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Friday, August 19, 2016

Love the person, hate the sin?

Rebecca Bratten Weiss adds her voice to the many condemning the maxim, "hate the sin, love the sinner." I agree with the substance of what Rebecca is saying here, but I still can't see how this means that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is a false maxim. Quite the reverse. She has a good point that labeling people as "sinners" (as if we aren't sinners ourselves) is a problem, so we could rephrase it as "hate the sin, love the person." C. S. Lewis makes the persuasive point that we all take precisely this attitude to ourselves. We hate our own sins because we love ourselves and desire to be free from them. Charity is extending that same attitude to others.
I don't see any way to reject the principle found in that much-reviled maxim without doing exactly what Rebecca so eloquently condemns in this excellent post. If you really think that you can't draw lines between people and their sins, then, for instance, you either have to tolerate racism or hate racists. I see no other option. I find that usually when people attack the maxim they are thinking of things that they don't consider to be evil at all--usually homosexuality. They are arguing that no one can hold to traditional Christian morality on sexual matters without condemning the person who engages in "sinful" acts. But to test the maxim we should apply it to acts that everyone considers evil, like rape. And here the point under dispute is surely not whether we should hate rape, but whether we should love Brock Turner. In other words, rejecting the principle "hate the sin, love the person who commits the sin" will not lead to more charity, but to less. It will also not lead, as many conservatives fear, to a mushy "love everybody and don't call out sin" attitude. It will lead--and demonstrably is leading--to shrill denunciation of anyone associated with things you really consider evil, with absolutely no sense that you are supposed to love and respect the person who is in the grip of evil.
The blogger Rebecca is citing in this piece, Susan Cottrell, traces the maxim to Gandhi (she also notes that the basic principle originally comes from Augustine, but both she and Rebecca don't really engage with that, which I wish they did). She argues that since Gandhi says that the maxim is easy to understand but is rarely practiced, therefore he's really saying that it's impossible. But that's not what he's saying at all. He's saying that hating sin while loving the sinner is hard and should be done, not that it's impossible and thus not worth trying. The claim that Jesus didn't teach hate the sin and love the sinner is also rather strange, since the argument is simply that Jesus taught that we should love everyone. But that's the very point of the maxim. According to traditional Christian theology, sin is a privation--something that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to quote the 1979 BCP's baptismal vows. To "hate sin" is precisely to love the person who is being corrupted and destroyed by sin.
Cottrell, like many people who criticize "hate the sin, love the sinner," is especially concerned with the way it's used against gay people. I see why, as a short-term strategy, this could be an effective way for progressive Christians to make their point. But as I pointed out above, it has devastating larger implications for how we respond to things that everyone really agrees are evil and destructive. And, of course, Cottrell and other progressive Christians don't think same-sex sexual acts are sinful anyway. Surely the more effective approach, then, would be to show that the maxim doesn't apply in this instance, precisely because it does reflect a valid principle with regard to things that are truly sinful. The strongest argument on the progressive side, it seems to me, is precisely that it's hard to see how one can "hate the sin and love the sinner" in this instance, both because the "sin" is so intertwined with a person's identity (at least in our culture) and because it's hard to see how consensual, monogamous sexual relationships between people of the same sex actually "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God."
I entirely agree that the phrase has become a cliche and is generally used to legitimize the very behavior that it supposedly rules out. And beyond Rebecca's point about implying that only some (other) people are sinners, I can see how putting "hate the sin" first can be harmful, because it could imply that this is the more important priority. As Rebecca points out, we can "walk away from the sinner" but we can't simply "walk away" from sin. Hence, precisely because of our own sinfulness, we will inevitably twist "hate the sin, love the sinner" into "walk away from sinners whose sins happen to annoy us, while giving lip service to love.
Perhaps the underlying problem is our need to deal with tricky moral situations with a cliche. So by all means, let's give up on the cliche. Let's stop saying "hate the sin, love the sinner." But let's try harder to follow the ancient Christian theological principle that underlies the cliche--that we should oppose that which destroys God's creation precisely out of love. The only alternative to this is ceasing to love.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

But why would one need to hate anyone or anything in the first place?

Not hating doesn't equal loving.

I find it strange to think of moral issues in such an emotional manner to begin with.

Contarini said...

I agree that part of the maxim is the word "hate." "Reject" or "oppose" or "stand against" would be better.

Not loving does not equal "hating," but loving a person does equal "hating" in the sense of "opposing and standing against" whatever is destroying that person.

And I think morality involves the emotions, because it involves the whole person.

The separation between reason and emotion is one of the most destructive things that has happened in Western culture, I think. We should reason feelingly and think rationally.

Anonymous said...

As long as the doctrine of eternal damnation is on the table, all talk, all reasoning is entirely useless.

Accepting the idea that a finite crime can deserve an infinite punishment is what makes an end to all rational conversation. And to all rational action.

Contarini said...

I don't think so--but it may depend on what you think eternal damnation means. If we are made in God's image, then this may mean, among other things, that our choices have eternal consequences. I don't think that's the end to all rational action at all--it highlights how important and momentous rational action is.

Anonymous said...

"If we are made in God's image ..."

IF.

It's merely an if. From an if, we cannot come to any instruction for action.

Who knows what God's image is, and what it means to be made in God's image?

All we know on the topic "God," we have heard from other people. Never from God himself. So it comes down to blindly trusting some person, or one's own imagination.


In the meantime, there are real consequences that beliefs about God have on people: They kill eachother in the name of God. They make eachother's lives miserable in the name of God. Some go crazy as they try to figure out which religion truly is representative of God and which one isn't.