Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

A while back I heard an argument against the classic St. Augustine maxim "love the sinner, hate the sin." I've been mulling over that criticism for months now, and I think I'd like to lay out my thoughts so far.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin" is a heavily religious maxim, as evidenced both by its reference to "sin" and, of course, its progenitor: Augustine of Hippo. His teachings heavily influenced Christianity, for better and for worse. For instance, he promoted the concept of interpreting the creation myth figuratively, suggesting that we change our minds about it as we gain new knowledge. He also taught some harmful things about the nature or human sexuality and the role of women. Generally, though, he's best known for the "love the sinner" maxim.

The idea is that we should be compassionate to everyone, even when people have sinned against God. Considering that, according to the concept of Original Sin, we are all sinners in the eyes of God, the phrase is effectively the same as saying, "love everyone, including yourself." However, it places some perspective on the notion beyond Jesus's "love your neighbor as yourself" maxim: it subtly reminds a person that, yes, love them even if they have sinned. It cuts off our tendency to find exceptions, to seek excuses to not be compassionate.

When I was younger, this maxim informed my view of homosexuals. I was taught that homosexuality is a sin but, hey, so are plenty of the things that I do. As was pointed out in the musical The Book of Mormon, "being gay is bad, but lying is worse" (by virtue of it being part of the Ten Commandments), so as a somewhat glib child I was in no position to look down on gay people. In many ways, I can thank the "love the sinner" maxim for making me a tolerant little Christian boy.

Over time, though, my understanding of "sin" has changed dramatically. I don't, for instance, believe that homosexuality is immoral, and a lot of the arbitrary actions that qualify as "sin" just don't make sense to me and never did. Moreover, the "judge not lest ye be judge" maxim has stuck with me more than most, so even things that seem "Big 10 Bad," like stealing, don't give me leave to judge people too harshly. The fact is, I don't know those people and what drove them to do what they've done, so who am I to judge?

The problem with "love the sinner" stems from a rather pompous way in which the maxim can be used. There's a great article by Micah J. Murray in which he criticizes the maxim, particularly in the way it erects a wall between people, creating a "them," if you will. An Other.

Then we writes this great passage:
They say Jesus was a friend of sinners, but he didn't describe himself that way.
His motto wasn't "eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors." Those were the labels used by the religious community, by the disapproving onlookers. What's amazing about Jesus is that when he hung out with sinners, he didn't act like they were sinners. They weren't a "project," a "mission field." They were his friends. People with names. Defined as beloved children of the Creator, not defined by their sins. Icons of God's image. His brothers and sisters.
It's that tendency to see a person you've judged as a "sinner" as a project you need to work on that bugs both him and me.

However, I don't think that's the only way to interpret "love the sinner, hate the sin." I have a different perspective that I'd like to lay out. Expect that post tomorrow.

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