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” 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.