The Rev. Dr. Mel White recently stated that “you can’t love the sinner and hate the sin.” Yet many claim today to do just that. This oft-quoted statement does not in fact originate from the Bible as some may believe, but instead it apparently comes from a letter that St. Augustine wrote to some contentious nuns. Augustine’s phrase, “cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” “with love of persons and hatred of sins,” is used parenthetically,and does not even mention “sinners.”
As homophobia becomes less and less acceptable to more people in America, many “religious” persons have begun to use the phrase “love the sinner, but hate the sin” to justify their use of defaming thoughts, words, and deeds toward those in the GLBT community. But what does it mean to “hate the sin”? More importantly, can anyone really hate the sin while not hating the person as well?
The relation of sin to person is difficult to grasp. We are God’s creation. Yet, we are flawed by our own wrongdoings and disobedience toward God and our neighbors — doing wrong through the free will that God gives us. Our failure to love God with the whole of our hearts, minds, spirit and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, lies at the heart of the sin that separates us from God and one another. We all sin, but is any sin separable from the sinner, or vice-versa (no pun intended!)?
Part of Paul’s discussion of sin in Romans may help us with this question: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:20, NRSV version). The image of sin as actually “setting up house” within us (as the Greek implies) suggests that we host sin, yet are not necessarily sinful. However, this description of sin also suggests that sin needs a sinner in order to survive, like a parasite needs its host. By Paul’s definition of sin here, it seems that sin is something apart from the sinner, yet not completely separable. Can we then “hate the sin” without hating ourselves or others?
Even if sin is not separable from sinner, we are still inseparable from God. In his typical hyperbole, Martin Luther remembered Paul’s reassuring words of Romans 8: “No sin can separate us from God, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.” Yet one sin has indeed sought to separate many from God: the sin of casting judgment.
Some may feel compelled to judge the sin of “homosexuality” by citing certain Bible passages, chiefly Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and Romans 1: 26-28. (For a look at what the Bible says about homosexuality visit this page.) Yet hate or fear often compel strict judgment, to the extent that some would advocate following Leviticus to the letter and punishing those who engage in same-sex intercourse with death. (Those who cite Leviticus 20:13 as judgment against gays and lesbians should look closely at Leviticus 20:9.) Such punishment, though it seems incomprehensible to us in America, is indeed carried out in other nations today.
We do not, however, have to look abroad for signs of such punishment, but can see the murder that hate has produced right before our eyes. 1 John 3:15a states: “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers” (NRSV version). And for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons, we have seen again and again the murder that comes from being hated as persons: from the emotional murder of failed ex-gay “therapies” and the “closet,” to the spiritual murder of being forced to leave a church that preaches love but practices hate, to the physical murder on a fencepost in Laramie, Wyoming, and sadly, the self-imposed murder of thousands who believe that neither God nor anyone else loves them.
So much blood is on the hands of those who claim to love in Christ’s name, but really hate, using the Bible and religion to shield their fear and prejudice. And not just the blood of those who are persecuted, beaten, tortured, and killed, but Christ’s blood as well.
The Body of Christ bleeds for those who have been caused to doubt God’s love for them by others who see themselves as fit judges of sin. But make no mistake: Jesus died for us, shed his blood for us, to ensure that we would know that God loves us, all of us. Jesus could love the sinner and hate the sin, but no one else is truly capable of doing so. Jesus could call us evil and still love us enough to die for us, but no one else can do that. Jesus called on us to repent from our sins and wrongdoings before a God who loves us, broken as we are, even the parts of us we’re afraid to show. Jesus proclaimed the forgiveness of sin, not the hatred of sin.
Those who claim to “love the sinner but hate the sin” need to spend more energy loving and less hating, lest the judged continue to be punished in error, and the blood of Jesus be wasted by those who pretend to judge in his name.
A member of Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church in New York City, Chris Wogaman was active with Lutherans Concerned New York and entered Yale Divinity School in September 2002 with plans to pursue ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.