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.

Jun 072012

Part 2: Beyond Proof-Texting

In this part I want to offer more of my own reflections on this attitude of “hate the sin and love the sinner,” and do so in light of what I believe are the New Testament messages underpinning Christian ethics:

  • Love God with all that we are.
  • Love others as ourselves, and even as Christ in their forms.
  • Because God’s love for humans is a matter of grace, not of merit, we cannot judge anyone’s worthiness of love.

In this context, loving the sinner while hating the sin seems possible and even praiseworthy.  Most of us know very well that we can truly love someone while strongly disliking and disapproving of some attitude or action from that person.   We recognize that occasional sinful acts can be severely hated, yet even when added together not be enough to warrant our utter hatred for a person who’s character is basically good.   In fact, we might even more strongly hate the sin because of our love for the sinner.  Yet, while there are other merits to this saying, this line of reasoning reveals its shortcomings as a guide for Christian ethics.  It falls short because it does not mirror the unconditional nature of Divine Love.  “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” continues to be based upon human judgment and limited ideas about the nature of love.

These obstacles are understandable because human beings seem to rarely express the transcendent unconditional love that is the Divine Love of God’s grace.  Furthermore, we usually have some sort of social and moral grading for portioning out our love, and thus our love is often a commodity that we trade with some degree of judgment.  Most of us even routinely speak of love and hate as if they are opposites, as if there really is no such thing as a love that hate cannot match or even outweigh.

It would be unreasonable to expect ourselves to be anything but human, and thus we can accept that our love will sometimes be conditional.  We will sometimes miss the mark by judging how others might miss the mark with God.  We will overlook the logs in our own eyes as we become obsessed with splinters in the eyes of others.  We will often put our faith in our own judgment of sin, and in lesser forms of love, rather than completely trust in Divine Wisdom and Love.

In these moments, it is helpful to have a guide for opening as much as possible to unconditional love.  Surely this is the best intention behind “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  However, given the very human tendencies we’ve reviewed, as well as the difficulty in mentally separating the sin from the person who commits it, we can see how “hate the sin, but love the sinner” could actually encourage us to keep hate in our hearts and hold it against our love for the person.

Yet we are challenged to allow God’s unconditional love to shine through us as best we can, and so there must be other options for tenets that can carry us further in that direction.  I want to offer this as one possibility:

Let go of the judgment of sin, and love the soul.

In one sense, this statement is an affirmation to help with releasing the tendency to judge sin.  It acknowledges the possibility of being judgmental, but it does not promote an unrealistic expectation of some idealized perfection.  It is also a guide for our attitudes and actions whenever we awaken to the fact that we are judging what we consider to be the sins of another.   Its aims are also served by not using the word “sinner,”  and instead using the word “soul.”  In this way, we have a reminder that the other is not only more than a sinner, but also more than a person we know in this world (person comes from the Greek prosopon, meaning “mask”).  It reminds us that this soul, this whole being with depths and dimensions we cannot see, is a child of God.

In Part 3, we’ll review issues where “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is often applied, and some detriments of doing so. We’ll also reflect on how the proposed alternative could produce attitudes, actions, and effects more in line with the core ethics of the Good News.

Jun 062012

I’m offering these reflections in three parts.  First, we’ll take a look at the history of this saying.  Second, we’ll evaluate it in the context of the Good News as I understand it, and consider an alternative that I think better serves the spirit of Christ’s call.  Finally, we’ll address one of the ways this saying is frequently applied, how it is problematic, and how the suggested alternative could be beneficial.

Part 1: Some Background

Many contemporary Christians, including me, have spoken this statement, or some variation of it, as if it is traditional doctrine, if not actually scriptural.   In fact, it is neither, although there are scriptural references that might be used to support it, such as these:

Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Romans 12:9

Show mercy to those who doubt. Pull others out of the fire. Save them.  To others, show mercy mixed with fear.  Hate even the clothes that are stained by the sins of those who wear them.  Jude 22-23

So what is the source of this supposed doctrine?  The earliest known approximation of the modern version comes from St. Augustine of Hippo. In a letter counseling quarreling nuns, he said: Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum. (Opera Omnia, Vol II. Col. 962, #211) This statement actually translates as “with love of persons and hatred of sins.”  Notice that it doesn’t refer to those persons by the term “sinners.”  The contemporary saying is also misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi, who only reflected upon it in his autobiography.  As far as I know, the first English statement of “hate the sin, but love the sinner” appears in Edward Irving’s book, Sermons, Lectures, and Occasional Discourses, Volume 1 (1828), pp. 131-132:

“It is a vain thing to say that God loveth sinners and ungodly creatures: he extendeth mercy and grace unto them, and loveth the election for his Son’s sake; but he must cease to love his Son – that is, to love himself – when he loveth those who are rebellious against himself.  He is “angry with the wicked every day:” he cannot look upon the workers of iniquity but with detestation and abhorrence. It is one of the sayings of that wretched Arminianism, with which the land is overflowed, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner.’  What mean they? That sin is something by itself, and the sinner something by himself, so distinct from one another, that the one may well be hated, and the other may well be loved?  They know nothing at all, and they will know nothing at all.”

