Jun 082012

Part 3: Applied Ethics

In the Present Day

There are a number of common situations in which some of us modern Christians fall back on an attitude of “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”   I’ve heard it used with reference to vices of all sorts, to addictions, acts of violence, and even to identifying as other than Christian.   In terms of public discourse, perhaps the most noteworthy context these days is that of romantic love between persons of the same sex or gender, which we shall refer to under the shorthand term of gay love.*

There are various reasons we’re taking the issue of gay love as the case in point:

First, it is an issue where judgment of sin is clearly a common practice among Christians.  A recent survey says that 71% of weekly church-going Americans, and 82% of “evangelical, fundamentalist or born again Christians,” consider gay love to be sinful, as compared to 44% of all Americans.

Second, as with many other issues, traditional doctrines based on certain scriptures are typically used to try justifying the judgment of sin.**

Third, this issue can be quite a flashpoint. The attitude of many Christians is the most passionate example of hate in “hate the sin,” while the love in “love the sinner”fred-phelps-westboro-baptist is too often at best merely pity and squeamish or begrudging tolerance. Furthermore, the message of hate can so far outweigh the message of love that some of us seem to think it is our duty to God to be hostile on this issue.  The words that come from the mouths of this hateful Christian “love” encourage intentional emotional abuse, and too often even explicitly advocate physical violence.  Is any of that what Jesus taught?

This issue clearly shows that the ethic of separating out the sin to be hated while loving the sinner eventually falls in upon itself.  The faulty cornerstone of our presumption to judge sin for others makes the entire edifice unsafe to inhabit.   As Jesus taught, and the Apostles rediscovered for themselves, this is not the way to serve and minister to others, or to build a community of faith, hope, peace, and love.

In the Early Church

When it came to the matter of other people’s sins, Jesus’ love repeatedly reached across the traditional barriers of his time.  Even so, in the early times after Jesus we find the Apostles deeply troubled in working out how to love as Jesus loved.  They were concerned about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love should or should not be expressed.  There was friction among them about whether or not a Gentile could be considered a sibling in Christ, and this friction was based upon the purity codes in scripture and Jewish tradition.  Devout Jews of the time regarded it sinful merely to associate with “impure” people, let alone treat them as equals in the sight of God.  To do so was to invite both social and legal consequences, and was even considered an invitation for God’s wrath.   To me, that sounds a lot like where many of us Christians are today on the issue of gay love.

Despite their fear, the Apostles finally let go of this sweeping judgment against their Gentile neighbors.  One of the most significant moments in this transformation occurs when Peter received two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.  Acts 10:28

Notice that he didn’t say, “God told me to welcome you despite your impurity,” which would be more like “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”   Rather, he accepted the mystical experience of his dreams and visions, the Holy Spirit moving within him, and dropped his old scripturally-backed judgment.  He was then able to more freely love the soul kneeling before him, asking the man to rise and be greeted as an equal.   In doing so, he mirrored the attitudes and behaviors of the one he called Lord.  He let go of the judgment of sin, and loved the soul.

This practice of letting go of judgment, particularly with regard to the purity codes, grew rapidly among early Christians.  It accompanied a significant evolution in the understanding of sin.  With time, many prohibitions for the ancient people of Israel were no longer even regarded as matters of sin, and that progression has not stopped.  We have also increasingly realized that such purity codes actually serve more as obstacles than aids to spreading the Good News and uniting all people as one family in God’s unconditional love.  As this progression rolls on,”hate the sin, but love the sinner” should become less and less relevant to Christian life.  We are increasingly letting go of the judgment of sin, and instead focusing on loving the soul.

A Closing Thought

Jesus and his followers exemplified this point many times over: If we want God’s loving will “done on earth as it is in Heaven,” then we best serve that aim with a love that welcomes others as equals, respects their freedom, and promotes peace.   In short, it’s all so simple:  We reap what we sow.   That’s also a pretty good tenet to keep in mind!



* The term gay love is used here because it acknowledges that people of the same sex or gender can and do love each other in every way.  When looking into our own hearts and minds, many of us who are straight have found that the term “homosexual” has been associated with a tendency to focus only on the sexual desires and behaviors of gay people.  This is dehumanizing and unfair.  How many of us routinely refer to the romantic love between straight people as “heterosexuality” or even “straight love”?  I pray for the day when everyone will wonder why there would be a need to routinely classify romantic love in such ways.

