Wednesday 27 April 2016

Love the sinner, hate the sin?

I do not remember ever having used the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” but I have heard it occasionally and, more often, heard people objecting to it violently.  The latter has always puzzled me. Every maxim can of course be misused as a slogan to put down someone but the frequent response to  “love the sinner, hate the sin” seemed to suggest that such advice  is intrinsically wrong. So I was interested to read Simon Butler’s explanation of why this should be so.

Simon Butler calls this “an old Evangelical nostrum” which is maybe the first surpise, given the long history of the maxim from Augustine’s Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum (With love for mankind and hatred of sins, Letter 211) to Ghandi’s “hate the sin and not the sinner” (in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, page 439). Maybe Simon has encountered the phrase on the lips of evangelicals only. He cites an unnamed former diocesan bishop as saying to him “we must love the sinner but hate the sin, Simon. But never forget that these people ... are sinners.” What strikes me as objectionable here is the use of the phrase “these people” and with it the suggestion that “the sinner” is someone else (only). But to my mind this falls in the category of using the precept as a slogan against a particular group. The use is wrong, but this does not necessarily entail that the maxim is mistaken.

Simon is entirely right to stress that we are all a mixture of good and bad (the use of the phrase “saint and sinner” is arguably not helpful when explicitly including unbelievers but I do not want a quibble about words detract from the substantive point he wants to make).
The nub of the issue is this: Because we are all messed up, our identity and our actions are so interwoven with each other that any attempt to separate or even distinguish the two is doomed to failure. A related point is this: Simon thinks it is in practice impossible to hate the sin without hating the person committing it.

He adds to this concerns about spiritual superiority and hierarchy of sinfulness which are legitimate concerns but concern a particular use of the precept rather than the truthfulness or realism of the precept itself. After all, one response to the former diocesan bishop might have been, “I really hate what you’ve just said but I don’t hate you” (assuming for the moment that this is indeed possible).

The penultimate paragraph teases out the substantial point. Simon argues that it is impossible to “separate my sinfulness from my giftedness; indeed, the former is in some way a consequence of the latter...Western, juridical models of atonement, based as they are binary views of sin and goodness, fail to acknowledge such a profound reality and, at some level, prevent us from overcoming (befriending?) the fallen, shadow, sinful aspects of ourselves.” I am not sure I fully understand this. To me “overcoming...sinful aspects of ourselves” seems a very different thing from “befriending” them.

Might the popular East-West dualism help? Simon suggests, “A more Eastern perspective – of sin as a disease or a divided heart – allows us to see ourselves not as victims of an angry God, but as the beloved of a worried Parent, who can be loved into to befriending and finding wholeness in the parts of ourselves where sin can so easily master us.” Well, the Augustinian view of sin as a defect, a lack of good, fits rather well with the disease imagery. I can even imagine that you might want to befriend your disease rather than fight it, especially if you have no hope of ever being healthy again, but I admit that I still struggle to see why it should be intrinsically wrong to hate the disease.

Ok, there are dangers lurking here. Our anger and hatred is rarely righteous. Only God’s is. But still. Should we ask those who suffer from a long-term debilitating illness, which has surely shaped them and also brought into sharper relief some of their giftedness, to accept that the illness is part of their identity and to love it, hoping that in the new heaven and the new earth they might continue to be ill?

And does Simon want to sharply distinguish between his anthropology and a sociology that works in parallel to it, or would he equally argue that we cannot love contemporary British culture and society without loving the greed, slavery and arrogance that, too, have made us what we are today?

If the only alternative to “love the sinner, hate the sin” is to abandon binary views of sin and goodness and to stop distinguishing between good and evil, I’d rather side with the old maxim. I know that it is in fact not easy to distinguish between sin and sinner but in my experience the attempt to do so is the way towards love. Those who refuse to make the distinction usually keep on refusing to love the sinner because they hate the sin. This applies both to people’s perception of themselves and of others. People hate themselves because they hate some of the things they do. People distance themselves from others who say and do things that are wrong. The refusal to distinguish between people and sin does not in fact lead to an increase of love, as far as I can observe. This is true for me personally as well. I find it easier to love someone if I refuse to identify them with the aggression, arrogance or prejudice that drives a rift between us.

I have not intention of starting to throw around this maxim in conversations but I think I still seek to live by it. Loving all people, hating all that is evil, and seeing every Christian as simul iustus et peccator.

See now also Ian Paul's blog post.