When I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I did what I typically do upon learning of someone's illness: I said a silent prayer for his recovery. Call it habit, hope, or faith -- but this is what I do. While I could not disagree more with this fierce critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I also recognize that Hitchens is not a bad man. He's never employed or condoned violence in furtherance of his atheism. I can wish for him physical health and personal happiness even while I fight with everything I've got against what he stands for. Our hearts should be big enough to rise above the petty.
Later that same day, I spoke with an evangelical Christian friend in California who shares my disdain for Hitchens' views. He started the conversation by informing me that he's praying for Hitchens' healing and hopes I'm doing likewise. The following day, I was a guest on a Catholic radio show. As I read the host's web page, I noticed that he had posted the following to his twitter feed: "I know it will drive him crazy, but I'm praying for Christopher Hitchens." And so it went throughout the week.
Hitchens, of course, has a completely different reaction when those with whom he disagrees suffer sickness or death. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell died, for example, Christopher Hitchens infamously took to the airwaves to dance on Falwell's grave. In the angriest of tones he called Falwell "fanatical" and "disgusting." His only disappointment at the man's death, Hitchens repeatedly said, was that "there is no hell for Falwell to go to."
Now Hitchens certainly had reason to disagree with Falwell. In particular, Hitchens didn't like Falwell's observation that God permitted the tragedy of 9/11 because of the behavior of those with whom Falwell disagreed: America's social liberals. On this count, I agree with Hitchens -- that was a terrible thing to say. And Falwell himself thought better of his comment -- he apologized for it.
I doubt we'll ever hear Hitchens apologize for blaming almost every evil in human history on those with whom he disagrees: Christians, Jews, and other assorted faithful. Hitchens is fierce and downright ugly in his attacks on religion and the religious. He and the generation of new atheists he lead don't just disagree; they demonize and dehumanize.
To me, this difference in behavior is of deep significance. Let's face it, people are bound to disagree -- often passionately -- about ideas, politics, and faith. Disagreements are inevitable. But hatred is not. If we learn to love those with whom we disagree, we can still learn from one another. The seeds of reconciliation and respect are planted, and violence is pushed even further onto the sidelines. When we succumb to hatred of those with whom we disagree, learning from them becomes impossible, and violence hovers ever closer.
Of course, these prayers for Hitchens are hardly coincidental. Both Christianity and Judaism teach that we're supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that this love must extend even to our enemies. More importantly, both faiths maintain that we must act on this love to help our neighbors -- and our enemies -- when they're in need. And, to a surprising extent, these ideas motivate those who take them seriously to do beautiful things in the name of love.
The fact is that people of faith have been the driving force behind every one of the West's most important human rights struggles. It was devout Christians -- and only devout Christians -- who fought the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the American Indian. It was believing Christians -- and only believing Christians -- who fought to end the slave trade and then slavery itself in both Great Britain and America. Our civil rights movement was largely a movement of the churches led by pastors. And today, those at the forefront of the struggle to relieve the debt and disease of Africa are typically committed Christians and Jews.
Our leading religious skeptics, on the other hand, are too blinded by intellectual vanity to recognize the limited value of their doubt to a hurting world. As Professor Charles Marsh has observed, "It is unlikely that anyone has ever read Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra or Jacques Derrida's Disseminations and opened a soup kitchen." The same could be said for anything ever written by Christopher Hitchens.
I'm not asking that Hitchens or his fellow travelers give up the café life for the front lines of the struggle for humanity. I'm not on those front lines either. I simply ask that he have the decency to respect those who are there as well as the beliefs that inspired them to go. Love is a precious commodity -- we must not poison its most prolific sources.
Christopher Hitchens' arguments have never persuaded me. But it is his behavior -- especially when contrasted with that of believers -- that has done the most to convince me of the limited value of his ideas. In a world with too little love and even less sacrifice, I'll cast my lot with those who are both preaching love and acting on it. And, together with them, I will continue to pray for Mr. Hitchens' full and speedy recovery.