** For now, it would be a distraction to question the traditional understandings of those scriptures, and thus challenge the idea that gay love is sinful.  It is enough to note in passing that Biblical scholars, theologians, clergy, ordinary laypersons, and even entire Christian communities are increasingly doing so, just as was done with interracial love in the previous century.

  8 Responses to “Reflections on "Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner," Part 3”

  1. Great series, Chuck. I was kind of anticipating this issue in the last part, and I’m glad you had the courage to engage it “head-on”. I especially like the following, very important insight: “This issue clearly shows that the ethic of separating out the sin to be hated while loving the sinner eventually falls in upon itself. The faulty cornerstone of our presumption to judge sin for others makes the entire edifice unsafe to inhabit.”
    The entire structure does fall apart because humans will never be able to make such fine distinctions. As far as we are concerned, the sin “is” the sinner. And, that’s why the gay and lesbian community is still being persecuted.

    The very intelligent looking fellow with the signs is representative of the prejudice and bigotry humans have engaged in for centuries. God has his back, so he knows he’s right. He doesn’t even have to think about it, and that is exactly where the problem lies. He knows how he wants his sex, and he wants it “straight” Although, one does wonder how far away from his familial gene-pool he really is!

    The good news for the gay and lesbian community is that, within the next generation or so, they will secure most of their civil and human rights. This will be in spite of many so-called “Christian communites” who’s back God has. I’m quite sure they will be “justified” in the great hereafter. And, when they finally enter the Kingdom, they will be completely amazed when they are led directly into heaven’s bi-weekly Gay Pride Parade!

    Thanks for this, Chuck.

    God’s Peace.

  2. God loved Jeffery Dahmer. God also loved Attila the Hun & Joseph Stalin. And sure as I draw breath today I know God wept because of their behaviors and actions. I would also go so far to say God judged them (or will judge them depending upon your eschatological point of view.)
    And God calls me to love many like them. Love my enemies. After all, isn’t this what we are really talking about when we say “love the sinner, hate the sin?” Love those who are different than me, alien and whose ways I cannot sanely comprehend? The very ones I despise, loathe, and just plain don’t like. Not abstractly either, but really and truly as I love myself.
    Yea, verily I say unto you all, this sucks. But it is a command.
    How to do this? Take a clansmen to lunch? Hug an Al Queda operative? I “heart” genocidal maniacs? Hardly. What it does mean is that I must truly desire that all of my “enemies,” undesirables, untouchables, and those who give me the creeping willies be afforded the chance to choose eternal life rather than a life of aimlessness and sin. I must pray for them in earnest. I must want for them the best possible outcome for them in life; the opportunity to accept God & Jesus Christ and the gift of grace. Even to the point of being the agent of delivery if God wills it so. What to do about sin is “easy”; repent. Then again, it’s only your own sin you can do anything about.
    So then, if we are to be true to Christ, as His ways are know and to be made to us through the movement of the Holy Spirit and revealed in scripture, and if we heed His commandments, then our love for the sinner must be radical and sacrificial. To the point of our own crucifixion if need be.
    So every time Westboro Baptist protests at another fallen soldier’s funeral some of us should be there…not in wrath but with soft answers. Face to face, arms open, words gentle and persistent. Every time white supremacists suit up for their hate marches some of us should walk among them and witness to the powerful and all encompassing love Christ proclaims. Every time a pedophile is convicted or a rapist sentenced some of us should be there with message you cannot be separated by anything from the love of Christ Jesus.
    Hate the sin? Sure, it is a no brainer. It is OK to hate and despise sin. Love the sinner? Ahhhhhhhh, so much more difficult. My constant prayer is I have that strength & courage to love my enemies, no matter the stripe, the offense, the sin.

  3. Dear Brothers Steve and David,

    Thank you for your passionate replies. One thing that seems deeply shared here is the challenge to practice what we preach. We may find it easy to love many people that others hate, but how easy is it for us to really love the haters?

