Often people may invite me into a church or Christian environment where, although the mindset may be less of a literalist approach, it is not exactly what we as LGBT people might refer to as “open and affirming” or “welcoming” due to the adherence to the more conservative aspects of Christian theology. That includes the general consensus among the congregation that while they extend an invitation to people of all sexual orientations, they do not approve of those who have chosen to embrace their sexuality as a gift of God rather than perceive it as a “weakness” for which they are in need of “forgiveness.”
I responded to one of these invitations with a polite, “No thank you,” once, and the person inviting me asked me why. I responded that I was very comfortable in my own church, despite the fact that their church was twice as large in both the size of the campus and the membership, and had a dynamic multimedia filled service whereas mine was a smaller church with a smaller congregation. (Somehow this person seemed to believe that the more members or the more assets the church possessed was a determining factor in the quality of the worship.)
They responded with the comment, “I think you’d feel comfortable, they’re actually pretty tolerant of gays and bisexuals and those with alternative lifestyles.”
I asked what was meant by “tolerant.”
They responded, “Well, all of us are sinners anyway, so who is to judge who is the worse sinner?”
I responded with the thought, “I don’t want to attend a church where I am “tolerated.” In the church I belong to I am not “tolerated” but accepted and affirmed as a unique creation of God.”
This led to them saying, “Oh, so you just want a church that helps you to feel justified in your sins?”
About that time I saw where the conversation was leading and saying, “I do not feel comfortable attending a church that calls something natural for me a sin, regardless of whether they welcome me inside or not,” and politely excused myself.
Tolerance vs. acceptance
Let’s talk for a moment about what I believe the difference is between “tolerance” and “acceptance.” When I hear the word “tolerance” the impression it conveys to me is “I don’t like you, but I feel obligated to be nice to you and make you feel welcome because it’s the right thing to do. I cannot stand certain things about you and feel that those things elevate me to a level superior to yours. But, to keep the peace I will put up with you.”
“Acceptance” elicits a very different and far more positive response from me. It says to me, “You are different from me, and though there are things I may not understand, I see you as a child of God and equal to me. And, though I may not be like you, I support your rights, feelings, and identity as much as I would my own.” In response to the question “What Would Jesus Do?” I feel He would choose the latter as the more loving option.
To me, to tell another that their very nature, which includes their sexual orientation or sexuality is inherently “sinful” and therefore in the terminology and understanding of traditional literalistic Christianity “against God,” has nothing to do with what I feel Jesus meant by “Love.” Christians who believe in the concept of “love the sinner, hate the sin” may, in fact, “mean well.” However, in most cases, I have seen it used as a very cleverly disguised way to preach intolerance, homophobia, and a way to deliberately create internalized shame within LGBT people in an attempt to make them feel distant to God. It is a phrase that essentially, to me, implies that an LGBT person is unacceptable to God, and therefore, an unworthy candidate to be a true follower of Christ. I see no “love” — at least, not the kind of unconditional love I equate with and feel from God or in the words of Jesus — in that at all.
I cannot help but be reminded of what Jesus Himself said about the Pharisees: “You lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13) It is evident to me that Jesus, in this part of the book of Matthew, seems very displeased at the actions of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Their choosing to emphasize religious legality and law over love was keeping others from feeling inner peace and a connection to God’s Love, which I believe is the “Kingdom of Heaven” which Jesus was alluding to in all of His teachings.
Contrast this with the behavior of the conservative and fundamentalist Christians of today and the message that they are sending with the party line of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” While it may sound good at first, it begins to sound a bit like an oxymoron to me. The “love” of the first part meant to soften the blow of the word “hate” in the second. Essentially, anytime I hear this phrase, I hear these people saying to me, “I love you, but I’m not so sure that God does.” Or “I love you, but you disgust me” or even more blatantly, “I love you, but you’re still gonna go to hell just for being who you are.” Many times I also see it as apologetic-someone saying, “Hey,I love you but the Bible and my church says I’m not supposed to approve of you so I gotta add this hate part to make sure I’m right with God.” At it’s worst, I have heard those who utter it seem to do so with an attitude of “obligation” to remain consistent with the loving nature of Jesus while clinging to their own personal hate for the LGBT person. In other words, “I hate you for who you are, but Jesus says I have to love everyone and not hate anyone, so I will add “love” to the phrase to cover up that fact.” But is love out of obligation, rather than true feeling, really “love”? Would someone say, “I love my wife/husband , but I hate who he/she is because I don’t understand him/her?” I don’t think so. But that is what the ‘love the sinner” phrase seems to be saying.
There is a direct relation between not understanding, fear, and hatred. We often hate those things that we fear and we often fear that which we do not understand. The loving Christ knew this well. Paul knew it well. It is blatant throughout the Bible that God knew of humankind’s tendency towards fear and the potential discord and pain it can result in. The phrase “Fear not” appears in the Bible countless times. I personally think fear is at the root of all evil, brokenness, disharmony, hatred, and, yes, “sin.” The fear that God will not provide sustenance and the means by which we may earn our living drives many to steal and take that which does not belong to them. The fear of how others might respond to our truth often causes us to deceive others. The fear that we are not good enough or that we will not be able to attain the success and abundance others have leads to jealousy. Fear of another taken to the extreme can lead to one taking the life of another. And the fear that we are somehow not acceptable to God can lead to us turning away from God’s Love. It was fear that gave birth to the homophobia that exists in our society today.
