Phraseology: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”


Background + Context:

Where did, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” originate?  I took a little time this week and found out that it is based off the words of Augustine and Gandhi.

Augustine wrote a letter which addressed the community of nuns where his sister was once prioress.  In it, he rebuked the nuns on several accounts.  Section 11 of letter, urged the nuns saying, “with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin” avoid “forwardness of eye,” the gifts, and affections of men.  The intent was to remind and encourage them to remember their covenant (“established in the freedom of grace”) unto God and their community.  It was something of a rule like that of Saint Benedict for these sisters to examine their lives against.

Gandhi’s autobiography carries a similar phrase in relation to nonviolence,

‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world…  It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator.

Here he addressed the tension to link evil with the person who does evil.  For Gandhi, this only served to perpetuate the spiral of violence.  The problem lies in the fact that we often fail to see our connectedness with the other, this is the violence of separation.  We are in trouble when we fail to see the whole and instead focus on one small dimension of a person’s actions, beliefs, etc.

Currently, this phrase is most often ushered in reference to a persons or faith communities understanding of human sexuality.  It’s used to “politely” voice disagreement, distaste, even disgust with “seemingly deviant” expressions of sexuality.

Parsing + Paradoxes 

I took Biblical Greek as an elective in college.  Quickly thereafter, I realized that it was not nearly as glamorous as I had imagined  learning a Biblical language to be.  I remember spending a great deal of time doing something called parsing verbs.  In short, this is where you identify the tense, voice, and mood of a verb for the sake of translation and ultimately exegesis.  I struggled not only to categorized verbs but also to understand the implications of my findings.  For me, it seemed too dry and robotic a way to work at understanding the words and intentions of NT writers.

Similarly, I have often questioned how a person can “so effectively” in one breath hold both love and hate.  Can one cleanly draw the line between sin and sinner, good and bad, person and their humanity?  To attempt to do so seems unrealistic not to mention dualistic.

I am back in Greek class, my name is called, and I am asked to parse a person, expected to divide so to “better” understand.  Unsure of the task, I freeze, unable to wrap my mind around either the process or its ethics.  I don’t understand how one can separate light from darkness, good from bad, holiness from messiness as these seem intimately (even, divinely) bound together.  I see connections, chaos, paradoxes.  I see the interplay of stereo, the coming together of sound.  I speak of mystery, of inherent goodness, of our continually falling in the wake of Genesis 3.  So I inquire (of class and teacher) if there’s another way?

Love, period.

Theologian Patrick Cheng says,

“loving the sinner and hating the sin” is unworkable in practice. You can’t just love a part of a person. You either love a person or you don’t. Jesus Christ never split off the person from the sin. He simply loved the person, period.

If the work of people like Gandhi or Cheng has taught us anything it’s that we need to be utterly inclusive, to work at understanding the whole.  The myth is that violence or separation can be redemptive.  The myth is that we are drastically different, to the point where we can no longer interact with the other.

The truth is we are all a walking talking mystery, a paradox of mud and mire.  We carry both beauty and brokenness, joy and pain, health and unhealth, harmony and disharmony.  Separating these inner and outer realities is neither easy nor all together plausible, as they often illuminate and inform the other.

How do we lean into this?  We practice humility.  Which as Rev. Emily Heath says, is our refusal

to deny who others are, and refusing to see them as any less created in the image of God than you.

Humility asks us to stop parsing people into categories and instead work really hard at seeing them as God does.  Hindi culture gives us a beautiful example of this practice, the form of a common greeting or blessing.  With hands pressed together at the center of my chest, I bow leaning in toward you saying, “Namaste” and you in turn do the same.  The word, Namaste and the accompanied practice remind us to see and honor the Divine in all.  The phrase in question seems to do the opposite, to alienate more than it aligns.

Janet Sunderland was once asked what the rules of her church were.  She responded by saying,

Love one another. And he (the questioner, and fellow clergy person) said, “Love’s too hard. That’s why we have the rules!

What’s essential? A love that engages the whole person (shit and all).  A love like that of Hosea for Gomer, God for Israel.  A love fixed on seeing connection rather than dissonance.  This is what I call a knowing love, a love that is wider than the exacting of persons.  A love that restores.  Theologian Cornelius Plantinga defines sin as, “culpable disturbance of Shalom” a condition easily undertook when with good intentions we usher this phrase or any other that causes division.  Likewise, I would submit that the intent of Augustine, as well as, Gandhi was to inform people about the various traps we fall into when pursing unity.

Love it’s that simple + profound.   


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