    I almost didn’t keep that pic of Phelps in this post. I’ve seen it many times, and it still shocks, horrifies, and angers me. In the end, that’s exactly why I decided to keep it there. You see, when I look at that picture and others like it, it reminds me that I’m seeing a reflection of something in myself, at least a potentiality if not an actuality. And the truth is that for a good portion of my life I was very judgmental and not very compassionate and understanding about gay love. And this is only one example of how I have come to see the bigoted hater in me, and the one who can wrap hate up in the guise of being “good.”

    Thanks, again, companions.


  4. Hi Chuck,

    I don’t wish to monopolize your blog. I just mean to affirm your comments on “loving the haters”. I believe we all carry a bit of the bigot around with us, as well as many other things we would rather hide from ourselves and others. It is for this reason that when I mount my soapbox and decide to take what I think is the “moral high ground”, it’s important that I not become what I hate, either in others or myself. I hope I don’t hate the haters, but I’m pretty sure I don’t love them either! These contentious issues don’t necessarily bring out the best in any of us.

    I’m glad you kept that picture of Mr. Phelps up. When I first looked at it, I flashed back to a photograph that was published on the cover of Time magazine during the Viet Nam war. It may be too far before the time of many members here to remember, but for people of my age and older, it will never be forgotten. It is the photo of an entire village of people escaping from a napalm bombing of their village. In the middle of the photo is a little girl running naked down a road away from her village, crying, with her face full of pain and anguish. Her dress had caught fire and had to be stripped from her because napalm cannot be extinguished; it must burn itself out.

    This photograph and her story was covered by every news organization in the world. She literally became the poster child for anti-war sentiment around the world. A lot of us believe this was a defining moment in finally bringing an end to the war.

    I suppose I was reminded of this little girl because Mr. Phelps is also a poster child. Unfortunately, his photo is often used to support anti-Christian sentiment. But, I wonder if Mr. Phelps’ photo will someday prove to be more prophetic and useful than we realize now.

    That would have been the end of my little thought on this subject, but later, listening to the news in my car on my way home from work, a story about this little girl came on. It reminded (or newly informed) us of the famous photo and her story, and also provided us with a brief interview with her. She survived her wounds and later came to the U.S. Today she is a special goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. She also started a foundation for other children who have been injured or displaced due to global conflicts. She said that at first, she was embarrased to see the image of her naked, and running down the road. But, she thanked God for bringing her and her family to safety and said that she was grateful to God for seeing fit to use her as a “face” for the horrors of war.

    That’s the best story I’ve heard in a long time, and it was presented to me twice in one day!

    God’s Peace.

    • No worries about your continued contribution to the post, Steve! 🙂 It is most welcome.

      I saw a similar report on TV about the Viet Namese woman you mentioned. It was quite touching, and I agree that it is a valuable example of how something so horrible, shocking, and shameful can in time become recognized as a watershed moment in transformation. I tend to think that’s the way we are going to look back on the outrageous words and actions of people promoting fear and hatred against LGBTQI people in these present times.


  5. Chuck,

    You stated in a reply above:”I almost didn’t keep that pic of Phelps in this post. I’ve seen it many times, and it still shocks, horrifies, and angers me. In the end, that’s exactly why I decided to keep it there. You see, when I look at that picture and others like it, it reminds me that I’m seeing a reflection of something in myself, at least a potentiality if not an actuality

    Thanks for sharing this. God works in mysterious ways, and I personally believe that what we see and don’t like in others is a reflection of what’s going on inside of us. Usually this so unconscious, but your words help bring it to the light.

    I have lately tried to be conscious of what’s in me based on what I see in others. It has helped me realize how judgmental I still am, and its something I don’t like in me. But as I keep practicing bringing up the unconscious within and making it conscious, I am finding that it can be transmuted into love.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. […] The Way of the Heart Reflections from a Christian mysticism centered on the heart, that "place" where intuition, inspiration, thinking, feeling and action can be integrated in the wholeness and harmony of Love. ++++++++++++++++++++++++ Matthew 22:36-40, 1st Corinthians 13, 1st John 4:16 Skip to content HomeAuthor IntroChristianMystics.comMeditationRecommended BooksShrine to the Holy SophiaThe Way ← Reflections on “Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner,” Part 1 Reflections on “Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner,” Part 3 → […]

  7. […] Part 3, we’ll review issues where “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is often applied, […]

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