You’ve heard this aphorism a million times: “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I doubt there’s anyone in America, religious or otherwise, who hasn’t. It originated not from the Bible, but from St. Augustine, before being popularized by Gandhi and quickly adopted by Christian conservatives.
Though seemingly universal in its applicability, “love the sinner, hate the sin” has become the go-to platitude, particularly for many straight Christians thinking about gay issues. It assumes an easy differentiation between who a person is and what that person does, and urges Christians to adjudicate on these matters. The phrase suggests a peaceful coexistence between pity and piety.
Clearly, I’m not a fan. Let me suggest that the message we communicate when we invoke these words is actually “love the sin, hate the sinner.” Yes, you read that right. If that sentence seems backward and cold, that’s because it is. I don’t turn this phrase on its head to be flippantly subversive; I really think that’s the message we’re sending.
Let me explain. There’s a reason why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is quoted so often in our conversations about LGBT folks specifically-- it’s because the broader Church community has come to the unsaid but very real conclusion that homosexuality is not just a sin, but the worst of all sins. Ask someone who’s gay. There is no faster way to lose all your Christian friends or get kicked out of your conservative church, than by coming out of the closet. I know of a counselor who urges her gay clients living at home to have a bag of clothes packed at the front door before they come out to their family. She’s not being overly dramatic. According to a 2012 Williams Institute Study, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. In many circles (certainly those that I grew up in), being gay is considered the worst thing you can be.
Which is why we Christians love talking about it: we’re fixated. (I say “we,” not because I myself identify with this sentiment, but because I do indeed identify as a Christian and a member of the worldwide Church, which has been, on the whole, systematically persecuting the LGBT community for decades.) Homosexuality is the Jersey Shore of Christian Ethics--that thing we love to hate. Saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” about, say, pornography just doesn’t feel as good. It’s a little too personal, perhaps. Porn, for us straight folk, isn’t as easy to stigmatize or separate from our own desires or inclinations. But “hating” homosexuality comes with the added benefits of not only rejecting something that feels easy to reject, but also reinforcing our highly protected sense of heterosexuality. Hating homosexuality makes us feel good about ourselves.
When we say, “hate the sin,” so often and with such conviction in our conversations with (or, more likely, about) gay individuals, we really communicate the opposite. We’re fixated. We love homosexuality.
And what does that fixation communicate to LGBT individuals--those “sinners?” That we love them?
There’s a reason why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is not “I love who you are but hate what you do.” It’s not a phrase that has resonance in real human relationships. That’s because it requires a polarity in one’s attitude that is impossible to maintain or effectively manifest.
In real relationships, love is not just a warm disposition toward the other. It’s a genuine care that will find expression with the actions of listening, empathy and respect. Love is not so much felt as demonstrated. And the demonstration of our love for LGBT individuals means that we converse with a desire to understand.
I remember having coffee with a guy early on in my time here at The Marin Foundation, who talked about his reaction to people saying that they loved him but hated his “sin.” To paraphrase, he said, “Homosexuality is more than simply the choices I make. It’s how I’m wired. When Christians pit ‘the sinner’ versus ‘the sin,’ they’re trying to artificially separate me from any expression of my sexual identity, which is an inextricable part of who I am. The message I hear is not that they love me, but that you think I’m broken and want to fix me.”
Christians cannot stigmatize homosexuality without also stigmatizing the individuals for whom homosexuality is not just some ethical abstraction, but an everyday reality. It’s harder to hate homosexuality when you hear from gay folks just how much many of them hated it themselves when first coming out. Many will tell they spent years praying everyday for God to take away their desires and make them “normal.” I’ve never heard of anyone who decided to become gay. Imagine, just for a moment, actually trying. How would you do it?
Love is entering into the experiences of others, no matter how uncomfortable or confusing. If Jesus commanded his followers to walk that extra mile with their oppressors, the Romans, how much farther would he require us to walk with those whom we, his Church, have oppressed? Your gay friends and family members aren’t served by your feelings of love, tempered as they are by hatred for any expression of their sexual identities. They’re served by the demonstrations of your love, those actions that manifest the depth of your commitment to them and the dignity in which you hold them. In rising to this task, you reaffirm the worth they have always had in God’s eyes. You speak the truth, a truth about the core of God’s nature that is summed up in Scripture with such brevity and simplicity that it’s easy to miss: God is love.
You don’t have to be comfortable with homosexuality in order to love the gay community. But hating it with vitriol poisons souls. Including your own.
Note: This post originally appeared on The Marin Foundation's blog, Love is an Orientation, here.