Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hate the sin - Love the sinner

A lot of people on this side of the besetting issue really dislike that old nostrum "hate the sin: love the sinner."

I understand why. There are a lot of people on the other side who trot out that line as a cover for all sorts of hateful blather - much of it directed at the sinner (as they see it) and not so much at the sin.

But the fact that some people misuse it doesn't mean that the nostrum is any less correct.

But it is really difficult for us mere humans to separate our feelings about sin - or more particularly about a given sin - from our feelings about the sinner.

Unless, of course, we are confronted with it at some level.

Like I was today.

There I was, innocently trolling the blogosphere, when I saw an article in Toronto's national newspaper - and article that left me feeling like I'd been punched in the stomach.

A friend of mine - someone I first met nearly 30 years ago - has been charged with possessing and distributing child pornography. The police allege that he had a large collection of very disturbing images.

Well, first, I needed to remind myself that he was charged, not convicted.

But then what?

I guess then I need to contend with the fact that he may be guilty.

And if so, then what?

I guess that is where hating the sin and loving the sinner comes in.

It would be very easy to turn my back and deny him.

But he was my friend two days ago. If I cared for him before this, why should I care any less for him after? Indeed, doesn't he need my care, concern and friendship all the more now?

That doesn't mean condoning what he is alleged to have done.

But whatever he may have done, it doesn't change the fact that he is a child of God - and one whose life stands to be ruined regardless of the legal outcome. Even if he is innocent, the charge will dog him forever. And if he is guilty, his life is irrevocably changed.

So, while I hate the sin he is alleged to have committed, I must love this sinner (for sinner he is, regardless of his guilt or innocence on these charges). After all, I am supposed to follow the example of one who ate and drank with outcasts and sinners.

But mostly, I'm still just feeling like I've been punched in the stomach.


Erika Baker said...

Loving a sinner in those circumstances is a long process, though. It's not something we can simply do because it sounds nice and moral.

Friendship is based on a sense of mutual companionship and honesty. And something like that makes us feel betrayed and leaves us having to re-evaluate the whole past relationship we had with a person. Were they what I thought they were? Did we have what I thought we had? Was any of it genuine?
It really pulls the rug from underneath us.

If you can end up genuinely loving your friend again in the future, not just in an abstract "Christian" way, you're an amazing man. I'm not sure I'd ever be able to do that.

Anonymous said...

I found myself in a surprisingly similar situation a few months ago - (online discovery, via Toronto paper, of charges against someone I've known for years; it was complicated by their subsequent suicide) you have my sympathy. Or empathy. (Or ... something.) I feel ya, man. Tough spot.

Country Parson said...

We recently learned that our 20 year old nephew will spend the next four years in prison for armed robbery and assault in a drug deal gone bad. His crime cannot be blamed on a broken family, abuse, lax parenting, poor educational opportunities, gangs or any of the other usual suspects (so to speak). What he did was both legally and morally wrong. His imprisonment is well earned. Nevertheless, he is our nephew, a son in our family and a child of God who is not beyond redemption or love. The maximum security prison in our community is full of somebody's son, brother, nephew. They are there because of crimes committed. They are not innocent. Real people have been hurt by them. Yet they also are God's children. They have names. We often make two mistakes. One is to be naive about the real threat of crime and criminals. The other is to judge criminals as sub-human creatures unlike us, the good people, as sub-creatures not only unworthy of God's grace but beyond all possibility of it.

Malcolm+ said...

For the moment, "an abstract 'Christian' way" may have to suffice.

The thing is, having battled with my own (less scandalous) demons, I know the disconnect that can occur between who one is and what one does.

"The good that I would do, I do not; and the evil that I would not do, I do . . . . Inwardly, I delight in the law of God. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and rendering me captive to the law of sin. O wretched man! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?"

Brad Evans said...

This man is a total creep if guilty. You would be no more morally culpable for having nothing more to do with him than you would if you found a tumor in your body and had it excised.

Malcolm+ said...

Things is, he is still a child of God, and while his sin may be among the worst, he is not beyond the reach of God's grace. In the Christian moral economy, people are not expendable.