To some extent, I agree that sin and sinner are inseparable, but that is about as far as my agreement with Irving goes.   It seems clear that he is trying to justify hatred toward those we would judge as sinners, and yet even his logic diverts from his own assertion that God extends mercy and grace to sinners.  What are mercy and grace if not expressions of love?  His reasoning also falters in concluding that it is hateful toward oneself to love those who rebel against you.    Does every mother who loves a rebellious child therefore hate herself?  To me, this position is absurd, makes love sound petty, and casts God as terribly small.

The Christian scriptural basis of Irving’s argument is also questionable.  His only scriptural quotation, “angry with the wicked every day,” is from Psalm 7:11, but there are so many things attributed directly to Jesus and his apostles that contradict the way he is using it.  For example, he would have a very hard time reconciling his position with Jesus’ very clear instruction to “love your enemies.”  Furthermore, in Romans 5:6-10, we actually find a powerful refutation of Irving’s argument:

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

Let’s not get mired in a scriptural duel, parrying and thrusting with passages taken out of context.  That would be a distraction from the most important point of this series, which is to suggest a different approach to Christian ethics than “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  In Part 2, I will therefore deal with this matter in light of what I believe to be the central moral themes of the Good News.

Feb 202011

In Part 1 we considered the idea that serving love above all other things can sometimes lead us to break laws and ethical standards.  This idea begs us to further consider what principles we can use to help bridge the gap between the ineffable mystery of love and the concrete reality of this world.

Non-Judgment and Equality

Peter’s example in Caesarea clearly shows us that our role is not to judge people, at least not according to a literal reading of laws written for a specific culture thousands of years ago. So if even the “Rock” would not judge another person’s purity or cleanliness, even with the backing of scriptural law, then who is any of us to do so?  Once Peter managed to pass through this test and let go of the temptation to judge in that particular way, we see his actions showing us an interconnected principle that is just as much a sign and symptom of love – he welcomed Cornelius, a Gentile, as an equal.   He refused to allow Cornelius to kneel before him and said, “Stand up. I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:26)  It is also important to understand that this position of non-judgment of another person’s worthiness of love is not taken with the disclaimers so popular among modern evangelicals, like “for all have sinned and fallen short,” or “hate the sin and not the sinner”, but the declaration that God does not play favorites.  If Peter felt called to recognize and love a Gentile as an equal before God, and did so in a time when the legalized taboos and consequences make ours look tiny by comparison, then who are we not to recognize and love others we might be tempted to judge as sinful, impure or unclean?

I suspect the progression of the law of love over the written law, with all its cultural limitations and prejudices, was at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he told the Apostles they would do even greater things than he had done.  It could be argued that the most pervasive influence of the Christian spirit on the evolution of Western society and government, and often despite the Church’s own institutionalized prejudice, has been the continuation of that progression toward recognizing the equality of each person, protecting that equality, and providing for each person’s basic well being.  Even so, in each societal shift the Church has experienced the call of radical love in conflict with Bible-based fears about the supposed sanctioning of sin.  Worse yet, those religious arguments were, and still are, used by some individuals and groups as justifications for threats, violence, and heinous acts of terror in the name of Christ.  Thankfully, however, radical love has led most of the Western world to let go of conventions like slavery, Jim Crow laws, the oppression of indigenous peoples, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and restraints on the rights of women.   Today the vast majority of Christians consider those injustices as contrary to the spirit of Christ’s love, though it seems to me that many of us are nonetheless still repeating the pattern with regard to other issues, including sexual orientation, gender identity and economic status.

Answering Legal and Moral Problems

Why would we adhere to laws and ethical standards that are out of their time and cultural context rather than answer the call for a more expansive and inclusive expression of love?  It’s my conviction that the basic problem is fear, in part because we have been taught the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)  From that staring place, I suggest our pattern of prejudice is further based on the fearful belief that God does play favorites, and so upon the fearful hope that we can win a place among the favored.  Unfortunately, there are lots of scriptural passages that can be used to support such attitudes, which in turn seem to justify arrogantly judging others’ worthiness to be treated as equals, and then being insensitive and cruel to those considered unequal.  There is also the ordinary human fear of change, and especially of letting go of traditions that have benefited oneself even though it has been at the unfair expense of others.  Aside from these factors, there is also the perfectly reasonable fear of living in a chaotic world without rules to help settle differences on what is relatively good and right in particular situations.

