Being very suspicious of our own motives is wise. Not only are we not qualified to judge others, as we easily evaluate them too harshly, we often do a poor job of judging even ourselves, tending to give ourselves way too much slack. I’m trying to keep that in mind in what follows.
In the news recently was the report that someone painted a racial slur across the front gate of one of the homes of a famous athlete. For whatever difference it makes, which is none, this mansion is worth $21 million. Motive check: Is it possible I included that fact because I’m greedier or more covetous than I think I am? It’s more than possible that I can’t imagine a universe where anyone makes that much money for playing with a ball, even uncommonly well. But nobody should be spray-painting offensive words, graffiti, or anything else across anybody else’s home, shack, or mansion. Additional motive check: Does some insidious racism color the “hate crimes” opinion I’ll express below? I honestly don’t think so. (My dream presidential candidate is a woman of color.)
The sprayed-on word was a truly offensive racial epithet, a word that needs to go away forever. Of course, defacing someone’s property is already illegal, but I have two questions. Does the racist nature of the crime make it worse morally? Yes! That this sort of poisonous atrocity happens is disgraceful. Does the racist nature of the crime make it worse legally? It does. But, forgive me, I very much doubt that it should.
The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. Though that train, legally speaking, is already far down the track, I think it’s heading for a wreck that will hurt us all.
I did not say I advocate hate. Far from it. I didn’t say this crime wasn’t odious. I certainly didn’t say that many crimes already prosecuted as hate crimes, many far worse than this one, aren’t repugnant.
But defacement of property, vandalism, assault, rape, murder, etc., are already illegal. Conviction carries penalties, as it should. The whole idea, though, of a class of crimes and penalties that are worse because the perpetrator was thinking mean, nasty, hateful, and horrible thoughts, is a move in a frightening direction.
Who determines what constitutes a mean, nasty thought? Citizens in the old Soviet Union could find themselves locked up as “insane” if they expressed thoughts the government found unsuitable. In the United States, for all of our history (except for these days on college campuses), the right to free speech (and thought) has been a dearly-held blessing of the highest order. I may think your “speech” is horrible, vulgar, disgusting, and/or idiotic, but I hope I would be willing to suffer for your right to hold that position, even as I think you or society will pay a high price for such gravely mistaken ideas.
Crimes are already illegal. No government—however good, bad, or despotic—deserves to be trusted with the power to decide what constitutes hateful thinking. The consequences of giving the state that power are more than a little frightening.
It’s the state’s job to punish wrongdoers for criminal acts, not for hatred in their hearts. We can be sure, though, that the latter will not go unpunished. We can trust our God, the final Judge. He knows all of our thoughts, all of our motives. And Jesus has warned us all (read the Sermon on the Mount) that hatred or lust or greed will twist, imprison, and kill our souls a long time before we commit a hate-motivated crime.
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Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.