Which is, of course, a completely separate issue from the revulsion we rightly feel at this sort of crime (whether my friend is guilty of it or not).

Brad Evans said...

I didn't say "Let's all use the Soylent Green solution to the problem this man poses"; I said that you should have no problems having nothing more to do with him.

Malcolm+ said...

Brad, yours is an entirely understandable response.

But it isn't the response Christians are called to follow.

We are called to love the sinner, even as we hate the sin.

Erika Baker said...

So what does love the sinner mean?
Does it mean "love him as he is", or does it mean "love the genuine person underneath the perversion and hope it will surface again"?
Does it imply a kind of tolerance, once we have neatly separated out the god bits (sinner) from the bad (sin)? Is psychology so easy that we can actually do this? Isn't the lgbt debate, for example, telling us that identity and actions cannot be so neatly separated out? We already know that it is incredibly hard to treat paedophiles, that they cannot easily change who they are, but that sometimes, it’s possible to manage the dangerous expression of it. Where does sinner end and sin start?

And, most importantly, what does it require of us in practice?

Is Brad really wrong when he says it's ok not to have anything more to do with him?
Or do genuine Christians feel compelled to have even more to do with him from now on to help redeem him?

Is this all about feelings or about actions?

I think loving the person but disapproving of their actions is one of those amazing Christian truths that only a very few of us are actually capable of living. And by using the term as a sledge hammer of Christian requirement, we only set ourselves and others up for failure, dishonesty and resentment.
I would almost be tempted to say – never mind what you “should” feel or do. Be real, be honest, be genuine and accept what you ARE feeling and wanting to do. Who knows, once you’ve explored the depths of all of that without covering them up with supposed Christian behaviour, you might come to a deeper understanding of what you can and cannot give now.

Malcolm+ said...

I think you raise some good questions, Erika. It is more than a little difficult, when confronted with something like this, to separate the sin from the sinner.

The distinction between sin and sinner means, I think, your second definition, that we "love the genuine person underneath the perversion." But loving the sinner is, I think, completely separate from managing behaviour and risk. It would be irresponsible simply to "hope it will (not) surface again"? That was the mistake ecclesiastical authorities made about sexual abuse by clergy.

I suppose Brad is right insofar as the minimum expected requirement of civilized conduct. Nothing obliges me to have anything to do with this person again. I think, however, that my vocation as a Christian requires me to see the human being and the image and likeness of God - without, of course, in any way condoning or excusing the criminal behaviour.

I would refer to it as a part of our Christian vocation rather than a Christian requirement. Like much else in the Christian life, we must aspire to be Christ-like even knowing we will never come to perfect achievement.

Erika Baker said...

I suppose my difficulty stems from the fear that it is very easy to patronise someone and treat him as a Christian project, while secretly feeling full of revulsion and a sense of moral superiority that can barely be suppressed.

To say that loving the sinner and remaining part of his life (how, in practice?) is a Christian vocation is only really helpful if you feel, genuinely, that it is your personal vocation and within your ability right now. That you can walk alongside him in some way, shape or form that puts you genuinely on equal terms as human beings before God.
I do believe it is a very very rare gift, mostly an aspiration rather than a lived truth. And if you can do it, this friend is the luckiest person on the planet.

Malcolm+ said...

I agree that turning one of God's children - even a badly damaged one - as a project misses the point. There is no room for smug superiority. And that's a big part of why the use of the phrase (or really misuse of the phrase) is so grating for so many. I think the only possibility is to approach the other person with a deep consciousness of our own sinful reality.

I don't claim to be any sort of saint in this at all. It is relatively simple for me, living at a distance geographically.

Malcolm+ said...

Well, maybe a tiny bit of smug superiority can be allowed around certain things. Heck, I went to Trinity College where we had a tutorial in smug superiority.

Brad Evans said...

On what grounds? How do you know which is allowed and which not?
Is consistency a virtue?

Malcolm+ said...

Um, Brad, I guess I should have added a winky face to my last comment.

Lighten up, buddy.