Most people fear those who are LGBT not because they really have a natural sense of disgust or hatred for them, but merely because they do not understand what it is to be an LGBT individual. They hear the false rumors spread of us being child molesters and untrustworthy people. That we all have or carry HIV or the AIDS virus or will at some point in our lives, and that those who do carry it are condemned to a short and miserable life. That we are out to “recruit the children” into becoming LGBT, as if we were on some evangelical mission to change the sexual orientation of everyone. They hear that we are somehow “psychologically damaged goods” and that our sexual orientation or sexuality is a manifestation of something “wrong” internally. They hear that we tear apart families. That we are going to make unwanted sexual advances against anyone. And, in extreme cases, they hear that we are going to cause genocide to occur in the human race. Yet, the facts based on knowledge prove all of these to be false and based in fear.
Fear and misunderstanding
As a polyfidelitous (faithful to more than one partner) bisexual, I would say that nearly all of the prejudice I have experienced from people, both conservative Christians and non-Christians, heterosexual and gay, male and female alike has been out of fear and misunderstanding. They have heard the myths: all bisexuals are confused and “can’t make up their minds.” All bisexuals will end up leaving you for someone else. All bisexuals carry HIV/AIDS. All bisexuals will make unwanted sexual advances on anyone of any gender. Our sexual practices are unsafe and “unnatural.” And so on, and so forth. But the interesting thing I have found is that although they seem to know all of these “facts,” the ones who express these bold statements and sentiments have never met, nor known a bisexual person.
Once (if they can get past the label) they engage in conversation with me as a person, an individual, a human being with feelings, a child of God and someone who follows the teachings of the Loving Christ, they are often very surprised to find out that just because they “heard” something doesn’t mean it is the truth. They find out that I am not “confused,” but very clear and aware of who I am. They find out that although I have both a female and a male partner, I am committed to both and am not involved in, nor do I desire a sexual relationship with, anyone else. They find out that I have never betrayed or gone behind the back of any partner nor abandoned them for a partner of any gender. They find out that I’m not going to make “unwanted advances” towards them, or try to “push my lifestyle” on them. They find out that I am HIV negative and that even if I was positive, they could not “catch” it by merely being my friend. And they find out that though they may view certain sexual practices as unnatural and unsafe, that these things are in fact very natural and they do not have to be unsafe if the people practicing them educate themselves with facts and not fear. The find that God created many forms and ways for human beings to express sexual pleasure and intimacy between both opposite and same sex partners. Human fear created the illusion that anything God created is “unnatural.”
They are often struck by the fact that I am, albeit a more liberal minded one than most, a Christian who loves God more than anything and puts God first, as it is from God that all the blessings in my life flow. I do my best to follow the spiritual and ethical teachings of Jesus (with respect for those who choose a different spiritual path) not out of threat, or terror, or fear of God, but sheer love and gratitude for all that God has given me. I once knew a more traditional Christian who, when they first met me, assumed that I was “not a true Christian” and started in with the “love the sinner hate the sin” message. But, once they got to know me, the real me, they rethought their concept of “sin” and saw no reason why I should be called a “sinner” just because of who I am. He also realized that “hating” an aspect of who I am, of my identity, seemed to be contrary to his ability to share real Christian love towards me. And is only reason for “hating” it was due to the fact that he feared and did not understand it.
In my experience, that is the case with nearly everyone I have known who still engages in “Christian” discrimination against those of us who are LGBT. While I heartily disagree that the “love the sinner hate the sin” is any better than outright discrimination, for some it may be an “effort.” But it actually does little more than perpetuate the real problem, the idea that we should be called “sinners” for living in a way that is natural for us. The only difference in those who say “God hates LGBT people and finds them an abomination” and “love the sinner, hate the sin” is that the first one is outright rejection, and the second is an attempt at tolerance. It seems to continue the same line of thinking that is present in outright condemnation and personal, non-Biblical prejudice while being able to hide behind the all too common defense of those who do not desire to take ownership of their prejudice due to fear and misunderstanding by saying, “I’m not saying you’re a sinner, the Bible says it, the Bible says I am supposed to love you, but I cannot love what you do” and placing the Bible in a place above the unconditionally Loving nature of God we found in Jesus. And often it is used as a “stealth” means to get Christians who have LGBT loved ones into a congregation where the teaching is that those who they love and accept as LGBT are in reality being condemned without outright saying it. But, real love, Love that comes from God is a true feeling, not an obligatory disclaimer to attract more sensitive churchgoers who may have LGBT friends and family. And saying, “we love you, but we hate what you do, and God is not pleased with you,” only serves to keep the glorious Kingdom of God’s Love for us, just as we are, hidden from LGBT people who embrace their sexuality while honestly seeking God.
Jesus came into a world where religion was more about rules, purity laws and codes, and regulations and taught of a new way, an ethic of Love over Law, as being the New Commandment. Paul took this a step further by, despite his seemingly being torn between the letter or the law and the Spirit in the writings he left for us to ponder by acknowledging that there were no more divisions and “all are One in Christ Jesus.” The Christian church has in many respects come a long, long way in realizing that on an even deeper level, lessening the discriminations based on gender and race. Yet, discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexuality in general remains one of the final barriers to the way I feel Jesus would want His church to be. Until there is a move beyond mere tolerance to acceptance of all people, I sometimes feel that His Spirit feels a great sadness at the fact that many are being made to feel devalued just because some are allowing fear, not understanding, to keep some out of knowing God’s Kingdom.
The effort at tolerance in the statement “love the sinner but hate the sin,” is not acceptance. My sexuality is a part of who I am, and although it may be different the honest and ethical way I choose to express it is not a “sin” to be hated. While tolerance is a step, as far as my understanding of what I feel Jesus would do, if you will pardon the expression, it “misses the mark” of the Spirit of unconditional Love I feel He was all about, and that God seeks to bless all of us with.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.