There is a real need for written laws and ethical standards but, in order to not be limited to fear as our only legal and moral guide, we also need our laws and ethics to be subject to the evolving wisdom of love – otherwise we risk them becoming rigid spiritless idols of prejudice and tyranny.  This need is one reason legal and ethical systems have developed that permit changes in our understandings, and even the amendment or elimination of rules that we discern are no longer adequate.   But how can we come to know the evolving wisdom of love so that we may express it more fully?  For Christian mystics the answer begins with turning inward to realize our union with Christ, the Logos, the Light of Universal Reason, and thus with God, Love itself.  That union then achieves both wider and deeper realization through honoring every human soul’s essential connection with Love, and thus with each other.  This great work is what best enables us to judge in the only way that I believe we are truly called to do.  In practical terms, our calling is to always respond to life’s problems by trying to discern how the Spirit moves us to answer this question: What is the most loving thing to do? To have that intention as our prayer, our principal ethic and our mission, combined with the understanding that different people may come to different answers, is to have an inner guide to radical love, the kind of love Jesus actually lived and charged us to progressively spread beyond all prejudicial boundaries, no matter how sacrosanct they may seem to be.

Feb 132011
This post is a significant revision of a note written for my Facebook page in 2009. I retitled it “Radical Love”, and have since found there are books with the same title.  This post does not reference any works by this title.

Imagine what it would be like to be taught from infancy that God wants to be feared, gets violently jealous and angry, hates a specific list of behaviors, severely punishes the people who do them, and expects us to reflect these same attitudes and actions with each other.  Imagine you have also been taught that all these things have been literally dictated by God into a single book of lore and laws revered for thousands of years as the supreme encapsulation of absolute and unchanging Truth.  Well, for many of us Christians that’s not hard to imagine because it’s so close to the way we were raised.  Now imagine how you would feel when the most scripturally literate, charismatic and miraculous person you’ve ever met also speaks and acts in ways that violate those laws, and even claims a divine right to do so!  I think this is what it was like for the Apostles and others of their time to be in the presence of Jesus.

A Radical Idea: Breaking the Law in Order to Fulfill It

Scriptural laws, such as the Levitical laws, were deeply established as the basis of the Apostles’ world; the law dominated their identity as a culture, as families, and as individuals.  But Jesus shook things up with a radical teaching about a relationship with God and other human beings that was chiefly based on trusting God’s limitless love and listening to God’s Living Word spoken in our hearts, rather than uncritically obeying the words spoken by religious authorities or written in a book, even the Bible.  This devotion to love as the primary arbiter of righteousness and morality is what enabled Jesus to break the letter of the law in order to best serve its spirit, which I think is part of what he meant by “fulfilling the law” (Matthew 5:17).  His teaching did not set aside the Bible, but clearly placed it beneath loving God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40).

To me, the Good News that God is infinitely loving, combined with the Great Commandments, is the essential formula of Christian life whether we call it mystical or not.  But as inspiring as many people have found it, to countless religious authorities and devout people of Jesus’ time that message was unacceptably threatening, just as it seems with many of us Christians today.  Yet the Apostles were close enough to Jesus to see the Divine Light, the Logos, shining through him even, and perhaps especially, when he repeatedly violated the law in fulfilling the higher law of love.  They constantly had to face tough questions about how far they should go in putting love above and beyond the laws that defined their very lives and, in fact, threatened their lives if they went too far.

If you have read the Acts of the Apostles, you know that after the death of Jesus this issue came to a head and they were deeply troubled by it.  Specifically, there was concern among them about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love could be properly expressed.  Could someone who was not Jewish be considered a sibling in Christ?  After all, those who weren’t Jewish didn’t practice all the purity codes prescribed by the Bible and Jewish tradition.  It was seriously risky to freely socialize with “impure” people, to eat with them, to touch them, let alone baptize them and treat them as beloved family members.

One of the most crucial moments of transformation on this issue is recorded in Acts, chapter 10.  Peter, the “Rock” of the Apostles, had two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…. (Acts 10:28, 34)

This realization is echoed in Romans 2:11, showing from that point forward the Apostles became more inclusive with their ministry, freely violating laws in the process.  It seems obvious to me that they were beginning an ever-expanding expression, a progression,  of Jesus’ teaching to put love above all other considerations. The lives of Jesus and the Apostles illustrate that Christian life is meant to be a vital, growing, evolving presence of love in this world, whether we are speaking of the whole Church, of specific congregations, or of the individual follower of Jesus.

The best examples provided by Jesus and the Apostles always take us right back to the two greatest commandments: love God with all that you are, and love others as yourself. For followers of Christ, love has never been, and never will be, more adequately captured by any other written or spoken laws.  Love is always outgrowing whatever else we want to idolize as perfect and permanent, even the literal words of the Bible.  Love forever challenges us to let go of whatever else we might cling to in the desire to feel more comfortable and confident amid all the uncertainties of life.  But, in the absence of laws settling all sorts of specific behavioral issues, are there more specific principles we can apply to be more complete and vital lovers of God and other people?  The Beatitudes reveal a wonderful set of such principles, but something very crucial is demonstrated in that early struggle of the Apostles in their post-Jesus ministry, and that’s where we will continue in Part 2.