, of course, fallible. There may be a human being inside an apparent monster. In the excellent film Dead Man Walking Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who ministers to prisoners on Louisiana’s death row. Sean Penn plays a vile character; he and an accomplice abduct and murder two young people, first sexually assaulting the young woman. Sister Prejean refuses to give up on him, and, just hours before his execution, he becomes a human being, realizing the enormity of his crime, and expressing to the families of his victims the hope that his death will bring them some closure.

One great thing about this film, though, is that it is very even-handed. The families of the victims are also portrayed with great compassion and their pain and outrage are respected. At one point in the movie, the father of one of the victims confronts Sister Prejean and tells her that she must decide. She cannot be on his side and the murderer’s too. I agree and I have to side with the victims, not the perpetrators. Those who do monstrous things might not all be irredeemable monsters, but in real life we have to take a stand and make the most reasonable and realistic judgments we can, on the basis of the information we have, not based on imponderable possibilities. If you are waiting for someone like Bashar al-Assad to see the error of his ways, I think you will be waiting a long time.

Critics of Christianity often dwell on the bad things, the inquisitions, persecutions, sectarian strife, pogroms, expulsions, holy wars, witch-hunts, fanaticism, terrorism, and oppression associated with Christianity through the ages. Such critics have a point, but I think the supposed good things about Christianity are even more telling. Even some stringent critics of Christianity have praised aspects of the Christian ethic as embodying high-minded ideals. I think that it is precisely some of these purportedly high-minded ideals—like the injunction to love the sinner, however vile, while hating his sin—that reveal the true weaknesses of Christianity. Such commands, while sounding noble, are curious inversions of morality that succeed chiefly in creating masses of hypocrites and making clear thought about right and wrong much more difficult.